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five lessons from failed drafts

Raise your hand if you hate failing!!!!!!!!!! I’m raising both of mine and I bet you are too.

But it’s inevitable as you’ll hear over and over, most especially when it comes to creative endeavors. If you’re anything like me, you have dozens of failed drafts stowed and locked in some closet of your home you never visit (because don’t throw anything out period), and when you think of all the dreadful writing filling those drafts you shudder with embarrassment and shame.

Let’s not talk about those.

Oh, I’m going to. You should some time too. At least with yourself, because you might actually have a lot to learn from those great mistakes. More than you may realize.

But I’ll go first.

Lesson One

Boy, did I learn this one the hard way. Thrice over in fact. My first lesson (for novice novelists in particular) is to not waste your time with plotting. Before anyone raises a stink over this — because opinions over plotting vs. pantsing are a dime a dozen — what I mean by this is to spend as little time as possible on this stage of the process.

With all the fancy printables and colorful plotting maps available on Pinterest, it’s easy to get carried away with planning your novel before you’ve even written a word of it. But keep in mind, time spent planning a novel is time you could have spent drafting it. Remember what I said about learning my lesson? Let me tell you the story.

I’m a planner. I’m an organization freak. I like things neat and tidy, and when it comes to writing I used to think if I could just dot my i’s and cross my t’s then everything would work out come time to lay it on the table. With that mindset, I spent four months outlining a novel I’ve since shoved in my closet of rejects. Four months filling in the squares of a spreadsheet trying to make everything work out. Four months I could have used for writing.

And you know what? 

I ended up derailing by the second chapter. My characters did not cooperate with my outline and the plot fell to mush under the weight of the writing. I had a beautiful plan for a novel but no real legs for it to stand on. I started over again with the same preparation. And once more with extra preparation. With Imperfect One I finally learned my lesson and just went for it, and I’ve made more progress with this long project than any before it.

So plot if you must. But don’t overplot. Spend a day or two (a week at most) constructing a rough concept of the story, a loose grip on where you want to go, and then dive right in knowing that more than likely everything you’ve planned will change.

Which leads me to my next lesson.

Lesson Two

None has been a harder lesson than this. No matter what you do in writing, no matter how many misspelled words or unreadable sentences or wrong turns, you can always edit later.

I’ve written before about perfectionism, and I believe all writers struggle with it to a degree. For me, perfectionism has been one of my toughest obstacles to completing projects and in the past has sucked a lot of life from my daily writing times. I’ve stared at a blank screen and written zero words per hour more times than I’d like to admit due to my desire for things to be perfect the first go around. But that isn’t realistic, nor is it productive.


I’ve since learned to recognize the paralyzing doubt perfectionism raises in me whenever I write something I’m less than pleased with. Whenever I feel my shoulders creeping to my ears and my eyes scanning the empty room for pointing fingers and mocking smiles, I now tell myself that my work doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be good enough for the current pass of edits. Because I can always come back to it later. It ain’t goin’ nowhere.

Lesson Three

I’ve yet to implement this piece of advice in my own writing, but since completing my first draft of Imperfect One took much longer than I hoped, I’ll remember this little bit for next time. And that is start from the climax of the story.

There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that you don’t know where you’re going until you’ve been there. When you start a draft from the beginning, it’s much easier to become distracted by the shiny temptation of plot bunnies and the rabbit holes of what if…? Now, I’m all for that sort of processing, especially during the drafting stage, as it can be very productive and draw up a better story than blindly following your perception of plot.

But questions and doubts about the integrity of your story can get out of hand in a hurry, and if you’re not careful they can eat up the days and weeks without notice. Starting from the climax, the point in your story where the action comes to a head (the protag and antag finally have their encounter or the couple falls in love or the hero saves the world) streamlines that processing by paring what’s possible and giving your questions structure. Since you know (generally) how all of the pieces of the story come together and where your characters should land, you have a destination from the start. So now, rather than asking questions that carry you down different storylines (and they are infinite in number), you ask the questions that help you figure out how to get your characters to that final destination. Sure, you may still fall down a few rabbit holes and get lost in the weeds of the details, but you already know what has to occur within the story to get from Point A to Point Z, which gives you a tighter draft to work with.

The second reason for starting at the climax is because it is the point of the story most writers look forward to writing. The climax is where your ideas flow like mad and where writing comes easily because the story has grown chockfull of action and emotionally burdened. Writing beginnings, on the other hand, is difficult, dull work, and like I said above, if you write linearly, you don’t know where you’re going which makes the idea of jotting the first of 100,000 words rather daunting.

Starting with the climax, a part of the story that’s easy(ish), fun, and fulfilling, sets off the novel-writing journey on a positive step. It gives you a sense of completion and intention right at the start — you’ve completed a critical point in the story and you know where you’re headed — which helps you overcome the plague of doubt that accompanies writing a first sentence and to motivate you even through the roughest and toughest parts of writing.

Even if you do end up scratching everything and writing a new story entirely, starting with the climax gets you through the first pushes you through the drafting stage more quickly, and I say anything that gets me to a finished product faster is a friend of mine.

Lesson Four

I’m sure you’re tired of hearing about my love saga with characters, but I’ll say it again: if you want to write a compelling story, characters are key. You simply cannot write a great story with lame characters, and if you want rich and interesting and moving players in your plot, you have to know who they are yourself before your readers will ever believe a thing about them.

I used to imagine characters merely within the confines of my stories, and I think this is easy for plot-oriented writers to do. We think about what is going to happen in a story and forget that the characters provide the why. And the why gives deeper purpose to the story, provides motivation and a sense of what’s at stake if the hero fails. Without those things, no matter what happens in the story — the world could explode, robot babies could take over a government, some kid in Alaska could win the lottery — readers simply will not care.

Instead of picturing characters only within the time and space of a story, characters also have to exist outside of the story, before and after and in other places. They need histories and families and scars, or else they aren’t real people at all, no more than paper dolls or finger puppets. Of course, there’s a reason the particular story you choose is being told and not some other point in your protagonist’s life, and it’s important to keep that in focus because that’s the what we’re after. No need to stuff the reader with every excruciating detail about the hero’s childhood and past loves because whether you explicitly write them or not, those details will bleed into your story, will breathe life into your characters. They will tug your readers’ hearts and give them reason to root for your hero.

Lesson Five

I’ll keep this one brief.

The hard work pays off, folks.

Even in my worst drafts I find nuggets of gold that impress me. That make me draw back and think, Wow, I sound like a real live writer. That give me some hope those nuggets might reach real live readers one day.

And then I read on and find I spelled impossible with one s five times in a row with confidence and the doubt creeps up my spine a little and I wonder if I should even be allowed to write captions for my Instagram posts.

But string enough tiny nuggets together and you get something eventually.

/// E.S.T.

NOW TELL ME // Have you learned more from your successes or failures? What piece of writing advice has encouraged you the most? Tell me below!

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