Friday, May 20, 2011

The first draft blues

These hit me with practically every first draft I write.

Always. Always, always, always, around 50 to 75% of the way through the first draft, panic hits. I'll suddenly remember a storyline I intended that never got put in. Or I'll discover something isn't working the way I thought it would.

I'll lean back from my computer screen, bite my lower lip as I consider the rambling scene I've been typing, and think some version of, "This isn't what I thought it would be." And as I think through all the other story elements and character traits I intended back when I started the first chapter, I'm suddenly overwhelmed by everything that hasn't happened yet and everything that needs to happen before I type THE END.

This is where I am now in my manuscript. I'm 60% done, and I'm spending more time staring at the words of my WIP (work in progress) than I am adding words. Where is this thing with Brandi going? I'm asking myself. That came out of nowhere. Should it stay? Should I cut it? I thought there was going to be more food show stuff, but instead we've spent the last 10k dealing with a weird love triangle that I never even intended. And where are her parents? There's supposed to be more of her parents...

I'm telling myself this is normal - the sudden recognition that my first draft isn't everything I had hoped - but it's still scary. It brings on the voices.

When the overwhelming first draft blues settle in, here are some suggestions for things to do:

Skim your first draft
Sometimes my blues happen because I'm feeling disconnected from the story. This is most common when I'm not getting to write daily (which I'm not) or when life has forced me to take a break from writing (which it did, a couple weeks back).

So skim your first draft. Not to edit (unless you see a typo begging to be fixed or the write phrase pops into your head), just to refresh your memory. To reacquaint yourself. I started rereading my WIP on Tuesday night and discovered I had three characters named Jack in this book. That's two too many. You might notice nuggets of story that could be developed more or a character who's just perfect for that twist you have planned right before the climax. Jot down notes as you go.

Review your story notes
If you made a scene breakdown spreadsheet, congratulations, you can take a look at your original plans for your plot. I made one for my WIP, but veered away from it about 10,000 words ago. Still, reviewing it sparked my memory for what my characters have been through and what I originally planned.

Clarify the black moment, your character's biggest fear, and the lie they believe
I think this is what I need to do now, is go back to the core elements of my story and focus on moving toward those. Main characters should always have a lie in their head (I'm not good enough, or my parents will never approve of me, etc.) Also, your characters should have a biggest fear. Like losing respect of those they work with, or not being able to protect their family.

We haven't talked much about black moments on here (*Pausing entry to jot a note to myself*) but boiled down, the black moment comes in the last 1/4 of your book (typically right before the climax) and it's where your character has lost all hope. Often, it's where their biggest fear comes true and/or where the lie they believe about themselves has never seemed truer. The "black moment" makes the ending so much more satisfying, so much more convincing.

Take a break from writing to read a craft book, listen to a class, or get together with a writing buddy
Because the first draft is the most challenging part of the process for me, sometimes I benefit from a week away to recharge my batteries. To pamper my inner artist. I often read a favorite craft book or try a new one. I just picked up Save the Cat which is actually intended for screenwriters, but I hear it will "revolutionize" the way I write. We shall see.

I have quite a few MP3s from conferences, so listening to one of those can help. So can getting together with a writing friend to brainstorm. By the time I've done one of those, I'm usually itching to get back to story world.

The important thing to keep in mind is that it's not at all unusual to feel like your story is careening out of control. Remember how we talked about writing first drafts is like crafting each individual tree of a forest, as opposed to editing, which is more like evaluating the forest as a whole? When you're as "zoomed in" as writing the first draft requires, sometimes all you need to do is "zoom out" for a bit - read through the manuscript, think about your character's journey - to regain your bearings.

If you have other suggestions, I'd love to hear them! Be back here on Monday for a new writing prompt!


  1. Once, when it was my turn to write chapter in my "collaborate work", I simply could NOT move forward. I was COMPLETELY stuck. So I went back and read the whole story. After that, I was encouraged because it wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it was, and I could continue. :D

    P.S. Could you do a post on editing your first draft sometime? It's what I'm trying to do, but I can't settle down and actually work.
    Also, how much do you usually change your first drafts?

    - Ellyn <3

  2. Ellyn, we'll wrap up our discussion on first drafts in another week or two, and then I'll move onto editing.

    My story usually stays the same, though I often find scenes that need beefing up. I can't say for sure, but in the second draft, just about every line gets tweaked somehow.

  3. I heard about "save the cat" not to long ago. You'll have to let me know if it's worth it.
    Where do you get your mp3s?

  4. Great thoughts. Thank you so much, Stephanie.

  5. That was me. One day, I stopped writing and I was like, "Wait -- THIS was supposed to happen." And it was like, a main thing in my novel. Which was weird. And I've stopped writing it. I need to get back into it. And this post was amazing. [And this comment terribly written. I'm half asleep.]

  6. Tonya, it was definitely worth it to check it out from the library. I don't know if it's one I need to own. If I was a screenwriter, yeah, but probably not as a novelist. We'll see.

    Lol, Emii. Hope you got some sleep :)

  7. Oh, and most conferences have the option of buying mp3s. They can be pricey (I assume because they want people to continue to pay to go to conference) but if you can't go to a conference, it's a good option.

  8. You can also download talks from The Christian Writers Guile conference on
    I did a few weeks ago, the come in a zip file & I couldn't figure out how to open it so I set it aside and your post reminded me. Guess what? I figured out how to unzip it & add it to my iPod this afternoon :)
    The mp3 downloads are $8

  9. Since I subscribe to GoTeenWriters by email, I really look forward to having the emails pop into my inbox from GTW. I know that I will be encouraged and take away a nugget of wisdom, without fail.

    This is one of those posts where I'm nodding my head the whole time until I have to stop or I'll give myself a headache. YES!!!

    The last tip, about the black moment, fear, and lie, especially resonated with me. I stayed up late last night reading The Healer's Apprentice (which I heartily recommend, especially for fairy-tale lovers like me) and the lie was clear and concrete throughout the whole book. Very entertaining read and helped to illustrate this point.

    Thanks, Stephanie!

  10. I am totally reminded of my first draft when I read this. I was over 200 pages and my characters hadn't started their main adventure yet. Ahh! I managed to wrap up the story, but every time I reread it, I feel like I could have written MORE. When I rewrite the book, I am definitely going to add to the end. It just feels a bit rushed.