What to do when the fire of your first draft has gone out

No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.”  -William Goldman, Princess Bride

You know the feeling.

The words come tumbling out, fast and sure, faster than you can write or type. You feel the passion and power of your voice. The rock-bottom certainty of your insights. The current is strong and it’s all making sense at last!  When you’re spent, you’ve got a thousand, maybe 1500 words on the page. And there’s this triumphant feeling that you’ve finally nailed it!

You transcribe it. You read it over.  The feeling is still there, though not as strong. You see the sentences that will work, the ones that won’t. Yes, of course, you’ll need to change the structure a bit, develop a point here and there. No problem, you think.

You begin revising. This is the danger point. Why?

Because the fire of the first draft has gone out and you’re no longer held aloft on wings of inspiration. You may even doubt that the inspiration ever happened! You’re a creature of earth again, crawling around on the ground.

The Demon Enters

This is where judgment, aka Self-Doubt, takes its cue. Waving its red pen, it swoops down and slashes across your cherished pages, all the while telling you how boring or irrelevant or just plain bad your work is. You are tempted to believe this voice for two very good reasons:

1)     The feeling of being enamored has passed.

2)     The flaws, the holes, the lack of logic—the Chaos—is all too apparent.


The hard fact to face is that the inspiration you felt while writing isn’t necessarily there on the page now. Or it got transferred in bits and unrecognizable pieces that aren’t making the sense you were so confident in while you were in the flow. It doesn’t mean the raw gold isn’t there, but it still has to be mined, fired, and shaped.

The Good News

This is where the battle is won or lost. This is where the work starts. And it is good news. You have to lose the glow. It’s a very necessary stage. Without it, you can’t begin to really shape the silkworm spit into silk. But first, before you begin to revise, you need to deal with this intruder.

You can’t just ignore it. It’s not going to go away.

Enter the ring with a 3-point strategy.

1)     Recognize it

2)     Respond with speed

3)     Face it directly

Recognize and unmask it.

As writers, we can never eradicate self doubt. It will fade in and out, sometimes with noise and aggression, but more often in the form of a whisper. The key to overcoming it is to recognize its appearance on the spot. Notice the words and phrases it uses; write them down. Knowing the words prepares you to deal with self-doubt on a daily basis, especially when you are at the beginning phase of a new work.  My recurring favorites:  I can’t possibly do this! and Why bother?

Here’s the kicker: This voice is masquerading as you.  It is pretending to be you—that is its secret weapon.  By naming it you draw a line between You and Self Doubt. The thinnest of lines is all that’s needed.

The line is sacred. It deprives self-doubt of its power. You are on one side and it is on the other. You are affirming and practicing your Authorial Presence.

The Perilous Pause

The second you recognize it, object! Refuse to consider its allegations. If you delay, self-doubt will get the upper hand or derail you completely.

You have to do more than object. Replace the words of self-doubt with your words of encouragement and affirmation.  My favorite:  I can do this!  I’m a writer and I’m going to write this! Nothing is going to stop me. Period.

What you have done is to choose to believe in the value of what you are writing. Self-doubt cannot stand in the light of that.

Face it directly.

Self-doubt doesn’t play fair. It often hovers sub-verbally. Give it your full attention. Call it out. Stop trying to write. Instead, turn and face it directly. Don’t just flick it away like an annoying fly. You have to go after that f** fly with your full awareness.

What about the days when we just feel pummeled? When the demon has seemingly taken over? Then it’s time to shake things up a bit. Interrupt. Disrupt. Here are some of my successful tactics:

1)     Get angry and rage about it out loud

2)     Call a writer friend and rage about it

3)     Walk or run around the block

4)     Vacuum (surprisingly effective!)

What you may discover is that although the fire has gone out of your draft, the coals are still red hot.  ###


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8 Enlightened Replies

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  1. J.L. Pitts says:

    A very good article. Was very professional until you engaged a faux foul language. Your piece had so much umph it did not nee some faux foul word to make it work better. If your audience is to the professional writers I would leave out that technique to get your point across. Again a wonderful article. It did start the embers of my fire.

  2. Sally Wolfe says:

    Thank you, J.L. I take your point. Thanks for sharing–and reading. Glad to hear about embers glowing.

  3. I loved every part of this article, including the “*”, and I’m a professional writer. You didn’t spell out the whole word and that made it fine, in my humble opinion.

    I’m thrilled I discovered you and your work via Twitter’s Women Writers, and I’ll continue to read your blog. Take care!

    Warm regards,
    Dyane Leshin-Harwood
    Author of the upcoming book “Birth of a New Brain – Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder” to be published by Post Hill Press, Fall, 2016
    Founder, Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) of Santa Cruz County, CA

  4. Sally Wolfe says:

    Nice to meet you too, Dyane! Thanks so much for the comment. Congrats on your upcoming book. That is tremendous! And you’re here in town too. Make sure to put me on your “Book reading” list. Fall is a popular time for book ann’ts and readings, btw, good to get on Bookshop Santa Cruz radar several months ahead to get on their schedule. Best, Sally

  5. Shinon says:

    I raged in paint! spilling black, red and orange onto the canvas. Clawing through that muck even giving it the middle finger four times, cursing over yet another revision for my Arctic memoir. [editor suggested]. I got the anger out. And then I looked at the painting and saw a heart. Wow. My title is Arctic Heart. the painting became beautiful. I started laughing. Now I’m on chapter 25, revising. Thanks!

  6. Sally Wolfe says:

    Sounds like a breakthrough to me, Shinon!Thanks for sharing.

  7. Corinne de palma says:

    Fantastic! What a godsend you are! Bring the curse words on if you have to. It’s truth! Anything to help us break through those walls of doubt. I’m a professional writer and have been working on a memoir. What you said was spot on about the doubt we as writers go through. Thank you so much!

  8. Sally Wolfe says:

    Hi Corinne,
    So glad my words were encouraging to you! In spite of what I know and practice, every day requires a new resolve and new ground to clear. That’s the work of writing. The rewards I believe are totally worth it–being connected with and sharing our authenticity and gifts with others. Thanks for stopping by to share! Means a lot.:) Meanwhile, there’s another article you might be interested over at Write to Done – http://writetodone.com/you-are-destined-to-write/

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