First Draft Terror by Suzanne Chazin

I recently started the first draft of a new novel. This instills in me all the self-confidence of two virgins in a MINI Cooper. I’m sweaty and awkward. I don’t have a clue where anything goes. And I’m already questioning my choice of vehicle.

First drafts are scary. There’s so much expectation—and so much disappointment. Scenes lumber off in the wrong direction. The writing feels clumsy and artless. The story confuses. Or worse, it bores. I compare the well-dressed prose of authors I admire and cringe at my own naked and brutish words.

And I want to hit “delete.”

It’s easy to lose faith. I should know: my first attempt at a novel still sits—half-finished—in my file cabinet. I’ve since published three novels. Yet I have never been able to summon the courage to go back to that manuscript.

I know a lot more about writing first drafts than I did then but I still struggle on every page. Through trial and error, I’ve found a few things that have helped me get over the rough spots:

1. Write a book the same way you would enter a relationship

You and your characters are going to be together for a long, long time. (If it’s a series as my first three novels were, it could end up lasting longer than many marriages). You’ll probably end up dreaming about your characters, driving around with them—and yes, even showering with them. So it’s worth spending a few weeks getting to know them before you commit to a long-term relationship. If you have to dump somebody, it’s a lot easier to do it before they’ve taken up residence in your novel (or your apartment, for that matter).

I was a journalist before I became a novelist and I would never have considered writing a profile of someone before I followed them around for several days and asked a lot of annoying and deeply personal questions. Why should fictional characters be any different? At least a third of my own dilemmas in first drafts spring up because I’m not quite sure what a character would do in a given situation.

2. Loose lips sink manuscripts

Try not to talk about your ideas until you’ve finished a first draft. Ideas are fragile and tenuous at this stage. Even well meaning friends and family members can sink them with off-handed comments (“I saw that same idea in a movie last year”) or unsolicited advice (You know what you should write about…”)

The only thing worse than having friends hate your idea is having them love it. Remember, they don’t love what you’ve written; they love what they think you are about to write. In other words, you’ve just gone from being the architect of your manuscript to the contractor—building to someone else’s specifications. Let them react to what you’ve written, not to what you intend to write.

3. Tread softly into the black hole of “research”

It is so deliciously tempting to Google some minor point in a first draft and two hours later find that you have read three articles and four Wikipedia entries on stuff that will never find its way into your book. Internet research can gobble up your time in unproductive ways. So can answering mail. And writing your blog. If you have to do them, tack them on when you are just about ready to close down for the day. Never kid yourself into thinking that you’ve worked on your book when all you’ve done is Google whether the Kardashian sisters have had plastic surgery.

4. Write like you’re going to train your dog on it

I like to trick my inner editor when I start a new novel. I tell my inner editor I’m not writing a book at all. I’m just “playing around.” It doesn’t matter if it’s bad because it’s not “for real.”

To keep up the ruse, I don’t begin novels when I have three hours to write. I begin when I have twenty minutes (this applies whenever I get stuck on a first draft as well.) I try to write as much as I can in that time frame without reading it.

I don’t create a new word document. I write on an existing one. Or better yet, an index card or the back of a flyer advertising $50 off plumbing services (all the better to dispose of).

Of course, this presumes you can distinguish your “bad” work from your “good.” But perhaps not. I had an art teacher at Northwestern University named George Cohen who once instructed every student to paint the “best” painting he or she could create. In the next class, Cohen asked every student to paint the “worst” painting. Then Cohen papered the room with all of our artwork and asked students to vote on the best pieces. About 75 percent of the pieces voted as “best” were the ones we had painted as our “worsts.” So this is another argument for not concentrating too much on the quality of your work: you may be a bad judge of it anyway.

5. Remember that all problems are fixable—just not in the first draft

How many times have you read a book and said, “there’s no way the protagonist can get out of this mess.” And then he or she does. Sometimes, the writer comes up with a very clever solution (I hate those writers). Most times, the solutions are more prosaic. But they help to remind me that when I feel that my manuscript’s problems are intractable, they aren’t. I just haven’t figured out the solution yet. It always comes—but usually not in the first draft. That’s why I need to finish the first draft. I will never get it right until I first get it down.

Above all, have faith in yourself. You started this. You can finish it. Don’t worry about what comes in between. To build a smooth road, you always have to start with a pile of rocks.


Suzanne Chazin (rhymes with “raisin”) was born in Manhattan and raised in suburban New Jersey, the only child of immigrants. Her father was born in Russia. Her mother was born and raised in England. The clash of cultures made for an interesting upbringing. While most of her friends were chowing down on hamburgers, Suzanne was eating piroshki (Russian meat pies) and roast beef smeared in Bovril (looks like road tar, don’t ask what’s in it!)

From an early age, there was no doubt she’d go into writing. For one thing, she couldn’t sell. Not Girl Scout cookies in third grade, not flower seeds in seventh, not even lipsticks on commission at the drug store where she worked in high school.

With no discernible talent for making money, she found her way into the only profession that would have her: journalism. After graduating from Northwestern University, she planned on becoming a newspaper reporter but didn’t like the way the ink smudged her fingers. So she switched to magazines, writing essays and articles for American Health, Family Circle, Ladies Home Journal, Money, The New York Times(okay, ONE newspaper), People and Reader’s Digest. She published three mystery novels about the New York City Fire Department, inspired by her husband who is a high-ranking chief in the FDNY.

Suzanne was drawn to writing LAND OF CAREFUL SHADOWS after she began volunteering at an outreach center for immigrants near her home in Westchester County, NY. The more she learned about the lives of the undocumented, the more touched she became by their courage and quiet determination. Because the people Suzanne interviewed couldn’t share their stories publicly, she decided to tell them in novel form. She is currently working on a sequel to Land of Careful Shadows and hopes her novels will raise greater awareness about the issues the undocumented face in the United States today.

Visit Suzanne’s website at

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