First Drafts by Susin Nielsen

Susin Nielsen is the award-winning author of We Are All Made of Molecules – a laugh-out-loud novel that will also have you wiping tears from your eyes. Kirkus Reviews raves, “Nielsen has real talent for comedy, zoning in on just the right level of snark.”

Don’t miss your chance to ask Susin questions on her Figment chat on July 13th.

Perhaps because I am smack-dab in the middle of one, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what Anne Lamott so perfectly calls the Shitty First Draft.

I know I’m preaching to the converted when I say we all, as writers, suffer from a lot of self-doubt. Self-doubt tinged with a healthy dose of ego, otherwise how could we keep going? On good days, that ego and (sometimes misguided) optimism see us through. On the bad days, the self-doubt plagues us.

When I’m writing a first draft, I have far more bad days than good. Days where every single word lies flat on the page. Where everything feels trite, derivative and phony.

But the thing is—for most of us, anyway—that trite, derivative crap is a necessary step. We will, over time, be able to mold the crap into something so much better. It requires a lot of faith and determination, and that healthy ego I mentioned. But it also requires being kind and forgiving to ourselves.

This is hard. I have to remind myself of it all the time. In fact, excuse me while I stop writing for a moment and remind myself again.

There. Kindness and forgiveness are vital. Because I really believe, for most of us mortals, anyway, that we have to write the crap first to get to the good stuff later.

And on that note, I think the most 9780553496864important lesson I’ve learned about being a writer is that a real writer keeps writing. We keep moving forward. We don’t sit around waiting for “the muse.” It’s a job like any other, trying to get the entire story on the page. It’s about getting our bums in the seat, every day.

I call it barfing out the first draft (sorry for all the bodily fluid imagery). No one will ever see it but me. But once I have that shitty first draft, I am no longer staring at a blank page. I have something to work with and to mold. Usually—not always, but usually—the next draft is way more fun. That’s when things start to sing. When words start to lift off the page.

I saw Junot Diaz, one of my favorite writers, at the Vancouver International Writers Festival a few years ago. Someone asked why it took him almost ten years between books. He said with heartfelt honesty: “Sometimes you can be good at something that you still find really hard. Sometimes, to be good at something, you just need to keep showing the f— up.”

I’ve printed that out. It hangs above my computer as a daily reminder.

thumbnailSUSIN NIELSEN got her start feeding cast and crew on the popular television series, Degrassi Junior High. They hated her food, but they saw a spark in her writing. Nielsen went on to pen sixteen episodes of the hit TV show. Since then, Nielsen has written for over 20 Canadian TV series. Her first two young adult novels, Word Nerd, and Dear George Clooney: Please Marry My Mom were published to critical acclaim and won multiple Young Readers’ Choice Awards. Her third novel, The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, won the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Award, the Canadian Library Association’s Children’s Book of the Year Award, and a number of Young Readers’ Choice Awards. Author Wally Lamb named it his top YA pick for 2012 in his “First Annual Wally Awards,” and recently Rolling Stone put it at #27 in their list of “Top 40 Best YA Novels.”

Her books have been translated into Italian, Portuguese, French, German, and Korean. Susin’s new novel, We Are All Made of Molecules, was published in Canada, the U.S. and the UK in Spring of 2015. Translation rights have been pre-sold so far to Germany, Italy, France, Holland, Sweden and Norway, and advance reviews have been glowing. She lives in Vancouver with her family and two naughty cats.

5 thoughts on “First Drafts by Susin Nielsen

  1. Were you nervous when you published your first book? How old were you when you did? And how did you get over it?

  2. This is truly amazing. The first draft is just so embarrassing. Like when you’re wearing white and you accidentally have your time of the month… (sorry if that is gross) You try to cover it up when people look over your shoulders and it’s like no, no, no. Your eyes will hate me.

    Do you ever get afraid about writing more? You get so into a story that sometimes it’s like you are living inside it. Like you’re afraid you have nothing more to say? Or you’re just afraid that things will change and you have no idea where it is going?

    Do you get disorganized? I have no idea how to keep organized.

  3. How do you beat out the self doubt and criticism? I find myself stalled by self doubt quite often and its so frustrating, I’ll scrap whole story ideas or what I have before I’ve finished it because I can practically smell the stink coming from it. How about seeing past the veil when you think you’ve got something good?

  4. Hello, Susin. Thank you for taking the time to answer the questions that I and others within the Figment community are submitting to you. It’s a very kind gesture on your part and is very much appreciated by us all.

    I actually have several questions that I’d like to ask you, if I could.

    What software application(‘s) do you use when writing scripts and novels?

    When writing a novel, do you typically begin with a detailed outline beforehand, or do you wing it and compose story, plot, and characters as you go along?

    What advice would you offer someone with regard to copywriting their material? What would be the most cost efficient and convenient manner in which to accomplish this task?

    What method would you suggest with regard to submitting material to a publisher? Would it be best to submit material directly to a publishing house, or submit it to an agent beforehand, instead?

    Have a great day!


    • Hi Adam! If you click on the banner on our homepage this week you’ll find the chat page where Susin will be looking for your questions. Please copy and paste each of your questions there. I’m sure she will be happy to answer!

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