Permission to write badly, Ma’am? by SJ Bolton

As I write, NaNoWriMo has just drawn to a close and writers all over the land have spanking new 50,000 word manuscripts bulging out from their computer screens. Good show! And well done to whoever came up with the idea in the first place, because with a combination of group support, manageable word count and an unmovable deadline, NaNoWriMo has tackled and overcome the most significant stumbling block for any would-be-writer – getting the bloody thing finished.

First you finish, then you fix.

Not so long ago, I was reading an article by one of the crime writers I admire the most (and feel most gratitude to given her support of me over the years) Tess Gerritsen. She was talking of the time, years ago, when her writing career almost stalled. She’d had one book successfully published, was expected to jump straight on the book-a-year treadmill, and found herself unable to do it. She started one book, decided it was rubbish, and put it away in a drawer. She started another and didn’t get beyond the first couple of chapters because all she could see were the flaws. She started another. And another. This went on for two years, until even her editor had given up on her. Her problem, she admits, was that she wanted each manuscript she was working on to be perfect, from beginning to end. What saved her was finally giving herself permission to write badly. She went back to the first discarded manuscript, saw again that it had potential, and took it to task. She finished it. And then she fixed it.

That is the order in which it’s done. First you finish. Then you fix.

These days, just about every day, I give myself permission to write badly. Actually, I don’t have to try anymore, the bad stuff just comes pouring out. I read sentences from early drafts and cringe. It doesn’t matter. If the idea is the there, it can be fixed. What is important is getting the story out.

Tess says this too. She says, ‘I know I have to forge ahead. No matter how awful the writing, or how outlandish the plot. There is no fault that cannot be fixed.’

Have faith

Outlandish plots? Oh my, she doesn’t know the half of it! I’m currently struggling with my seventh book which draws together an international terrorist plot to blow up a major London landmark and a mermaid in the Thames who may or may not be a psychopathic killer (haven’t decided). I was talking about this to one of my best literary mates, Belinda Bauer, who in typically supportive fashion said, ‘I love that you can’t decide about the psychopath but have no doubts about the mermaid. Awesome!’

Actually, I have many doubts about the mermaid, just as I had about the ghost in Blood Harvest, the snake attacks in Awakening and the trolls in Sacrifice. What I have more of, though, is faith that there is a way in which these wacky plots of mine can be made to work and that sometime in the next few months, I will find it.

 “I want encouragement, not honesty.”

I’m often contacted by unpublished authors who want me to read a selection of their work, quite often the first couple of chapters – all they’ve managed so far. My heart invariably sinks. What these people want from me is not honest feedback, but a reason to go on. They want me to tell them their writing is brilliant, their idea inspired and their chances of a lucrative publishing contract assured. This is impossible on each count because first drafts are always dreadful.

Of course I feel dreadful telling them so. I suspect I’ve put more than one would-be-author off ever writing again by not telling them what they want to hear. The message I can’t get across, though, is that first drafts are supposed to be bad. The first draft is the idea dump. The get-as-much-shit-as-possible-on-the-page stage. The first draft is the means by which you find out whether or not you have an idea, or a series of ideas, that you can follow through to the end. There will be plot holes, there will be inconsistencies, there will be characters so two dimensional a heavy sigh would knock them over. Above all, the writing will be bad.

No exceptions

Those who are Jane Austen fans may have read her two unfinished novels, Sanditon and The Watsons. I’ve read both several times and find them completely inspiring. BECAUSE THEY’RE NOT THAT GOOD. Yay! Even Jane Austen wrote a ropey first draft. We know that had she lived they would have been polished up to be gleaming gems on a par with her other brilliant works but I like to think that, as they are, they give us more. They give the rest of us the courage to go on and finish.

Madness and sweaty palms

The ability/determination to continue with something that is palpably rubbish is one of the major stumbling blocks to getting published. Because most writers don’t fail to get an agent, they fail to finish. They despair of the drivel trickling out of their fingertips. They decide to take a break to see if a fresh approach will work any magic (it won’t). Worst of all, they get a new idea, and decide to pursue that one instead. And that way lies madness and sweaty palms. That way lies drawers (or computer files) full of half-finished work and an unfulfilled writer who might never achieve his or her dream.

I think I’ve made my point. Sadly, I can’t give you a sure fire way of finishing, but the following tips may help.

  • Have a deadline. Tell people about it. Build in unavoidable public humiliation if you fail.
  • Break that deadline into manageable chunks. Even writers with a full time job should be able to manage 1000 words a day. (They don’t have to be good words, remember.) You will finish your book in four months and that gives you the rest of the year to fix it.*
  • Hit a brick wall? Can’t see how to go on? Welcome to my world. Walk the dog, (or an imaginary dog.) Think only about the immediate problem but look around you. An apparently unconnected idea will often hold the key.
  • Really stuck? Go back over the last 1000 words, polishing as you go. The act of improving will make you feel better, and when you get to the end, you will probably have built up a sufficient head of steam to just keep on going.
  • Research. Read (books or internet) about your subject matter. It will nearly always throw new ideas at you. That scene you’ve been saving because the research behind it was intensive? Do it now. You may get two or more scenes out of it.
  • Read a poem, or a fairy story, or the lyrics of a song. Other people’s creativity feeds our own.
  • Skip ahead to later in the story. Nothing wrong with writing out of time. You can go back and create the link later.

Good luck, and get on with it!

* Not prepared to spend a year of your life on a project that might never amount to anything half decent? My friend, you are not a writer.

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Sharon’s debut novel, Sacrifice, was nominated for the International Thriller Writers ‘Best First Novel’ Award. Her second novel, Awakening, won the 2010 Mary Higgins Clark award at the Edgars, for ‘Thriller of the Year’.

Sharon was born in Lancashire, and lives near Oxford with her husband and young son. Her latest work is the short story If Snow Hadn’t Fallen…

6 thoughts on “Permission to write badly, Ma’am? by SJ Bolton

  1. Maria Smith

    I’m currently wading through a second draft filling in plot holes etc, after writing a very fast draft, the purpose being to get the story out. I can identify with everything you say, after having two previous half finished novels and know I’ll never get this one sorted out unless I keep at it every day.

    Good post with some useful tips! I particularly like ‘writing out of time’ and shall be borrowing that one later on this evening.

  2. Jane

    Great article, SJB………..now finish that
    book about the mermaid in the Thames..

    Jane, GoodReads fan
    age 79

  3. Paula Readman

    So glad you didn’t give up on your books. I just got hooked on them and have read three of them back to back, Blood Harvest, Sacrifice, Dead Scared, and have just started ‘Now You See Me’. Brilliant! Looking forward to reading more of your work.