If You’re Not Riddled With Self-Doubt, You’re Not Doing it Right

This isn’t my real first draft. This is a fake one I created for demonstration purposes. Check out that word count and deadline. Are you stressed out yet?


First drafts. They are a nasty business. They will cut you down, make you weep, and doubt everything about yourself. Sounds fun, right?


I’m fortunate enough to be working on a first draft right alongside one of my favorite critique partners. Our text conversations tend toward dark humor rather than coddling. YMMV:

Me: My manuscript feels shallow and amateurish.

Her: The stages of grief are real.


Her: I just wrote something super cheesy. I don’t know what I’m doing. Maybe I should take a class.

Me: Pottery would be fun. I think you’d also like printmaking.


Her: What page is halfway?

Me: Probably not the one you’re on. Sorry.


Me: I don’t know wtf I’m doing. I’m just writing in circles.

Her: At least circles are pretty.


Her: I’m trashing everything and starting over.

Me: No you’re not.

Her: Yes I am. It sucks. Or maybe I’ll go work at Starbucks.

Me: They have great benefits.


Her: Just how rough can a rough draft be?

Me: Is this a riddle, like the one about woodchucks?


Working on a first draft of your second book is daunting. Ask any author, and most of them would give you a sympathetic look and say, “Oh, the second book…” and then buy you a drink.


The most important thing I can tell you about first drafts is that they’re supposed to be bad. Filled with repetitive words and sentences more at home in a fourth grade book report than a published novel.

Myth: A first draft needs to be approximately the length of a finished book (between 80,000 and 90,000 words).

Fact: A first draft can be much shorter. The first draft of my second book came in at just a little over 65,000 words. The rest will be added during revision. A low goal will keep you from vomiting nonsense onto the page, just to pad your word count. It will save you a lot of time in revisions if you don’t write it all. Because you can’t know it all. Not at first.

Myth: First drafts should resemble a story.

Fact: They do not. They are about getting your characters from point A to B to C. It doesn’t have to make sense, or be logical. Often, it won’t be.

Myth: Outlines stifle creativity and true writers don’t need one.

Fact: Outlines can keep you from giving your character pink hair and an unfortunate segue into an all-girl punk rock band that goes on tour in Canada.


What Helps:

1) Alcohol (I don’t really drink. But you probably should)

2) Ice cream and/or chocolate

3) A few friends who are going through what you are, who will be honest with you about how much they’re struggling, about how hard it is, who will be first to say, “You don’t suck, I suck.” Stay away from those who tell you the words just come and they’re merely the vehicle. They’re dangerous…and also probably lying.

4) More ice cream and chocolate

5) Step away from the manuscript and get outside. But…

6) Write daily. You have to spend time with the people you’re trying to get to know. You can write an entire book in just two hours every day.

7) Embrace the shit on the page. Don’t wait for the perfect words, or the perfect mood. They will never come.


Sandra Scofield advises two simple steps to getting words on the page, and it is, by far, the best writing advice I’ve ever seen:

1) Think of yourself as a worker.

2) Show up at the job.



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Born and raised in Santa Monica, California, Julie Clark grew up reading books on the beach while everyone else surfed. After attending college at University of the Pacific, and a brief stint working in the athletic department at University of California, Berkeley, she returned home to Santa Monica to teach. She now lives there with her two young sons and a golden doodle with poor impulse control. Her debut, THE ONES WE CHOOSE, will be published by Gallery/Simon & Schuster in May 2018.

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