Monday, November 18, 2013

Writing a Good Story Is Hard Work: How to Push Through and Find Your Next Step

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

You love your story idea. It's the best idea you've ever hadyou can feel it in your writer's gutand you just know this will be The Book. The one you will love enough to write the entire thing. That you will edit. That you will create all that marketing copy for (the back cover blurb, the one line pitch) and take with you to writers conferences. The one you're willing to risk it all for because it's The Book.

Fast-forward several months and there you are in your normal Stuck Place. Most writers I know have one. Mine tend to be at 75% of the way through the first draft, or in the early stages of editing. What's going on? you find yourself wondering. This is The Book. The idea was so good, this wasn't supposed to happen!

Is this sounding familiar to anyone? If so:

You are a normal writer.

Sarah Dessen, New York Times bestselling author of 11 great, award-winning YA books, has been quoted as saying that her favorite book is the one she's going to write next. Because the flaws and cracks in the story haven't appeared yet. It's still perfect in her head.

That fills me with a sense of relief, to hear that a veteran like her struggles after the initial excitement of an idea wears off.

So how do you get over it?

1. You figure out what you need for motivation. Is it NaNo? Is it designing a book cover and hanging it by your computer? Is it telling people you'll have a first draft by the end of the month, creating pressure to deliver on your promise?

We all have a Stuck Place in the writing process. And maybe we have one in the editing process too; I've learned that I do. But don't make the mistake of interpreting being in your Stuck Place as an indicator that the book stinks or you stink. You don't stink. You're just stuck.

2. You grit your teeth and do the thing...or you walk away.

Once you've found your motivation, whatever it is, you now get to grind out the words.

Or not.

Walking away from a manuscript doesn't mean you'll never finish it. I walked away from the book that became Me, Just Different several times during the four years I worked on it. I kept coming back to it because it was The Book. But I was frustrated because I was learning that even when you're writing something you love:


And it's a process to figure out how it works.

It makes me think of how a few years ago, my husband started running over his lunch break. He found it fun, apparently. (This is mysterious to me, but my love of writing is mysterious to him, so it works out.) Ben ran as a hobby. He wore regular sneakers, cotton T-shirts, and didn't really track his pace or distance. He would peek at a map to estimate how far he had run, but that was about it.

I was like that with writing in middle school and early high school. I loved writing, and whenever the fancy struck, I scribbled stories in notebooks using markers. I didn't care about proper story form. I didn't even know it existed, really.

As my husband ran more consistently, he met other coworkers who headed out for a run on their lunch breaks too. These people were more serious about running than he was, and they had all run in races. After talking to them, Ben decided he wanted to try running a marathon. Because this is obviously different than running three miles over your lunch break, he looked up training plans and studied what it took to train your body to run 26.2 miles.

In high school, during my junior year, I became increasingly obsessed with writing a real novel. I had always wanted to write novels, but now I was reading books like Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott in my English class. It was the first time I had ever had the chance to read about another writer and her process. Reading that book didn't just crank up my desire to write a novel, it equipped me with the tools I needed to finish my book.

Ben put in the training to run a marathon. And it cost him. It meant getting up early on cold, drizzly Saturday mornings to run 18 difficult miles. It meant buying proper gear, enduring knee pain, and living with a wife who didn't quite understand how she wound up married to a runner.

But he did it. He crossed the finish line. He ran a marathon. And while those early days of running certainly played a part in his success, he was a very different runner than when he started out. He did not cross the finish line in a cotton T-shirt and basketball shoes.

Ben running his first marathon
By the time I signed my first contract, I no longer looked like a hobby writer. I owned a dozen writing books, belonged to two writing organizations, had attended three writers conferences, and had sat in writing classes. I had logged lots of time at my desk too. In the years between high school and signing my contract, I wrote a handful of full-length books and countless story beginnings.

But there was still a lot of work to be done.

When my husband ran his first marathon, I thought he would cross "26.2" off the life goals list and move on. But, no. Because he's a runner. And runners run. Now that he'd found he could do it, the question became how could he do it better? How could he get faster? How could he get rid of his knee pain?

And isn't it the same for us? I was never in this to write a novel. I was in this to write. So when I finish a book, I start asking what kind of book I want to write next. How can I get better? What new technique do I want to try?

A couple final thoughts:

Maybe it's not you that's holding you back from finishing your book. Maybe it's the idea. When I say that, I don't mean your book idea is a bad one. I've had ideas that are good, but I'm just not ready to write them yet. Or maybe I like the idea ... but I don't love the idea. I need to love the idea to finish a book. This is a link to a post that talks about when you should give up on an idea.

Focus on the next step you need to take. One writer emailed me to say she was feeling bad because she's been writing for two years now but can't make it past a first draft. My feelings on that are, "Hooray! You can write a first draft!" I mean, that's HUGE. NaNoWriMo exists because of how many people WANT to write a book but never do. And this writer has done that!

But to grow, the writer needs to figure out what it'll take to motivate herself through the editing process. Maybe part of it is a knowledge thing. Maybe she needs to study books like Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell and find the tools to equip her for this part of her journey.

Or maybe she's already done the studying and needs to apply it. That could involve grabbing a couple writers and having a NaNo"Edit"Mo together. Or maybe she can find someone to hold her accountable and say, "By the end of this week, I want to have completed my first read-through of my book. Can you ask me about it on Friday?"

If you're feeling stuck with where you are in the process of growing as a writer, try to figure out what your next step ispreferably without panicking over the step that's three or four awayand what you'll need to motivate you through.

Other posts that may interest you:
A progressive checklist for writers. (Gosh, I also talk about my husband's running in this one. I might be a wee bit obsessed with the man. Good thing I married him, or that could get weird.)


  1. Thanks for the post Stephanie! It's really helpful.
    I never thought an idea could be a bad one...

    1. I'm uncomfortable with saying a story idea is bad. It might not work for a variety of reasons, or it might be the wrong idea for you to write (at least now), but I haven't seen many flat-out bad story ideas.

  2. LOL, I cracked up at that last line...good thing indeed ;)

    Thanks for the post! It's always a good reminder that this writing thing really just isn't easy and never will be. But who cares? Let's do it anyway. :)

    Among other news...I finished another first draft on Saturday! WHOOOOO! Super exciting because I've now officially written something novel-length; it's about 60,000 words. I find it so amusing that I wrote the first half in 5 and a half months and the second half in two weeks. Thank you NaNo. xD Today...diving into the sequel. That's something really new to me, so we'll see how this goes.

    1. That was going to be my comment too--that I was literally laughing out loud on her final parenthetical. ;-)

      And congrats on your first draft!!

    2. Congratulations, Amanda! That's so exciting!

    3. Thanks :)

    4. From Amo Libros:
      EEEEE!!! Well done, Amanda!!!

    5. Thanks to you too! :)

    6. *throws streamers* CONGRATULATIONS!!! :D

  3. Thank you so much for posting this Miss Stephanie! I always love hearing about other writers who started out with the same problems I'm having, but who persevered and succeeded.
    I had a question about "writing books". I haven't read any books about writing novels, and I was wondering what a few of your top favorites were.
    Again, thank you for all the great posts!

    1. Great question! Two classics that I love are Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and On Writing by Stephen King. Both of these have some language in them, so if you offend easily, they might not be best.

      Another great one is Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing the Breakout Novel workbook by Donald Maass. Also a worthwhile read and if there's language in there, I don't remember it.

      Currently I'm reading Write Away by Elizabeth George. It's really interesting and I'm doing a lot of underlining, so I think it may be a new favorite.

  4. Lovely post, Stephanie! I'm trying to figure out editing and push through that.

    By the way, I read both of the Ellie Sweet books last week and I really liked them! The second one was my favorite.

    ~Robyn Hoode

    1. Oh, thank you! That's so kind of you to say.

      Editing gets easier with time, if it's any consolation. Same as writing does. Each story has its own unique issues, of course, but you get used to the process.

    2. So you did like the second one, Robyn! Told you! :)

    3. The second one was amazing, Amanda.


    4. You're very welcome. :)


  5. LOL about your husband, Stephanie, that's so cute!!

    Thank you so much for this post, it was SO helpful! I think part of the problem with my last two drafts was I just wasn't passionate about them in the long term, they're weren't GREAT ideas, just average ones.
    Thanks for the tips on how to push through, Stephanie! Very encouraging! :D I will definitely look into starting a nanoedmo or looking into a craft book! :)

    1. I'm glad it was helpful, Allison! Thanks for asking such a great question.

  6. "Good thing I married him, or that could get weird."

    I think I laughed for a solid 5 minutes.

    Back to serious-mode (if I even have one), thanks for another great post. I have an idea that I love but, as you said, am not ready for. I have another idea that's revving to go, but I have some huge exams this year so am holding off the first draft until the summer and just planning for now. And of other, slightly more random news, thank you SO MUCH for recommending all these wonderful craft books. I have the whole Plot and Structure, Revision and Self-editing, Description and Setting etc series on my Christmas list. But I forgot about Bird by Bird! Shoot. Already have the GTW book, and I'm getting it for my friend in February for her birthday. I know she'll love it :)

    1. Thanks so much, Hannah! I'm touched you like it enough to buy it for a friend.

  7. Thank you so much Stephanie for this post!! :D Lately I've been having troubles with my stories (thankfully not my NaNo novel!)

    In other words, I am almost 40% done with Your second Ellie Sweet book. I adore Ellie, Palmer, and Chase! You are such a good writer!!

  8. LOL! My main male character has the same name as your husband Stephanie! I could definitely use some motivation on occasion. There are times when I just get stuck and since I don't have an outline (bad idea) I have to figure out what I'm going to write next and pull it out of thin air. Especially since I'm doing 100 4 100. I've gone to highlighting the areas that I am marking for demolition after 100 4 100 is over (I don't want to mess up my word count). Anyway, I'll find some way to get motivated. My family is a big help when it comes to ideas for what could happen next in my story. Thanks for the post!


    1. I love that you have a helpful family! How great!

  9. Thanks for the wonderful post as normal this morning. My power's been out for the last 16 hours and during the dark hours on this morning I finished the last have of the GTW book. It's so good! Thanks for writing such an amazing field guide for us. I now wish I had it in hard copy and not just the e-book so I could highlight and flip through at will.
    You rock, Stephanie! Don't know if I've told you that recently.

    ~Sarah Faulkner

    1. I like the highlights feature on Kindles, but it just isn't the same as the book. I totally understand!

  10. Ah, this is so wonderful! I'm currently tying up a first draft of one novel and working on draft six of another. I'm pretty sure that my "Stuck Place" is somewhere around draft goodness.
    Thanks so much for your encouragement!

    1. Hopefully just labeling it as your Stuck Place will get you through!

  11. From Amo Libros:
    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Oh, Thank God, 3/4 is exactly how far I got when my novel ground to a halt. I couldn't figure out exactly what had gone wrong, and that pernicious little voice inside my head that likes to speak deepest (and untrue) fears kept whispering "You failed. You failed on the one book you know God wanted you to write, the one book you were born to write." Total lie of course, but terrifying all the same.
    BUT I'M NOT THE ONLY ONE!! Take THAT, lying voice!
    *sings*: Thank you, thank you, thank you!!! I am SO printing this post off (if that's OK, of course).
    Thank you!! *hugs*

    1. Of course you can print it out! And it's so great when you figure out where you Stuck Place is because then you can remind yourself next time you run out of steam at the 3/4 mark. I usually panic for a day or two before I remember :-/

  12. I'm in love with that quote from Sarah Dessen. YES. I so often get stuck beginning books. It IS perfect in my head and it sucks to start a book and realise how cliche/rough/boring/one dimensional it all sounds on page. It was waaaay better in my head.

  13. I understand what you mean when you say you aren't ready for some ideas yet. I've got a great idea for the future, but I know I don't have time to write it that extensively. I'd have to do soooooo much research to get anywhere positive. So instead, if I have an idea that has to do with that concept, I write it down to save for later.