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Sloppy Firsts

Please welcome Anna Elliott [1]to our family of amazing contributors! Dark Moon of Avalon, [2] 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 [3], 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 [4]

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.