Get it all down. Let it pour out of you and onto the page. Write an incredibly shitty, self-indulgent, whiny, mewling first draft. Then take out as many of the excesses as you can.”
Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird
Big projects like writing a book take time, but the hardest part is the first draft. Once you’ve written a first draft, you have that sense of momentum and completion that can then fuel you for the rest of the project. But it’s important to finish the first draft relatively quickly.
Read on to learn why you should write the first draft quickly, and how I wrote my two memoir drafts in three months.
How I wrote a memoir draft in 3 months
I wrote the first draft of A Letter From Paris in less than three months.
Why so quickly? Because it was agonising. The first draft is awful – I still have some foolscap scraps from the printout that I still look at and gasp! (Yes, I like to recycle!)
The first draft is not craft – it’s not supposed to be. The first draft is just the raw material that you will later shape, as Terry Pratchett wrote, it’s simply a matter of you telling YOURSELF the story. It’s not until you have it in some concrete shape or form (ie. no longer in the murky unreal subconscious) that you can actually start to see the story it will later become.
This doesn’t mean it’s not a major feat, to finish that first draft, and this doesn’t mean you won’t learn an enormous amount about discipline, writing, and story structure through engaging with the page every single day until it’s done. But you won’t be able to see it all objectively until you have that first draft written and complete – with an idea of the resolution of the story, the major questions of the story, the themes that are most important to you, and what you really want to focus on and reshape.
The angel in the marble
I saw the angel in the marble
and I carved until I set him free
If you think about a sculptor, or a painter, staring at that canvas and placing the first raw material onto the canvas, or gathering the clay, it’s an act of bravery, above all else. But what should start to take shape as you continue with it – and this is why I am a huge proponent of maintaining momentum for 90 days and writing every day or at least every week, regularly, until that first draft is done – is because you’ll start to see the angel in the marble.
What do I mean?
The more you write, as long as you’re following a certain structure to your story, as long as you have a blueprint for the road ahead of you – you can switch off your overthinking brain and just write, which is when the angel in the marble starts to appear.
How do you stop thinking and write?
Overthinking is a huge part of writer’s block, so if you can find a way to just write every day without fear, with the right steps and prompts to get your memoir out of your head and onto the page, you are FAR less likely to succumb to overthinking. You’re also far less likely to stop halfway through! I knew this when I wrote A Letter From Paris, so i made myself a map and a set of guidelines, which is what’s inside my 90 day memoir program. Specific, step-by-step prompts and processes to follow to both get the story out in a way that can be shaped into a better draft, and to get the story out in a way that you can see it objectively and understand the biggest and most important aspects to your story!
But there’s fundamental aspects that you need to set up before you can write so quickly.
Imagine if all you had to do was sit down with your prompts and follow them?
It’s like having a map to get to your destination in a place you’ve never been before, versus just trying to ‘figure it out’?!
I have a process and I call it the the 3-C process for getting the first draft down. My 3-C process only applies to writing a memoir draft, because memoir is such a unique, personal, gritty genre of writing.
Here’s my 3-C process for writing the first draft in 3 months:
So what’s involved in this 3 month process?
You’re going to find about the real beginning of your story (not what you think is the beginning – see why a memoir is rejected for that!). You’re going to find your themes, you’re going to see the characters in your life as archetypes and players in the wild story that is your memoir, and you’re going to show up at the page as you’ve promised yourself, until you have your story down.
Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s hard because it is just messy first draft and not craft, but I believe the magic starts in the first draft process – and you can feel that magic even more when you have a blueprint so you don’t overthink the dilemmas of writing about real people and events and instead just follow the guidance and start to see your own angel in the marble!
You need to write the first draft quickly, because it is so agonising. It’s not going to be enjoyable – and, like me, you’ll probably flinch and reel at some of the awful writing you have to get down in that first draft.
Someone shared on twitter the other day that if you could read the first draft of so many famous writers’ work you’d be shocked at how bad the writing is. This is so true.
Adults have trouble being bad at things
Remember the mess you made when you were a beginner at something? The splattered paint, the mess you made when you didn’t know how to cook a dish? The problem I see with so many writers is that they think the writing for a book is supposed to be good from the beginning, that it’s supposed to make sense in those early stages.
And so they take years and they freeze halfway through…
It’s SO much better to get that awful, mewling first draft written quickly, so you can then move onto the editing and re-writing and polishing and finessing and art-fulness of the process. The first draft is you lugging the rocks of memories out from under layers of your psyche, where they’ve been buried deep for years.
You can’t see the story, until it’s on the page.
Writing the first draft in 3 months is more a matter of what you leave out, not what you include
Life is messy. Life is complex. When we start writing, we see that our personal story is actually enough for maybe 3 or 4 different books (at least, that’s what happened to me!) and it can be hard to maintain momentum when you get confused. So you need the map in the 90 day memoir program to show you what you should be focusing on so you don’t take a 150 kilometre detour down into a sub-story that’s not relevant to your memoir.
With a map, you can instead focus on momentum, and getting the words down in a structure that you can then eventually shape into a compelling story.
Here’s my advice for getting a first draft down quickly:
- Expect it to be bad. It’s like going for a run when you’ve had a month or years off, and you’re unfit – that first few weeks back on the track is going to hurt, it will only feel good afterwards. You need to get some skin in the game (or some words on the page, before you can make them good!)
- Do not workshop it with anyone. Do not seek outside opinion. Do not talk about it with your family, your best friend, strangers on Facebook. You are still forming the story in your head and these conversations – particularly with someone who may not know story, or who may only have a tiny glimpse into what you’re trying to achieve – can really sabotage the creative process.
- Set some very clear intentions and do some very specific exercises before you start, so you know WHY you are writing this book (80% of success is having a strong why).
- Get yourself a structural blueprint so you don’t give up when the going gets messy (ie. in the middle. There’s a reason it’s called the messy middle!) and focus more on consistency than large bursts of writing. This is because you need to leave some juice in the tank after every writing session, or you’ll burn out.
If you’d like to know more about the structural blueprint I followed to get the (110 000 word) draft of A Letter From Paris written in three months, I invite you to look at my BRAND NEW MASTERCLASS.
In the on-demand class I guide you through the 3 shifts you need to make, to turn your true story into a compelling book.
Writing your manuscript doesn’t need to take years!
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Thanks Louise, this was helpful.
I’ve somehow just lost about 25000 words of my memoir – unbelievable and I don’t know how it happened. The good news is I found an old copy with 47,000 words so I kind of feel like I need to start again… just not sure but it was helpful to read your blog.
Argh!!! If it’s any consolation, every single writer i know has lost a mass of words at some time or another. I lost about 20 000 words of a manuscript through saving it to the Pages app. BIG mistake. Hopefully this will help you re-write and have a clearer vision…? Writing is rewriting, as they say!
I am so glad I came across this! I started writing my book in 2016 and throughout the years, got discouraged…and haven’t written in awhile, but reading this article just encouraged me to pick it back up again! My overthinking and writers block would get me so frustrated..but I am going to start again. Thank you!
Glad it helps!
Haven’t written for about 3 weeks got Covid but am over it. Will start writing again.
Oh no! I’m so sorry, I hope you feel better soon.
Thank you for sharing this encouraging blog post. I’m working on a memoir right now. I have about 30,000 words of it so far. I agree with what you wrote about knowing the why behind your book. I have a clear why and it really motivates me to keep writing, so one day it’ll be finished and can finally be shared with others.