Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. 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.
I'm glad we're all writers here, because I'm going to talk about that weird phenomenon that we all seem to recognize, but that makes non-writers ("normals" as writer Brandilyn Collins calls them) give us a look like we just grew a second head.
I'm talking about when your first draft isn't going as planned. If the content you didn't anticipate is turning out for good, we say things like, "The book is practically writing itself," or, "I thought my character would do this, but instead he chose such-and-such instead."
But when it's not going well, we might say, "The characters aren't really doing much yet." Or once Jill said to me, "The book just isn't loving me yet."
Our first drafts can feel like a rebellious toddler who want to be in charge. Once when my daughter was three, we were at the neighborhood playground and she was in a rare foul mood. I told her that because of her bad choices, we were leaving. She informed me that she would not be leaving until she went across the monkey bars.
|Yep, this little angel did that! McKenna turns 6 on Saturday, and I'm proud to say has never again thrown a tantrum over leaving the playground.|
But how do you handle a rebellious first draft?
1. Reevaluate your characters.
Sometimes I'll get surprised by something my character says or does. I hear other writers talk about this too. "My character just surprised me by pulling out a knife," or whatever actually applies.
What's really happening when my character seemingly acts independent of me is I've spent enough time with them that when I'm writing, I now react to situations as them rather than thinking through, "Okay, so what is Ellie thinking now that Chase has said that? What should she say back?"
Your first draft is about exploration. You're exploring the facets of these people, same as how you didn't simply understand your best friend the moment you met her. Or how your sister, who you've shared a room with for most your life, can still say things that surprise you.
As the story changes, your character is (or should be) changing too. When you're working on the first draft, you're figuring out how your character will evolve on her journey.
Often it's okay to trust your gut in those situations, but not always. If you're having trouble getting your character to do what you want, and if you can't follow her down the path she's trying to go, then your job becomes to find the right motivation to urge her along the journey.
Katniss doesn't want to go into the arena. The author finds the right motivations - saving the life of her little sister - to get her there.
In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth doesn't want to marry Mr. Darcy, but Austen unravels Mr. Darcy's character until Elizabeth (and the reader) can see why he's the perfect man for her after all.
Characters are like people - they tend to avoid change if they can. You'll have to get creative to keep them engaged in the conflict.
2. Check your story structure.
Roseanna White is a self-described gut writer. She doesn't read craft books, she doesn't storyboard or chart out her stories. She writes by intuition, and she does a lovely job of it.
But sometimes her gut tells her something isn't working and she can't pinpoint why. This happened with her book Love Finds You in Annapolis, Maryland. She had written the first draft and it was a very powerful story ... until about the last 20 pages. And then it just kinda meandered to a close. It wasn't bad, exactly. Just lacking.
Finally, one of her critique partners said, "You know what's missing? The black moment. The way it is now, I have no doubt that it'll work out for Lark and Emerson. We need the black moment."
I know story structure can feel constricting to new writers, or at least it did to me. If it helps, don't think of structure as rules that you must follow. Instead think of it as a tool in your toolbox. Or if you write mostly by gut, you can think of it as a way to check your book to see if you might have forgotten anything important.
3. Investigate the order of your storyworld.
This applies to you no matter what you write. Wherever we live, there are rules, patterns, and truths that we are aware of even if they aren't articulated.
Everyday when my husband leaves work, he calls me to say he's on his way home. We've never had a conversation about whether he should do that, he just does. And if he showed up at home without having called, I would first assume I somehow missed his call, and if not, he would have to explain why he wasn't able to call. It would not feel satisfactory to me if he said, "I just didn't feel like calling today." That violates the natural order of my world and it's out of character for my husband. It would nag at me all night long. It's just so weird. Why didn't he call? Why didn't he want to call?
How annoying would it be if that were in a story and it just never got answered? That's because it violates the natural order that's been established. If you violate the natural order of your storyworld, you have to give a good reason. Sometimes when a story is feeling off, it's because we're trying to make something happen that doesn't fit in the rules and patterns of the world our characters live in.
4. Roll up your sleeves.
I feel like this is becoming my new mantra on here but writing a book is hard work. About half the emails I get from writers include a question that boils down to, "This is hard - can you do this part for me?"
I love helping writers and there is certainly a time and place to have someone else brainstorm ideas with you. But only you can do the actual writing part. No one can hand you a story you're passionate about writing. That has to come from you.
Going back to my story about Roseanna. After she figured out that her story needed a black moment, she had to scrap her original ending and rewrite it. That can be a tough pill to swallow when you thought you were doing final edits before sending it off to the editor. But she did it, and it turned out amazing.
With first drafts being about exploration, you will have to backtrack, cut big sections, and rewrite them if you want to turn out a polished book. I don't like it either. Some days I feel pumped to fix the book. Others, I'm more like, "So...what's new on Pinterest?"
Allow yourself grace - no one can be a writing machine everyday - but if you're serious about creating a good story, you have to push yourself to do the hard work too.
What gives you the most trouble when you're working on a first draft?