For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a “closed-door” writer. Not that I’ve always written with the door physically closed — though I often do — but that I’ve always made it a point to work alone. I’ve never consulted others, I’ve never asked a friend what they thought about my story as I was writing it. I just went into my space, closed the door, and started writing.
At least when it comes to the first draft of everything I’ve written, anyway.
I’m not the only writer who does this nor am I the first (and don’t try to pretend to be). Some of Stephen King’s greatest writing advice revolves around first drafts and how to get them finished. He has much more credibility than I do, considering how many first drafts he’s turned into publishable novels (and just imagine how many first drafts he still just has hanging around). Listen to him, especially if you’re not going to listen to me.
What does it mean to write with the door closed? It means you put your head down and do the work without begging for another person’s input. Not that you work without interruptions, because interruptions are inevitable, but that you don’t interrupt your process by stopping every 10 pages to consult someone about what you’re doing.
There is nothing wrong with admitting you are struggling as you’re working on a first draft. First drafts are beasts, and there isn’t a writer on this planet who doesn’t get stuck at some point, even if for only a moment, as they’re cranking out the first version of a story.
But one of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen aspiring writers make is asking a bunch of strangers for “help” on the plot or structure of a story they haven’t finished writing yet. “Can anyone give me some [free] advice?” They ask their respective Facebook groups. “I’m stuck and am trying to figure out …”
Stop right there — right there is where you’re stepping into dangerous territory.
I understand why nervous writers do this. They don’t like the idea of taking their stories in one direction only to feel like they’re hitting the same brick wall over and over. They want their first attempt to be one that counts. They don’t want to struggle or feel like they’re failing. So they call on the reinforcements they’ve surrounded themselves with, other writers who they’re willing to put their trust in to spark the inspiration they need to finish writing their books.
What’s the problem with this strategy? You’re not learning anything, not really. Yes, if someone gives you an idea or helps you solve a “plot problem” you’re going to be the one writing it and you’re still getting the writing experience, sure. But you’re not practicing how to work through these snags. You’re not teaching yourself how to write through the tough parts. You’re looking for an easy way out. You’re basically asking someone else to do the heavy lifting for you. It’s “research,” you say.
The writing community can absolutely be a helpful place when you need it. But not while you’re writing the first version of your story. Open the door, ask all the writers and non writers you want to give their input, AFTER YOU FINISH THE FIRST DRAFT.
I apologize for shouting, but I need you to hear this. I shout because I love you.
When you are writing a first draft, the ONLY thing that matters is that you finish the story. Beginning, end, middle, all of it. All that matters is that you don’t break your own concentration, that you don’t ruin your chances of success by worrying about small details that DON’T MATTER yet.
Can’t think of a word you want to use? Put a description of it in brackets [that word you use when someone is talking about themselves too much] and make a note to look it up later.
Don’t know how certain procedures in an unfamiliar profession work? For now, use what you know and make up the rest. You can and should make sure you get it right later, but these are not details that should prevent you from finishing the story. For now, bend the rules to fit your narrative. Fix everything you get wrong later, on your second or third or fourth draft, NOT your first.
If you’re paranoid that something you’re trying isn’t going to work, write notes, but don’t stop working on your story. First drafts aren’t for getting things right, they’re for getting things done. You can’t tell the best story you’ve ever told if you can’t get through the first version of it. Only once you’ve dumped all your ideas and thoughts and experiments onto a few hundred pages (or more) can you go back and try to make sense of everything you have.
Even though some people HATE self-editing, some of the most rewarding parts of writing a story are those moments when you’re problem-solving and CLICK, something just FITS. Aha! You figured out how you can foreshadow so-and-so’s breaking point in chapter 22. Boom! You figured out a way to bring Character Z’s story full circle. Maybe at this point someone gave you a suggestion or unintentionally planted a seed in your mind, but ultimately you, the writer, figured out how to piece everything together and make it work. THAT. IS. AMAZING!!
Don’t open the door yet. Leave it closed. Whether you think the first draft is the hardest part or it’s everything that comes after that makes your head spin, trust yourself to get through it. Figure it out. Trust me — sigh, trust Stephen King — you will emerge from this solitary experience a better, stronger, AND more confident writer.
And when that first draft is done and you realize it’s a mess and that you’re going to need some help cleaning it up, go ahead. Turn the knob, let the door swing open, share your struggles. You have something to work with now. You’re going to do this. It’s all going to turn out great. Eventually.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.