Are you a perfectionist? Do you ruminate over every sentence, every paragraph? Are you all blocked up?

I used to be one of these people. It’s kind of like being constipated with words. I couldn’t go on until I had written and rewritten a paragraph at least five times and then, when I returned to my novel the next day, I would go over what I’d written the day before. The progress was slow and painstaking. I wrote six novels using this method because I couldn’t do it any other way. Being a perfectionist is a fine attribute to have when going through subsequent drafts. But definitely not at first draft stage.

It took me an urgent deadline to learn this. I’m a slow learner, you see. I know there are many ways to write and you have to find what works for you, but I enjoyed this new-found process so much I will never go back to my old constipated ways.

In Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott calls it ‘the shitty first draft’. So what is a shitty first draft?

It is writing with the internal editor switched off. It is writing without reading your sentence through before you go onto the next. It is writing without correcting spelling and grammar. It is giving yourself permission to be bad.

If you’d asked me last year if I could write four junior novels in two and a half months, I would have said, yeah sure, and whales will rule the world. But it’s amazing what you can achieve with a deadline breathing down your neck.

I wrote 1000 words a day, with one day off for Christmas. I was surprised at how easy this was. I got into a rhythm. Using the ‘shitty first draft’ method I could write 1000 words in a few hours. And another thing was new to me too. In the past I had always written organically, feeling my way through the story. With these four novels, I had an outline to follow. I found the best way to stop me rereading what I had written and thereby go back to my bad old ways, was to write the first paragraph of the next chapter. This was enough to get me back into the story and off I would go again.

Normally I would have been far too embarrassed to show anyone this ‘shitty first draft’ but I decided that before beginning second draft, I needed to get feedback from Penguin. So now I have their fantastic notes in hand and tomorrow I am off to Lorne to do a rewrite.

As with all studies where there are deeper levels, only when the mind is open and receptive can one take the next step forward.


  1. What a great and timely post for me right now, Gabrielle. I suffer from the going back over syndrome, too, and during this year of the novel course, I made the fatal mistake of rewriting and then finally restarting the book. A big waste of time because so much changes along the way anyway in subsequent drafts.

    One of the exercises for YON was to make our outline and after doing this, the going got much easier. It was like having story anchors to keep me from coming adrift. And it allows me to write not necessarily in sequence. Sequential scene writing was also slowing me down. Now I can flip to any of the scenes in my outline and just go for it. This way I am getting words down and moving the story forward instead of becoming paralysed by what comes next.

    I take my hat off to you – four junior novels in two and a half months – wow. Impressive – but it just goes to show you what you can achieve when you set your mind to it and when you have good tools to aid you along the way. Congrats on your achievements. You are an inspiration.

    Lynn X

  2. Oh, wow. This is TRUE.

    Haha, yes, my first draft is indeed ‘shitty’. I have realized that now. Two of my closest friends, my english teacher and my dad are telling me their opinion and critiquing my obscure grammar and descriptions. Sometimes it feels awful to have others pick apart your work, but honestly, it makes it so much better. I’ve learnt that the hard way, but good things come from the bad, usually. The second draft is going slooooowly (it’s more like, 4 drafts shoved into one, considering all the gathered opinions) but I know I’m making it better, and won’t stop until it is THE BEST (even if it’s 129838974234 drafts. heh.)

    Amazing work – two and a half months? Wow. That’s really impressive 🙂
    I feel so inferior. It took me 6-8 months to write the first draft of HB. But I guess I had to balance it with school etc… Ah well. I hope I’m faster next time.

    Quick question – have you ever read your first novel and thought, wow, I can do better than that? I’m just curious, because I know that as an artist, I constantly criticize my work. Even when the piece is completely finished, I’m the only person who sits back and says… “I don’t like it -that- much… there’s an error he– oh, I won’t tell you where otherwise you won’t stop looking at it…”
    I guess as the artist and after working on it so long, you just get sick of seeing it, haha. Then when you haven’t seen it for a long, long time, you say, ‘I’d forgotten how much love had gone into that picture.”


    1. Glad to hear that you are still working on HB and not rushing it. I think 6-8 months for your first draft is fantastic. You are doing so well, Chrissie as you are a full time student.
      It took me a year to write The Garden of Empress Cassia (in the old way), then about 6 months of rewriting. I think I musts have rewritten it about 60 -70 times.
      You know, as far as rereading my novels after they’ve been published, I don’t do it. I’m usually concentrating so much on my next book that I don’t have time. I’m also scared that I’ll find some glaring mistake which I would not be able to live with, being such a perfectionist (:

      Great that you’re studying Latin. Definitely a worthwhile subject if you like to read and write.


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