“I don’t think this novel is working for me.”

My husband and I were having our afternoon coffee and chat when I blurted this nugget out after days of pent-up writerly frustrations.

“Why’s that?” he asked, and he really wanted to know, which makes me incredibly lucky.

And all my “I can’t do this” worries came out in a hot mess of tears and over-thinking, made slightly better by the strong coffee and the Tim Tams my son dropped off earlier that day.

Basically, I felt as if I’d planted myself and my work-in-progress (WIP) into a thick, gluggy puddle of mud, and no matter how hard I pulled at my feet, I couldn’t get them out. Of course, I didn’t give my husband that flowery version, but he got the drift: I was stuck.

I know where I want this dual POV/timeline novel to go. For example, I’m clear on:

  • Working title and genre
  • The rough plot
  • My characters
  • Conflict/mystery
  • Setting – times and places
  • Themes
  • Inspiration

But the fact remained that on that day, I was at a standstill, and it was my own doing.


I’ve always been an edit-as-you-go writer – slow, steady, making sure every sentence, every description, every feeling is as right as I can make it before I can move on.

It’s what worked for me with Wherever You Go and Wildflower.

For me writing is like slow-cooking, adding all the ingredients slowly and letting the elements develop into a rich and satisfying read. I like this, I really do. I take pleasure in crafting sentences, imagining settings, finding the perfect word whatever it is I am describing. Not to mention the endless discussions over coffee (with my patient man) or in my head (in the shower, in the car …) about the most excellent plot twists and character dialogues that will make the book exactly what I want.

But when I realised I was doing more internet searches like this

than writing actual words, I knew I was getting bogged down in detail.

Something had to give. Either I set this story aside for however long was needed and write something new, or I tried a different technique – in this case, dirty drafting.

Now before you start wondering what kind of book I’m writing, let me clarify that in this case, a dirty draft is:

Author Nikki Moore says it well:

“When I talk about the dirty draft, I’m referring to a raw first draft that is full of plot holes and peppered with spelling and grammar mistakes and it doesn’t matter. Because it’s not the finished product you’ll be happy to send off to your editor, agent or anyone willing to read your book.”

Finally, I hear all you seasoned dirty drafters say, muttering “There goes Captain Obvious” under your breath.

I know, I know. Dirty drafting is by no means a ground-breaking technique.

But for me, it kind of is. If you know me, you know that:

  • Details matter (that’s the editor in me);
  • I tend to be a perfectionist when it comes to my writing (I’m embarrassed when someone picks up a typo I’ve missed);
  • I pride myself on clean, polished copy;
  • And I’m rather self-critical when it comes to my creative works;
  • Oh, and I’m an over-thinker (did I mention that?).

I don’t like the “dirty draft” method because I’m petrified that someone will read it.

True story.

But like I said, I’d hit the wall with this WIP. I was in danger of losing my connection to, and the essence of, this story because of my need to determine whether the curtains were damask or brocade, whether they were dusty pink or salmon, and what refreshments you would have eaten in the First-Class carriage of the Caves Express from Sydney to Katoomba. Seriously, these things really mattered.

The next day, I typed up random scenes and conversations peppered with notes to self such as [What if she does X], [Why????], [Link this to XX scene], [check this], and [describe what she sees].

In two hours I had 2000 words.

The next day I had another 2000.

Are all the words useful?

No. Some, like [Wow! I think this is it!] and [That is awesome!] will obviously be deleted.

But that exercise, that stepping aside from my usual way, gave me enough of a skeleton to flesh out upcoming chapters with good words, details, and the all-important layering.

Will I keep writing like this?

When I need to, yes. I look at it now as a creative explosion of words.

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” – Lao Tzu

The dirty draft method helped me over a self-built wall and onto the next stage, and I’ll never roll my eyes again when someone says just write, write, write and edit later.

I believe in finding the technique that works for you – there is no one size fits all approach for writers – but I also think there’s room for flexibility.

Especially when you’re knee deep in a mud puddle made by tears of self-pity.



Monique Mulligan

Monique Mulligan

5 Responses

  1. I’ve always considered my first draft ‘the dirty draft’ and if someone read it – I’d be mortified!! But yes awesome advice Monique – I do the [insert distraction here] as well – often to get my head out of the web and on to the words – a very useful device!

    1. Hi Nancy, my first draft is usually very clean and polished … but it takes AGES to write. It’s good to try something new, especially when you’re stuck.

  2. I know the feeling – I’m stuck on my current WIP too. I know what needs to be done – but how to forge ahead? I guess I thought that once I had nailed one novel, the next one would be a cinch, just use the same method. It seems I’m not the only writer it doesn’t work for. I haven’t tried the [bracket with notes] method before, so thanks, I’ll give it a try and see if I can’t break through that stuck-in-the-mud barrier too.

    1. Isn’t it frustrating, Shirley? It felt a bit like parenting, trying a new method for each “baby”. I did the same thing yesterday and now I have a much clearer view of where I want the story to go.

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