The first time I wrote a draft of a novel, it was only as difficult as I expected it to be. It took about four months, and it was a terrible draft. Seriously: my cat peed on it when it was finished, and, in retrospect, that was an appropriate response. But a year after that, it was much better. Good enough, in fact, to query agents with.
I haven't finished a draft of a novel since then.
It's hard to say that, here, in public. Most of me wants to point very loudly to the other things I've done since then, and all of the things that have happened in my life, or at the very least to point out the proximity in time between finishing that first, terrible draft that grew up to be a book I am proud of and now. But at a very real level, none of that matters. I need something tangible, and I don't have it. I haven't met the goals I've set for myself.
We have all these terms we use, to take the pressure off: draft zero, the shitty first draft, the discovery draft. I'm sure there are others. What I wasn't doing, as my wonderful friend and Clarionmate Steffi suggested, was actually taking the pressure off when I wrote. When I wrote what was supposed to be the bad draft, the fixable object, all I could see was the flaws, and the knowledge that there was so much wrong became paralyzing. Instead of asking for help from beta readers, or leaving myself notes, or just ignoring the crap and moving on, I stopped writing. I always picked up something else, but I stopped writing.
And part of that was because I am a better writer now. So it is easier for me to see the flaws, and to know what needs fixing. This is one of those things that is obviously a blessing and a curse, and, quite frankly, I am still waiting for the blessing part of it to make itself clear. Leveling up your craft isn't one of those things you expect to have to work around.
I went back, and I looked that the major drafts of that novel. I looked at the emails I sent friends, and the blog entries I wrote, and I made myself remember how very fixable something so obviously imperfect was. And right now, I am writing a Very Bad Draft. Characters have different names than they did 20 pages ago. Ninety percent of what I have on the page is dialogue. I'd say it was all white-roomed, but that would assume there's enough setting to make a room. My notebook is covered with post-its, reminding me to research [redacted] or translate [redacted]. And one other post-it is attached to the drawer of my desk where my pens live, where I have written down a reassurance from a friend, given the day the cat peed on my manuscript. It reads: "The point of words in notebooks is that they are anything from the words of the story, to yogurt starter, to palimpsest." It is a reminder to myself that words are not perfection, but possibility.