First Draft Fear by Kimberly Sabatini

This month on the blog, we're talking about FEAR. And while I often appreciate a nice broad topic, at the moment, this one feels a little unmanageable because of politics, pandemics and other planetary problems looming so large. Just thinking about all of it can make me feel like this...

So for my own mental health, I'll be narrowing things down a bit and talking about fear of first drafts. Although, you should be warned. 
Writing a first draft can, also make a person feel like this...


BUT since I recently finished a draft that has been frightening me for too long, I'm currently feeling pretty darn brave!!!!
 And I'm here to remind you...

THERE IS NOTHING TO BE AFRAID OF--until you have to do another first draft!

Just kidding.

Sort of.

*looks over shoulder*

The truth is we all have our own process or lack of process for getting that first version of a story out of our brains and onto paper--where we can revise in order to make it consumable for readers. And it's a sigh of relief when I get to the revision part of the process. I LOVE that part. But regardless of which part of the book creating process is your favorite and which part makes you feel like this...

We still have to do ALL of them--even the ones we fear.

 I can tell you how I fight the fear. (And I'm going to) But what you should know is...what works for me, might not work for you. 

But even if everything I do doesn't resonate with you, you still might be a collector of different bits of advice and methodologies. Over time these bits of scavenged material can become the building blocks for your own way of doing things. Think of it as the difference between getting a brand new box of Legos (where you have to follow the directions very specifically to get the desired end product) and the opportunity to go diving into the big bucket of mixed-up, multicolored Legos--pieces from all kinds of sets. 

I believe writing advice is usually best studied by looking at the full and detailed packages (like the new box of Legos), but individual process development is best discovered by pulling from the miscellaneous pile (of Legos or writing advice) to create your your own way of building something.

Here are the building blocks that help me to have less fear about writing a first draft. Where possible I'm also pointing you in the direction of the book or class where I dug out the bricks that work the best for me.

*I use the SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL by Jessica Brody to create a 15 point outline for my story idea. I've explored many structures and seen many examples of how to use them. This one fits me the best.

*I use  STORY GENIUS: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before you Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere) by Lisa Cron. I use this method of writing useful and effective back story. It's also really helpful for me to understand what is driving me to write that particular story and how that might relate to themes.

*This might seem strange, but I've learned to follow the universe's humorous displays of coincidence. I can't tell you how many times I've followed up on the urge to read or explore something completely unrelated to my manuscript--only to unexpectedly find the solution to my problems. I've become sensitive to things that cross my path when I'm searching for my story. The universe likes to sprinkle the answers right in front of me. I just have to pay attention.

*I've learned I can only write forward until I can't. I now recognize that my deceleration can usually be attributed to two things...

                             -I've taken a wrong turn and my subconscious knows it. And I have to fix it to know how to move forward.


                             -I've lost track of what I've written and need to reread what I have to reboot my brain.

*It's really helpful to get comfortable writing your first draft in broader strokes. (Full disclosure: This is still a work in progress. I know it works when I do it--but I have to force myself to do it more because old habits are hard to break.) It's so much easier to move story components around, for the benefit of the book and reader, when I have not fallen blindly in love with my own prose. If I expend less detail building the skeleton of the story I am not so resistant to moving the bones to make the BEST story. NOTE: the more time you spend inserting detail when you should be doing broader strokes, the harder it is to move or remove what is not pushing your story forward. If a moment of brilliant and witty dialogue comes to you--by all means--don't pass it by. But working a first chapter to death when you don't have the last done (which always changes the first chapter) is a time suck I DO ALL THE TIME. *slaps hand*

*I've started thinking of the brainstorming/outlining/broad strokes version of my work as my first draft, whether it's notes, bullet points or something that feels more like a synopsis. The first draft is a mental hurdle that makes me feel like this...

If I can KNOW my story from beginning to end at a much earlier leg in the writing relay, I can trick myself into being less afraid of the same challenging work. It's not the effort of writing the manuscript that is intimidating, it's the translation of the story in my head to the story on the page. I

f I can give myself scaffolding that can carry me consistently upward from the beginning--like this...

I do better.

On the other hand, when I don't take the time to build structure and support from the beginning, I find myself spending lots of time at the start, jumping up and down, trying to figure out how to get to the first landing. (Where I can do the thing I love--Revise.) 

*Despite all this planning, I also know to not OVER PLAN the details of my story. I still want to have the joy of being surprised by my writing and my characters. I've learned what I need that element of discovery in order to have a good book journey. 

It's about balance.

I CAN'T be the writer who gets a wild hair, hops in her car and drives across the country on a whim-- without planning anything. But I also AM NOT the writer who sits down and plans the location of every meal and rest stop along the way. 

But I AM the kind of writer who needs to know the route I'll be taking so I can have a hotel reserved in my name when I arrive at my new location. And if there's hard to get tickets for a special event--I want those locked in, too. But I can find a restaurant when I get there. I can wander a little once I arrive and the locals give me some recommendations.

It's about balance. 

For road trips and for first drafts, I need sign posts and reservations for the important stuff--to guide my way.

*And I continue to take classes and read books on crafts so I can continue to fine-tune my process and grow as a writer. Some of my newest resources...

                      -Maggie Stiefvater's online class, available on ETSY--Writing With Maggie Stiefvater

                       -Anything by Donald Maass, but I'm currently working through his WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK.

Phew! That was a lot of stuff. Are you still with me?

Good--so let me recap why these things work so well for me.

The simple answer is because I tested them out and they *ahem* work for me. 
The more nuanced answer is...

Because too many unknowns make me afraid and I don't do my best work.

Because spending months and years to find I've gone down a dead end is frightening and demoralizing.

Because drafting feels more like revising when I institute these "hacks," making the process more enjoyable to me.

Because what often feels obvious and intuitive isn't. And what often feel cumbersome and unhelpful is just unpracticed.

And because I hate looking like this...

I hope you've found my process and recommendations helpful. And I hope, in this time of overwhelming fear, something here sparks your writing process, making writing a safe place for you to spend time, when the world feels like it's too much to bear. 

Feel free to explore and steal what has already been explored and stolen by me. Writers are the world's biggest thieves. And knowing that--I'd love you to allow me to explore and steal from you. Don't be afraid to share your best advice and resources in the comments--I'd love it!


  1. Thanks for posting all these great tips, Kimberly! I currently have that look as I make the final move-things-around-and-cut-where-necessary revisions on my manuscript. Once this puppy's on submission, I'm going to read STORY GENIUS to avoid getting that look again. Well, maybe not as often. Cheers!

  2. I hear you!!!! Let me know what you think of it. I think the most impactful part of STORY GENIUS for me was learning how to create THE RIGHT back story and then knowing how to use it effectively. Scenes I wrote in the exploratory phase are still being used in my current WIP. Good luck.

  3. Great post as always, Kim! And ugh...I am sooo guilty of revising portions to death rather than building the scaffolding...but I shall keep this image in mind as I work - thank you! Hugs! xoxo

  4. Absolute YES to thinking of the outline / notes as first draft!


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