j.a.m’s top tips for burnout-free drafting

Despite being full-time worker with a wide and varied list of hobbies, I’m just as serious and dedicated to getting my writing published as any other indie author. I’ve never been one for NaNoWriMo—something about the pressure makes me crash and burn—so getting through my first draft has been a laborious three-year feat. Slow and steady wins the race, right? Perhaps not, but at least I’ve remained (relatively) block- and stress-free. While there certainly is no one way to be a writer or publish a book, here are some tips and pointers that have helped me survive the daunting first draft.

Old vintage typewriter
The hardest part is getting started. Or is it? Source:

Set Achievable Goals

This is a general guideline I apply to everyday life to help manage my mental illness. For me, achievable goals are so important for staying positive and motivated. One of the reasons I find NaNoWriMo so off-putting is the hefty daily deadline required to stay on-target. NaNo is a mammoth commitment and, if you’re like me and work full time, it can be really stressful to come home from work, get the dinner, do all your other chores and then have to sit down and smash out 1600 words to meet your 50k monthly goal. If that’s something you can achieve then hats off, seriously. I’ve bombed out on NaNo several times and I wholeheartedly congratulate those who have found the venture successful.

Each time quitting NaNo, I found it difficult to get back into my writing projects. I hate failing—it’s something I take personally. There is nothing as disheartening as not achieving a goal I set out to do. I don’t participate in NaNoWriMo anymore, or really any other writing challenges where great masses people come together and hit daily targets. Instead, I set small goals that fit with my lifestyle, which help keep my projects moving and spirits high. Instead of ‘Finish Chapter Three’ I might ‘Work on Chapter Three’; ‘Write 500 Words’ might become ‘Write a Scene’. Shifting my focus from completion to progress reduced the hours of anxiety induced screen-starting and resulted in more words actually making it onto the page. (Ironically, as a student or in my workplace, deadlines and pressure actually help my focus and productivity but literally strangles the life out of my creativity. Go figure, huh?)

Of course, in a professional setting where you are working with agents and publishers, deadlines and strict goals are to be observed; however when you’re getting through a first draft, relax! This is the fun part. Build confidence and momentum by ticking off easily achievable goals and you’ll become more productive as you feed on the positive vibes of success.

Engage Everyday

Now, I say engage not write. Of course, actively writing every day is an essential part of improving your craft in the same way daily practice is vital to the perfection of any other skill. The reality I have found is it’s not always possible for me to sit down at my computer or, failing that, whip out a note book to jot some things down. I can’t physically write in the car or while taking a shower, but these are both valuable creative times for me. Whether it’s visualising a location or mapping out plot-twists, more often than not my brain is connected to my project. Something I love to do when I cannot physically put pen to paper is imagine various conversations between my characters. I don’t need to write it down because it’s not going to appear anywhere in my novel—it’s just something fun to help develop their individual voices. The more I do it, the more connected I feel to the character, the more familiar with their mannerisms, and the smoother the writing comes out when I actually have time to sit down and work.

As previously mentioned, I’m not one for fill-in-the-blank planning exercises or spreadsheets documenting my character—it’s all in my head, being mentally written and rewritten. Be it dialogue, integral scenes or character backstory, the more I review it in my head the stronger it becomes, just like written drafts. These mental exercises will take physical form eventually, either as short stories or the novel itself. Some might even amount to nothing. But the important thing is I’ve spent time engaging with my writing project without ever picking up a pen or switching on my laptop.

Don’t Sweat the Adverbs

As tempting as it is to write the perfect sentence from the get-go, getting bogged down with streamlining your prose is sure to stifle progress. We’re talking about first drafts here; they’re going to be messy, they’re going to be full of holes and passive voice. As our dear friend Ernest Hemingway said: ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’

And right he was!

This was a lesson I had to learn the hard way, having become so frustrated with my draft I deleted it after being 60 000 words deep because I couldn’t handle the imperfections. Had I just put my head down and carried on, I’d probably be up to polishing a third draft by now. When I finally did put the metaphoric red pen aside and just let my writing be, the draft flowed so much quicker and I completed 100 000 words in less time than I wrote the original 60k. So put down that thesaurus and stay off writing advice blogs and websites—for now. Amending telling prose, weeding out adverbs and spicing up boring adjectives can all wait for the scrutinising eye of the post-draft proof read—or better yet, your beta readers. Allowing yourself to stress over being perfect the first time will only fill you with self-doubt when the inevitable issues of drafting arise.

Lock up your thesaurus: Resist the urge to edit until you’ve got the physical first draft in your hands. Source (c) Jessica A. McMinn 2016-2017

I cannot stress enough that there is no hard and fast way to write a novel: there’s only your way. Whether you’re a structured planner who thrives on discipline and deadlines or a daydreaming impulsive pantser like yours truly, just enjoy the process. Find a balance that works for you and don’t let your own personal doubts and definitely not the words of others tell you you’re not a “serious writer” just because your practice differs from others.

It’s your journey.

Write it your way.

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