Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

What Paul Learned from his First Novel

By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 30, 2014

My friend Paul just finished his first novel. He has no publisher yet. He’s still got a long way to go. But he finished that sucker. He’s done. He did it.

It takes times to make a great whisky

It’s been really interesting for me to watch Paul walk through the fire. Because it is true that, for a grizzled old vet like me, the ordeal of writing does get easier over time. You forget what hell it is in the beginning.

Now here’s Paul struggling through sieges of despair and self-loathing; enduring bouts of mental and emotional paralysis; undergoing his seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth nervous breakdowns, not to mention suffering through every other conceivable form of Resistance—and yet somehow he has stumbled and bumbled his way through.

I’m immensely proud of him. He has done what millions of people talk about, but damn few actually do. And it has changed him. It’s changed who he is and how he sees himself. It’s changed how friends and family react to him. It has changed how he views his past and how he imagines his future.

Paul is not the same person that he was eighteen months ago. On the one hand, he’s grounded as he has never been before. He’s no longer dependent emotionally on the externals (women, friends, money) that had held him in thrall before. He has found his center. He has a little nuclear reactor in his pocket that only he has access to, and it feels great to him.

On the other hand, he has now become a conscript to a sterner and more demanding way of life. His eyes are open. He knows he can’t fake it any more. The old dodges will not work for him. He sees through them and he sees through himself.

He’s screwed really, just like you and just like me. He’s gotta do it now. There’s no going back to the way it was before.

I asked him a couple of days ago, “Paul, now that you’ve got one book under your belt, what will you do differently when you tackle the second one? What’s the primary takeaway from this tunnel you’ve just emerged from?”

Paul answered without hesitation:

I won’t beat myself up like I did before. You know how I’d have those days, weeks even, months when I’d read over what I’d done and I’d hate it so much, and hate myself so much because what I’d written was so bad, that I absolutely paralyzed myself? I won’t do that the next time. It’s Resistance. You’re driving yourself crazy. The shit is gonna be ugly the first time through. That’s all there is to it.

We talked about the “Bad on Tuesday, Great on Thursday” phenomenon: how the same page that you hated forty-eight hours ago suddenly looks amazingly good to you.

What changed? Nothing. You wrote a great page but you couldn’t see it. You’re so ready to judge yourself—and judge yourself harshly—that you lose all objectivity and perspective.

I’m not going to let that happen on the next one. I’m not gonna censor myself. I’m not gonna judge my stuff. I’m gonna write pages and I’m gonna keep writing pages.

We talked about first drafts and the imperative to keep moving.

It’s like blitzkrieg. You cross the border and you start rolling. You can’t look right and you can’t look left. Don’t worry about protecting your flanks. Just keep moving.

On this first book I’d get bogged down on one page and write it over and over. The more I’d rewrite it, the more I hated it, and the more I got lost. You tell yourself you’re working to “make it better.” But in fact you’re running away from the only thing that’s important, which is finishing the damn thing, getting it done.

“It’s like a mash when they’re making whisky,” Paul said. “That’s what a first draft is. It’s not whisky yet. You can’t drink it. It needs to sit, it needs to ferment. You can’t taste it and judge it prematurely. You have to be patient, you have to forgive.”

One of my writing friends, Jack Epps (who co-wrote Top Gun and a bunch of other hit movies), has an axiom: “You can’t do everything in one draft.”

The enemy in a first draft is not poor syntax or sloppy scene construction. Those you’ll deal with in Draft Six or Draft Ten. The enemy is Resistance. The enemy is any form of self-sabotage that will stop you from getting from Page One to The End.

The other thing about self-criticism and self-censorship is they’re an insult to the Muse. She just gave you stuff. A great gift, straight from the Quantum Soup. There it is on the page. It came out of you, but from her. So you’re gonna do what? Look at it and tell her it sucks? Tell yourself that you suck because you followed your muse?

“That’s the other big thing I’ve learned,” Paul said. “Something comes out of you—a scene, say, or even just a phrase or an exchange of dialogue—and you think to yourself, ‘That doesn’t fit. I don’t know where to put it.’ And you’re tempted to throw it away.

“But it does fit. You just haven’t figured out where. The unconscious is a hundred times smarter than we are. We’re just taking dictation.

“I gotta remember that. I gotta remember that next time.”

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

30 Responses to “What Paul Learned from his First Novel”

  1. Matt McConnell
    April 30, 2014 at 5:39 am

    I love the offset paragraph about the Muse. Where does it come from?
    As readers and/or writers of one form or another we’ve all probably been phenomenally touched by the Muse. Touched and moved to the point of shoving everything else aside, repeatedly, to sit down and rough out something.
    I’ve probably never heard better advice than not to judge the Muse and not to castigating yourself for listening.

    • Lisa
      May 19, 2014 at 9:47 am

      I so agree about with the comments about the Muse. I will never again doubt or criticize her. I’m writing my first novel and this post will help me continue to plow ahead.

  2. Paul
    April 30, 2014 at 6:09 am

    Steven,

    Loved reading this Wednesday’s offering. I’m Paul (what are the odds) and now busy on redrafting my first novel.

    Will keep you up to date with my book and me.

    Paul,

    • Jerry
      April 30, 2014 at 8:54 am

      Thanks so much for your insights from further down the road. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  3. April 30, 2014 at 6:17 am

    I couldn’t help but laugh when I read this article. I’m sitting here beating myself up as I edit the first draft of my novel. Talk about coincidence. Is the opposite of resistance, acceptance? When should you accept what you have written? When will it be good enough, if not for your readers, but for yourself? If anyone can answer this question, I’d be much obliged.

    :-)

    • Norland
      April 30, 2014 at 8:25 am

      My experience is that it is best to put the first draft down and not look at it for several months. The longer the better. When you come back to it you will see the novel in a new light. You may want to fix parts or you may decide to go with a new work. In any event you did good, you wrote a novel.

      • April 30, 2014 at 9:09 am

        Thanks Norland. Just so very difficult at the moment. After years of copywriting and journalism, getting the hang of fiction writing is certainly not easy. Silly me, I thought the words would rain down on me as easy as writing copy does.

    • May 5, 2014 at 12:01 pm

      I would like to offer my own experiences with my writing as it may or may not be helpful… I write to get it out at first and more often than not, it is better than I thought it may be. Many times I have to make NO alterations of content to make it acceptable for me… BUT, I don’t write fiction… I learned a long time ago to write “for the garbage pail”, meaning just get it out without judgment. I find the more I practice this method, the easier and more fluid my writing becomes….

  4. Mary Doyle
    April 30, 2014 at 6:25 am

    Congratulations to Paul! This reminds me that there is a finish line to my novel (now in its third draft) and that I will cross it. After the first draft was finished I discovered what a shape-shifter Resistance is. Once it knows it can’t prevent you from sitting down to do the work every day it attacks your confidence in the ways Paul described. Thanks for keeping these vital lessons in front of us.

  5. April 30, 2014 at 7:00 am

    Thank you so much for this post. It was extremely helpful to me as I’m in the 6th rewrite of a screenplay and am somewhat stuck – well actually I’m not stuck when I sit down to write, it usually flows like crazy, I just need to glue my ass to the chair!

    I appreciate you and Paul being so vulnerable to help others! I often feel like I’m just “downloading” content and will me more mindful to say “thank you” for everything that comes to the page.

  6. April 30, 2014 at 7:31 am

    Such a great reminder. Thank you, thank you. I feel exactly the same way about the Muse — everything is gold, I’m just doing my part to get it all down. However, the great Robert McKee says something else that rings true: about 90% of what we write is crap. Part of our job is to sort through to the brilliant 10% and let it shine. One little trick that works for me when cutting scenes is to save them and tell myself I can use them later for another story or a prequel or sequel or blog post. I may never do it, but it helps get through the Resistance.

  7. April 30, 2014 at 7:32 am

    Well, if Paul does in fact not beat himself up in the first draft process next time up – or in the umpteenth draft, for that matter – he’s well ahead of me. Oh, I slog through the drafts a lot faster now. I know what’s working and not working, pretty much right away – the muscle memory of writing, like driving down a familiar but pot-holed road; first time, it’s two hands on the wheel panic 5 mph; by the 20th time, it’s drive with the knee, eat a sandwich, talk on the phone.

    But I still beat myself up, look at good writing with self-loathing (not loathing the writing, mind you), etc. Sort of like the old Simon & Garfunkel song, with a word change: Hello, Resistance, my old friend.

    I do like the analogy to whiskey, though, and the first draft mash – it is like something in a M*A*S*H unit, after all.

    I also find that once in a while some good single malt Scotch, before or after – even during – occasionally allows me to have a rational discussion with myself.

  8. April 30, 2014 at 7:42 am

    This happens in other endeavors, of course. Every time I record a talk show I think, “That sounded so lame!” But sometimes it wasn’t. Sometimes I’d barely change a syllable in an hour’s worth of conversation. Not as often as I’d like, but still…

    And just to underscore this point, my husband — who’s also my producer and proofreader — just told me it’s never lame. Suddenly it occurs to me I should believe him, given how much work he puts into the show and how much faith he has in it.

    In the eight months since our daughter’s been in college I’ve often thought, “Was I really the mom she deserved? Did I really put everything else aside and play with her as often as legend has it in our family?” A quick scan of my notes — and I took lots of notes as she was growing up, mostly after she was asleep — and there it is, the evidence. That’s one reason journals save lives, I think. They help you remember the good things. Resistance — as you remind us, Steve — is all too willing to make you forget, to make you think you’re too big of a loser to deserve the next big thing.

    • April 30, 2014 at 10:33 am

      Maureen…

      I have those seem feelings related to motherhood, especially with my daughter.

      Congratulations on doing what I’m sure was a good job.

      Are you going to share those journals with her?

      • April 30, 2014 at 2:28 pm

        Thanks for asking! And, you bet. Katie’s already told me it’s the sweetest gift, to have such a comprehensive account of every cute thing she said or did — that I managed to note without taking too much time away from her.

        When she was still in high school I shared highlights from the journal a few nights a week with her and Darrell, and those are some of the sweetest memories we have as a family.

        Now that she’s in college I’m sharing her best one-liners on Twitter as #TheKaOfKatie. I have her approve everything first, though — so it’s another great way to savor what a character she’s always been!

  9. Kent Faver
    April 30, 2014 at 7:47 am

    Steve – even though your Writing Wednesdays (what a joy the past two weeks have been with 3 WW’s/Week!) – I find when Resistance is really doing a number on me – I convince myself to even avoid reading about writing – let alone writing. How screwed up is that? Glad I did not listen today – this was a keeper.

  10. April 30, 2014 at 7:48 am

    Ahhh – there’s the Black Irish guy I’ve been missing lately.
    Welcome back.

  11. April 30, 2014 at 7:51 am

    Resistance must get such a kick out of us calling its work SELF-loathing and SELF-sabotage.

  12. April 30, 2014 at 8:14 am

    I will send this to someone I know who is writing their first book. :-)

  13. Pamela Seley
    April 30, 2014 at 8:22 am

    I’m beginning to think Resistance is a parasite, a psychic mind virus that once infected very difficult to get rid of. I look back only a few years ago starting my business I worked long, hard hours and didn’t think for a moment I couldn’t do it in the face of all odds I would fail, i.e., I wasn’t plagued by Resistance. Every new endeavor is starting over and although I have done it once, this time around it is more difficult. I caught the Resistance bug and can’t seem to shake it. For me, it’s harder the second time around. I think I know too much; how hard it is, the challenges, what’s involved in order to succeed, but at the same time, I can’t give it up. You’re right, Steve. I am screwed.

    • May 5, 2014 at 12:08 pm

      Pamela,
      You have been thinking about the WHOLE job of writing a book at once and are having a feeling of overwhelm. Knowing all that is involved from doing one book is good, but to be THINKING about all that at once is prohibitive!!! Take one bite at a time….

  14. Jerry
    April 30, 2014 at 8:52 am

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you Paul. Thank you Steven. Thank you, thank you, thank you. What amazing and powerful insight and lessons. Spoke to my heart. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  15. April 30, 2014 at 9:07 am

    “struggling through sieges of despair and self-loathing; enduring bouts of mental and emotional paralysis; undergoing his seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth nervous breakdowns”???

    I’m sorry for your friend, but I believe that this is unnecessary: writing is a privilege and a pleasure, not penance.

    I know the pain of figuring out what to write and how to write it when what’s on the page doesn’t match (even come anywhere near) what’s in your head – and that is immensely frustrating.

    But I don’t believe it is necessary to suffer breakdowns, become an alcoholic, or commit suicide over it. I know many writers have, and self-doubt – over one’s ability to DO the job – is one of the fears that have to be overcome, but I think this model has been romanticized beyond all reasonableness.

    Possibly it used to be caused by the power that gatekeepers had over what got published? I remember the enormous amount of time shopping my first novel around took (and which eventually resulted in polite ‘no thank you’s, back before the turn of the century). But it was always ‘I need to learn how to do this better,’ not, ‘I am worthless scum.’

    I won’t trounce other people’s route to publication (that’s their problem) – but I refuse to follow it or believe it’s necessary.

    And making it part of the mystique is harmful to people looking for writing advice.

    Alicia

  16. Sonja
    April 30, 2014 at 9:14 am

    Oh, I live for posts like these, especially when I’m mired in the middle and wonder what the hell I’m doing.

    THANK YOU STEVEN!

    I saw Gillian Flynn speak about her writing process for Gone Girl (my favorite book last year and now being made into a movie). She’s said she writes two books for every one book she gets out. She chopped 1,000 pages off Gone Girl before she could figure it out.

    This shows me even the pros have Resistance-days and rewrite, cut, and rewrite just like the rest of us still in the trenches. There’s hope!

  17. BING
    April 30, 2014 at 10:28 am

    I love Wednesday when I get to read Steven. I’m an artist and it is all the same resistance. It really helps when others share the same experience of struggling but are aware of the process.

    – BING

  18. April 30, 2014 at 10:32 am

    Such a great post. Thank you so much for the reminder. It’s so helpful to know other people go through this!

  19. April 30, 2014 at 12:25 pm

    Congratulations, Paul. There’s nothin’ like the first time.

  20. April 30, 2014 at 1:20 pm

    The first one was hard but I’m also finding the second one just as hard.

  21. Rick
    April 30, 2014 at 4:45 pm

    “…in Draft Six or Draft Ten.” How many drafts? That’s a huge mental hurdle to get over. And there’s no answer, no formula. I think, you know at some point when you’re done, written the last draft then comes the knowledge that each book will be different. Each requiring an unknown number of drafts and re-writes.

  22. April 30, 2014 at 8:07 pm

    Congratulations, Paul. What I needed to hear most was, “Self-criticism/censorship is an insult to the muse.” WOW. Hadn’t ever thought of it like that….Thanks.