First Drafts are Killers

You could join the Foreign Legion.

You could cross Antarctica on foot.

Or you could write the first draft of a novel.

Personally, I’d say the first two are easier.

Why?

Because in the first draft (of fiction, of nonfiction, of a screenplay) we are facing the blank page.

Nicholas Cage confronts the blank page in Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation”

In other words, we’re confronting Resistance in its purest and most merciless form day after day after day.

People ask me sometimes, “When is Resistance strongest?” The answer is easy.

At the start.

The invasion of Europe was hardest on D-Day. The civil rights movement was hardest at the first sit-in.

First drafts are, in their way, even harder because even after we’ve established a beachhead with Chapter One or Act One, we still have the weight of the whole project before us, day after day after day.

The professional arms herself for this ordeal. She steels herself in advance for the task, knowing it’s going to test her like no other aspect of the enterprise.

P.S. I write this post as I’m about to plunge in on a first draft. Full disclosure: I am scared sh*tless.

DO THE WORK

Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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THE AUTHENTIC SWING

A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.

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NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T

Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.

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TURNING PRO

Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"

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The
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Archetype

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40 Comments

  1. Peter Brockwell on September 30, 2020 at 1:52 am

    Steve thanks for your refreshing candour. Very timely for me because, after a week of delightful solitude camping and hiking the hills of Derbyshire here in the UK, I’m reminded that I now need to refocus and return to the story whose outline I’ve been drawing up.
    Thanks for the post!
    Peter

  2. Mary Doyle on September 30, 2020 at 5:56 am

    A thousand thanks! The consistency of your message and the visit to this site on Wednesdays has become an even more important anchor for me each week in an otherwise chaotic world. I know I will always find order, sanity, and encouragement here.

  3. Mikaela D'Eigh on September 30, 2020 at 8:02 am

    I love these Writing Wednesdays – makes it a little easier knowing I’m not alone in feeling the dreaded weight of STARTING. Thank you so much for posting these every week!

  4. Anonymous on September 30, 2020 at 8:03 am

    Thanks Steven! I am writing a first draft of a novel. I happen to live across the street from the Philadelphia Eagles training complex, and I thought I rather try out for the Eagles, as remote a chance as that is, than sit down and work on my novel.

  5. Dave Dalton on September 30, 2020 at 8:05 am

    Succinct and brilliant as usual… like the chef’s favorite reduction sauce.

  6. Ms. Moretti on September 30, 2020 at 8:07 am

    Thank you for this today! I am currently in the “day after day after day” phase of a decision I made just a couple of months ago – returning to [virtual] school, to go for a second-act career – a two-year process on paper, but just a continuation of the lifelong relationship with the BIG R. To all of us, much fortitude, and little gems of sweetness along the way.

  7. Ernie Bowling on September 30, 2020 at 8:08 am

    Steve, Thanks for your honesty. Takes a lot of courage for someone to admit their angst in an open forum. Your candid sharing of your thoughts and hard-learned truths is one of the many reasons I enjoy learning from you.

    • Susan Colket on September 30, 2020 at 6:04 pm

      Yes, truly.

  8. Becky Blanton on September 30, 2020 at 8:15 am

    Fear is what fuels action. Fear is the echo of footsteps in our mind – the approach of failure, not on “little cats paws,” but on hairy Sasquatch feet. Without fear writers would not find the courage to lance the vein, bleed on the page and ignore the naysayers. Tremble on…it feeds one’s soul. Fear is inspiration’s fodder.

  9. Gigi Blackshear on September 30, 2020 at 8:16 am

    Still??? This absolutely fills me with terror. I wanted to believe that it would get easier at some point. that resistance (BITCH) must be banished.

  10. Sionnach on September 30, 2020 at 8:20 am

    I love that you said it’s still difficult even after you’ve written the first act. I realized yesterday that I’m a third of the way through this rough draft. I was thrilled until I realized I’ve got to fight the same battle two more times.

  11. Vinny Auriemma on September 30, 2020 at 8:22 am

    How about taking almost 20 years for the real first drsgt

  12. Jay Arthur on September 30, 2020 at 8:33 am

    I find it easiest to start the moment I get the idea, before I’ve had time to second guess it, before resistance has had a chance to arm its self. Then it’s all BIC (butt in chair).

  13. K.Walker on September 30, 2020 at 8:54 am

    After losing to the big “R” for decades, I’m facing a bigger “R”……REGRET. I did not live my life as a painter or a poet. So, fight the resistance and listen to Steven’s wise words……….you’ll be so glad you did.

    • Lin on September 30, 2020 at 11:21 am

      It’s never too late to start.

      • Lin on September 30, 2020 at 11:23 am

        I don’t mean it’s easy to start at any time in your life, but Regret can be conquered just like Resistance. You just have to do it. (She said, writing a comment on a blog rather than working on her draft….)

    • G L on September 30, 2020 at 7:58 pm

      You’re still alive. Just start painting, and writing. For yourself. For the fun of it. It’s never too late.

  14. Mordechai Schiller on September 30, 2020 at 9:06 am

    A wise man told me, “Let Sandy Koufax be our role model, yours and mine. The 97-mph fastball is within our reach!”

  15. Susan+Setteducato on September 30, 2020 at 9:10 am

    Just finished a first draft. The levels of exhaustion were amazing. I’m glad I knew it was the big R. I’ve written the bastard a letter and thrown down the gauntlet. He’ll be back for round two because assholes always come back, but I now have a story, which means he totally lost round one ( yes, my Resistance in a man, named after my first ex-husband). Feeling you here, Steven.

  16. Amy+Martinsen on September 30, 2020 at 9:16 am

    Yes! Yes! Yes!

  17. Brian Nelson on September 30, 2020 at 9:22 am

    Steve,
    Most of my favorite posts, lines in your non-fiction, or comments on a podcast are when you ‘open the Kimono’ and share it is still a fight. You say it very clearly in “War of Art”, “Turning Pro” and on these blogs–but that kind of counter-intuitive truth must be said again and again and again and again and…

    I don’t know when the belief first sunk its claws into my amygdala (I feel it must be seeded that deeply) that, “Once I get A or complete ____ or accumulate ____ or get through ____; then life will be easy/easier, and I can then be happy/successful/relax.”

    What a bald-faced lie. There is no there there. It is both disconcerting and refreshing to be reminded that even someone who I have such deep respect and admiration, suffers the same difficulties I felt in high school and like all religious traditions, life is suffering. The point is to endure, and make something meaningful within/despite the suffering. I laugh and cry at your last sentence.
    Love it. Thanks again.
    bsn

    • Joe on September 30, 2020 at 10:18 am

      Brian,

      Preach it, reverend!

      j

  18. Rock on September 30, 2020 at 9:31 am

    Ha I love it! Every blank page is a battle in a long war. I’m in it to win it. Thanks

  19. Linda L Moore on September 30, 2020 at 9:40 am

    What does it mean, from your experience, that I have opposite challenge? I struggle with re-write or re-do or polishing a draft ….Dr Linda Moore

  20. Lucy Turner on September 30, 2020 at 9:58 am

    Go for it Steven! We’re all here cheering you on. You got this! Lucy

  21. Franklin Freeman on September 30, 2020 at 10:14 am

    Steve,
    Thank you for the message from the trenches! I used to think first drafts were easier—just let it rip—but now I realize it’s better when you’ve got the block of marble there to work on. Making the blockof marble is sometimes agonizing. You just have to keep plodding through the mud.
    Frank

  22. coachin2au on September 30, 2020 at 11:35 am

    No different for the first bit of code for a new app. A million ways it can go, lots of options, a million details to distract and get you locked up not writing a single line.

    Your perspective is so helpful. Punch Resistance in the throat a couple times and start slapping down words!

  23. Melanie Smith on September 30, 2020 at 11:46 am

    I got some wise advice when I was young. I was told, Grow 25 years. Live 25 years. Then write 25 years.

    So, I consciously paid attention to details, to relationships, to inter-connectedness, to loose similarities, and to cause-and-effect for 50 years with those last 25 years in mind. My problem now is that I have such a weight of words! Getting that thin line of meaningful ink out onto paper without huge blots of gushing experience is hard work, and easy to put off. Picking a single topic and sticking to it is my own personal First Draft Nightmare.

    I have learned one important thing from another discipline, though; perhaps it will help someone here, as well. I paint deep-color, naturalistic watercolors. Watercoloring is an act of faith, because a painting often looks like a 4-year-old did it right up until the last 15 minutes. (Only a very slight exaggeration there.) I tell myself about every hour or so – this is only paper and paint and some time. If it doesn’t work out, I can throw it away. And I learn something from every session that I can use later.

    Writing is the same way. It’s only ink and paper and some time. And I learn something from every session. I can throw it away … or it may turn out to be something lovely that brings real value to someone else’s life. I’ll only know if I keep going. 🙂

  24. Ward Degler on September 30, 2020 at 12:04 pm

    It took five years to slog through the first draft of my novel. I can tell you, editing and revisions are no picnic either.

  25. Colleen on September 30, 2020 at 12:10 pm

    Greetings. My question is this, what is the physical sensation of fear you feel at this moment, as you sit to write.

  26. David William James on September 30, 2020 at 1:39 pm

    This confirms my thinking that from first drafts to final rewrites, each stage requiring some blank-page facing, it takes wide-eyed courage to confront then win over the actual challenge. Undiminished by bullsh*t.
    Like any delusional bubble, Resistance can’t be popped without honesty. Such as Steve expressed.
    The only way to rise above persistent bluffing (self or others’) is to call it. Then open up the hand to see and play out what’s real. But if we don’t confront the true realities ahead, then we get ever more tangled in the web of alternate-reality-constructs. Eventually even cocooned.

  27. Erick Yates the Green on September 30, 2020 at 7:15 pm

    Cheers for the Insight and as for as your own new-found launch into a 1st draft, as you mentor us—Kick It’s Ass, Steven !!!

  28. Erick Yates the Green on September 30, 2020 at 7:18 pm

    Proof-reading counts too, so once and again—
    “Cheers for the Insight and as for your own new-found launch into a 1st draft, as you mentor us and right back at ya’—Kick It’s Ass, Steven !!!”

  29. Julie on September 30, 2020 at 8:47 pm

    Love this! Write, Steve, write! I’m beating resistance right now! 🙂

  30. Joanne Hardy on September 30, 2020 at 9:11 pm

    Thanks for telling us we are not alone in the fear of the blank page before us and million things to be said in our head, but how to it down there!!!

  31. Rene Allen on October 1, 2020 at 5:40 am

    YEp – The obstacle of the first blank page – its a killer.

  32. Nickolas+Sherman on October 1, 2020 at 6:56 am

    This gets my blood going. Swing for the fences Steve!

  33. Nom de Plume on October 1, 2020 at 8:19 am

    “Full disclosure: I am scared sh*tless.”

    You, sensei???

    “People ask me sometimes, “When is Resistance strongest?” The answer is easy.
    At the start.”

    In previous posts you said, “Resistance is always strongest at the finish line.”

    Both statements are correct. As is this: Resistance is strongest in the middle, too.

    (First-time commenter. Thank you for these lessons!)

  34. York on October 1, 2020 at 11:36 am

    Always great to read your inspirational posts Steve.

    And to know that you, with all your years, still have that feeling of aversion to the initial stages of a project; and that you courageously continue to share that vulnerability with the tribe as you plunge forward.

    Bravo.

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