Sloppy Firsts

Please welcome Anna Elliott to our family of amazing contributors! Dark Moon of Avalon, Anna’s second novel, will release in May 2010. She recently welcomed a daughter to her growing family, and we look forward to her perspectives on juggling motherhood, writing and sanity. Welcome, Anna!

When I was an aspiring author, I spent a lot of time poring over web sites on writing (including Writer Unboxed!), voraciously reading my favorite authors’ sites and blogs–anything to find inspiration in the midst of the often discouraging process that trying to get a novel published can be. And now that I actually have a book out, one of my absolute favorite aspects of being published is getting e-mails from aspiring authors looking for inspiration in the midst of their discouragement. One reader recently wrote to tell me that hearing about my journey to publication had given her “so much hope.” I love that!

This same reader also asked for advice on a challenge that I think nearly every aspiring author faces: she was struggling to finish the first draft of her book. What was your first draft like? she wrote. And how did you have the courage to go on? Ha. It’s almost like she’s been looking over my shoulder when I’m in the throes of writing, because my first drafts are awful. Horribly, embarrassingly, hideously awful.

Writing a first draft is terrifying—and I have to say that this is one aspect of the writing process that (for me, at least) doesn’t get any easier the more books I write. It’s a bit like childbirth. (I just had my second baby, so that’s the comparison that springs most easily to mind). The first time you face childbirth it’s a mixture of excitement and fear of the unknown; the second time you know it’s going to hurt like the devil. And even after writing several books, I’m still afraid to start putting the first words down in that blank, virgin whiteness of a new word processing file—because I know just how clumsy and unpolished those first words are going to be.

So where do I find the courage to push through that clumsy first draft? I hadn’t really thought about it until being asked and having to answer the question, but I think it comes down to my characters.

One of my favorite books on writing is Noah Lukeman’s The Plot Thickens, and in it he writes that the task of the writer “is to create characters on the verge of change, characters that will, in some way, be unrecognizable by the end of the work.” Before I begin writing I know where my characters are at the beginning of my story—what their dreams and hopes are, what struggles they face, what hurts and griefs they have that need to be healed. And I know where I want them to be by the end of the book, whether or not their hopes have been realized, their struggles overcome and their hurts fully healed. My plots come from working out just what experiences my characters need to get them from that emotional and physical starting point to where I want them to be at the story’s end.

And that’s really what keeps me writing, even through those first-draft moments when it feels like it would be easier to give up and just start something entirely different. I love my characters. I love spending time with them every day, love learning about them, hearing them talk to me, having them tell me their stories. I love them too much to give up on them before they’ve reached the ending I (or maybe they?) have decided on. I want to see them grow, to leave them forever changed by the journey they’ve been on with me.

Another of my favorite quotes on writing is from Michael Crichton, who wrote, “Books aren’t written–they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.” And I think that’s absolutely true. Beginning a first draft is hard. Finishing that first draft is harder still. Working through the countless rounds of revisions needed to make your manuscript sparkle, to turn your clunky first draft into a polished final one—no doubt about it, it all takes determination and courage not to give up. But you just have to dig down and find that courage. Your characters are counting on you to tell their story. Because no one else but you can.


About Anna Elliott

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.


  1. says

    Thanks for your post! I am nearing the end of a first draft (This is my first time writing a novel) and I am having a lot of trouble finishing. There is not only the challenge of wrapping it all up but revisions are looming overhead and making me NOT WANT to finish because I don’t want to start them! haha. I appreciate seeing that I’m not alone.
    .-= Melissa´s last blog ..Oh boy! =-.

  2. Ellie says

    I’m a stay-at-home mom in the very middle of my first revision of my first book. If anyone saw my first draft I would die of shame.
    Thanks for being honest, for writing this. It was so encouraging to me. Especially what you said about the rewrites. I must get back to them now…

  3. says

    Heh, I am SO one of those aspiring writers, trying to soak up the inspiration and motivation and secret recipe. But I guess one thing I’m doing right is that I too just try to work from beginning to end. I call it connecting the dots. I know A to Z, and maybe a few letters in between, and it’s the process of connecting them that I love.
    .-= Kristan´s last blog ..A big plunge (no, not the toilet kind) =-.

  4. says

    Welcome to WU. Thanks for the encouraging words you’ve shared. Even as a neophyte, about-to-be-published author I get questions from other writers seeking the Holy Grail of getting published. I believe the answer is contained in the oft-used, often-ignored dictum, “put butt in chair, write, revise, repeat often.”

  5. says

    It’s always nice to know that other writers share the same frustrations, fears, and obstacles as this lone writer, toiling away at the keyboard. I pushed my way through the first draft of my novel this summer knowing that there would be plenty of work ahead. I just picked it up after about six weeks and found out that there IS plenty of work ahead, BUT there is also some good stuff in there as well. The joys of rediscovery!
    .-= Jonathan´s last blog ..WIP – The River Lords =-.

  6. says

    So, so true. I can’t even look at my first draft, it’s so bad; and I can’t look at the first version of my book, either–it’s changed too much. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us, Anna, and welcome to Writer Unboxed!

  7. says

    Thanks for the post! If nothing else, I’m always really grateful to hear that I’m not the only person who writes terrible first drafts. Logically, I know that can’t be true, but when I’m sitting in front of the computer by myself I have my suspicions.

    I prefer rewriting, anyway. That was a very pleasant revelation. I write the drafts and then I GET to fix them.
    .-= Eliza Evans´s last blog ..Throwing the baby out, or why social networking is important and how to keep it from taking over your life. =-.

  8. says

    Excellent post! I find that writing a short story (6k-7k) where I can flush out character and plot goes a long way to making the writing process a lot easier. I usually try to write at least a peice of flash fiction every day in my notebook during lunch, and then I can decide if the story has legs to be made into something larger. The current novel I’m working on was originally a 5-page short story and is now nearing 30,000 words.

    (A big shout-out to all the people at WU who really inspired me to begin my novel writing venture… you guys really made me get off my tookus and write this darn thing.)

    Probably only another 10k words to go before it’s complete… at least I think so. I’m still not set on how it ends. :)
    .-= Ken´s last blog ..Why I Will Never Be ‘Artsy’ =-.

  9. says

    Thanks so much for the welcome, everyone! It’s such a thrill to be here.

    Melissa, I think we all have that rocks-in-the-stomach sinking feeling when contemplating revisions. The task just feels so huge and overwhelming. I try to just take it page by page, scene by scene. Work on one plot thread that needs improving, focus on it, then move on to another. Breaking the task down makes it seem more manageable.

    Eliza, you are DEFINITELY not the only one who feels like they write terrible first drafts!

    Kristan, that’s my writing technique exactly–knowing my key plot points and key scenes and then connecting the dots, as you say. It probably doesn’t work for everyone, since everyone has their own process–but great if you’ve found a process that works for you!

    Jonathan, Ken, and Ellie, good luck and good for you for working through those revisions!

    And good writing vibes to everyone! I’d better go and get back to work on my own emerging first draft! :-)

  10. says

    Back atcha, Ken. Keep plugging.

    I’m getting better at turning off the internal editor for that first draft, but it’s hard. Thanks for the reminder that the first draft is a) supposed to be hard and b) supposed to be a mess.

    Welcome aboard, Anna!

  11. says

    The worse the first draft is, the easier it is to revise – assuming it makes any sense at all. When someone asks me for my opinion on polished work, I often don’t have an opinion.
    .-= Michael McGinnis´s last blog ..Writing Blogs =-.

  12. says

    Wonderful post! The process of writing a first draft vs revising are such different beasts. I’m 2/3 of the way through my current YA wip while editing a women’s fiction novel I have three agents waiting to read. I’m sure I feel like most writers do. If only I could clone myself…! Welcome to WU – I’m looking forward to reading more of your post. ;-)
    .-= Debra Schubert´s last blog ..I Have Nothing More to Say…. BWAHAHAHAH!!!! and A Certifiable Dream Come True =-.

  13. says

    More often than not, my first drafts end up getting thrown out, if not completely than almost completely. I think I’m making progress in that the last two revisions I’ve done, I’ve gotten to keep about 1/4 of the book. Prior to that, though, the last two books were completely trashed but for a paragraph.
    First drafts are daunting but the real task for me isn’t even rewriting. The hard part is digging in and finding the way to smooth out all the pieces and make the story flow.
    It’s a real challenge but its worth it in the end to have a shiny finished product that’s worthwhile to send out.
    Great post and one I really needed today as I get ready to dig back into revisions once more…

  14. Dwayne says


    Great post! And so, so true.

    While many here are talking about finishing their first draft, I’ve just begun mine.

    And the re-reads are painful. The prose is bland, the characters don’t sparkle like they did in my mind; who stole my plot?; etc., etc.

    But I’m willing to push through it.

    And even though I haven’t even completed 30 manuscript pages, I know in my heart it will feel good once I get to the end of this process.

    For now, I’m just enjoying the journey.


  15. says

    Michael– “The worse the first draft is, the easier it is to revise”–I think in many ways that’s true. I always tell myself as I’m typing that clumsy first draft, You can always make this better. You can re-write it as many times as it takes, just get it down.

    Debra–huge congratulations on the interests from agents! That’s a huge accomplishment right there.

    Jessica–I’m just the same! my first drafts–and especially the first chapters of my first drafts–usually get thrown out, too. It makes starting a new project kind of daunting when I KNOW a fair bit of what I agonize over will only end up in the trash. And yet it’s all a step on the way to the actual final version.

    Dwayne–I think the first 30 pages are the absolute hardest to write. So that’s fantastic if you’re pushing through them and are enjoying the writing journey. It definitely will feel great when you get to the end of the process–and it does get easier, I promise!

  16. says

    Your characters are counting on you to tell their story. Because no one else but you can.

    I love that! It’s putting it in my quotes.

  17. says

    Hi Anna,

    I’m currently working on the rough draft of my seventh manuscript, which is proving just as difficult as the first. It doesn’t get any easier, does it? Makes me cringe to think about it. But you could have been reading my mind with your comment about “loving my characters … spending time with them every day … hearing them talk to me, tell me their stories … love them too much to give up on them before they’ve reached the ending … they’ve decided on.”

    And you’re SO right about how scary it is, pushing on into uncharted territory with that first draft. But as writers, we have no choice, do we? No matter how many rewrites, no matter how many edits, ultimately it’s what the characters deserve that continues to drive us, to getting it down right and telling the truth.

    Sloppy first draft to polished completion.

    Hard work. So worth it.

    Thanks for the post!

    -Kathleen Irene Paterka