Monday, December 9, 2013

How to Show Your First Draft Who Is Boss

by Stephanie Morrill

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.
That left me with a choice. If I helped her on the monkey bars, I knew she would probably walk to the car with me and we could drive home and eat lunch. I also knew that would leave her feeling as though she was in control of this situation. So I told her no and gave her the choice of walking to the car or being carried. She responded by wrapping her arms around a pole and screaming that I had to help her on the monkey bars or she would not go to the car. I pried her off the pole and carried her to the car kicking and screaming.

And sometimes you have to do the same thing when you feel like your first draft is being demanding with you and trying to take the reins. Don't hand them over. You're the boss.

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?


54 comments:

  1. Thanks for the post! I've been having a little trouble with my first draft right now, so this is perfect.
    I think for me, the thing that gives me trouble is rabbit trails. I see a good idea that pops onto the page of the first draft and I want to continue on with it, and sometimes those rabbit trails only make the story worse.

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    1. But sometimes I bet those rabbit trails lead to something great, huh? Makes them worth following from time to time!

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  2. The most trouble I seem to have with first drafts is coming up with enough going on, especially in that dreaded middle. Basically, creating the conflict.

    But right now? I'm editing and your last point is so true..."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?'"

    But I'm learning. And I'm getting there slowwwwly. :)

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    1. Oh, and happy birthday to your daughter! My sister's party was Saturday and her birthday is today. :) She's twelve though (which is astounding!).

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    2. I hear ya! Having a six-year-old seems a bit crazy to me! Hope your sister had a great birthday.

      That's a great point about the middle. Sometimes when I've been in a good groove with writing and then hit a block, sometimes it's just because I've forgotten that I need to CREATE conflict. That it won't always magically happen.

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  3. Usually it's getting form point A to point B. About two thirds of the way through I'll hit a place where I know where my characters need to be but I have no idea how to get them there without boring the reader. It always ends up being easier than I thought but I still always have a little panic attack. The only way to beat this is to ask soem questions brainstorm a little and then just keep writing. Moaning about writer's block is always most of the problem anyway since I tend to scare myself into paralysis when I do that.

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    1. I do something similar, Anne-girl. You're right, stepping back for perspective and brainstorming is great, but then you need to write in order to push through it.

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    2. From Amo Libros:
      "Moaning about writer's block is always most of the problem anyway, since I tend to scare myself into paralysis when I do that." Huh. Well. That would explain a lot. Thank you, Anne-girl! (I love the name, by the way!)

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  4. This post made me smile. As a preschool/kindergarten aide, first drafts absolutely relate. There is a time to be understanding and make things work, and there are times to show who's the authority : )

    I'm still working on my first draft, and I already know I'm going to have to evaluate some characters.

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  5. My worry is that my characters will either be boring, or immoral jerks. I want them to have struggles, (how else could they grow,) but how bad can a character be in chapter one? I also put in too much dialogue.

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    1. That's a tough balance to achieve, Michaella. I would suggest having them at least make one good choice or show one redeeming quality during the first few pages. That's not a rule or anything, just a suggestion.

      And too much dialogue is a constant struggle for me!

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    2. From Amo Libros:
      Characters don't always have to start out awful to grow - plenty of heroes start out great, but still grow or learn something through the course of the story. Charlie Bailey (oh, I hope I got his name right!) from "It's a Wonderful Life" would be an excellent example - he's a very selfless person, and yet, becasue he focuses on all the things he didn't get to do or be, he comes nearly to the point of committing suicide - it's up to Clarence (AS2) to show him what a Wonderful Life he's had, and just how important he is to so many people. Charlie always wanted to make a difference - he just didn't realize he'd made a difference by giving up his dreams to help others - or what a difference he had made.

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  6. This post came at a great time. I'm trying to finish my NaNo first draft my Christmas.
    Thanks, Stephanie!
    ~Sarah Faulkner

    inklinedwriters.blogspot.com

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  7. The most trouble I'm getting in my first draft is my male main character who most of the time doesn't like being worked with. But it's NORMAL FOR HIM to not want to be worked with or written about, so it's not THAT much a problem really XD But I do have to remind him who's boss. When my female MC gives me problems, then I know something's wrong because even though she's strong willed too, she doesn't give me problems about writing like my male MC does ^^

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    1. They sound spunky, Lisa :) I bet you have some great conflict in your story!

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    2. Yeah... you could say that. The first chapter is him kidnapping her, after all XD

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  8. Aah! Your kids are both just so gorgeous :)
    I struggle with my character's motivations. I like to have an outline when I write--generally speaking, I'll make three or four separate ones---but oftentimes, it feels as if the characters are just going where I pull them. I have to step back and say, 'Why is she doing this? She obviously doesn't want to go...what makes her?" and I have to brainstorm from there. (This exercise is usually how my characters die, now that I think of it...)

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    1. Sounds like an extreme case of, 'if you aren't doing it my way, then don't play!' Haha! ;)

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    2. Thank you, Anastasia!

      And that's actually a really common problem for people who write from outlines, that the books can read more like a checklist. My guess is you've built in the motivation and just need to work on getting it onto the page in a natural way.

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  9. Great post Stephanie, thank you. It came in the exact right time as I'm starting on my second draft right now. Readign through my first draft I figured out my MC was sometimes all over the place, so I have to fix that along with the black moment not being "black" enough.

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    1. It's nice that you've been able to determine some fixable problems!

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  10. I've hit a block in my writing at the moment. I wrote 60k during NaNoWriMo, but now in the last 9 days I've only written 1000 words...oops.
    My problem is that I'm writing a 'court intrigue' sort of plot, and I'm having trouble following through with all of my plotlines and bringing them to a satisfying ending. When school ends in a few days I need to do some serious plotting and get back on track!
    Thanks for the helpful post :)

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    1. Kate, sometimes that happens to me where I write, write, write. The story seems to dry up in my head. When Roseanna and I did our writing retreat this spring, we each wrote 35k over a weekend. And then both of us had slow writing weeks after that. I think sometimes when you push yourself hard for a period of time, it's natural to need to step back for a bit and rejuvenate.

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    2. I'm glad you said that Stephanie. I wrote 25k for NaNo. Now I've decided to start a new story, and I'm just lacking. I'm not sure what's up, if it's my story that's bad or if its me because I'm a little tired of writing for right now. :) Thanks

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    3. Nice to know I'm not the only one who gets that! :)

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  11. This is perfect. My characters aren't even _my_ characters by halfway through a story -- they're their own people. Which, thankfully, usually works in the story's favour, but I've been a bit worried about my next first draft. Both the main characters are so stubborn, I just know I'll be fighting with them occasionally, even though my writing mantra is "let the characters decide". Ugh. Books are hard. But you're right: non-writers have _no idea_ what pains in the neck characters can be, and how they really do make decisions for themselves. It's almost spooky...

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    1. It is! Where you're like, "Whoa, where'd that come from?" Glad we all have a place where we can talk about it with each other and not feel so crazy :)

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  12. When I see things in my story that I want to edit at a later date, I go through and highlight them on Word. I have different colors for different things. One of my problems is that I kinda haven't planned out my story properly so I started the book and then half way through I changed some of the things I said in the beginning. Right now I'm not sure who exactly my female MC is and I'm not sure she knows either. We'll have to work on that but I am happy to say that my male MC has turned out very nicely and I think he is just like I wanted him to be only with more character. Thanks for the post, it was great!

    HP

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    1. Good idea on using the Microsoft Word highlighter!

      Emma

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  13. This really was a good time for this post! Lately I have been stuck in my story. The characters aren't fighting me exactly... just on strike, I guess. I just need to work my way through it. Thanks!

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  14. My first draft?

    Oh, don't get me STARTED!

    In one novel, I'm only six pages in... And one is still in planning mode... And one has me drifting through the sad realm of Writer's Block. /cries

    Personally, as I've actually finished one novel, the 'dreaded' first draft was actually quite easy. Even though my brain is weird and I deleted the whole thing...

    Odd, huh?
    Tabby (http://tabbys-corner.blogspot.com/)

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  15. Believe it or not, I don't really have that many problems with my first drafts. Second drafts are ten times worst because I don't like revision and taking things that don't belong away from my babies.

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  16. I guess I'm like Roseanna. I've never planned a story out, I've just gone with it. But, I think I might need to start. I have trouble making the plot deep, and something people will want to keep reading. I have trouble adding subplots, and having it all pan out. And, I have trouble with bringing the main event on too fast.
    Any suggestions would be appreciated. :)

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  17. Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou Stephanie!!!!! :)

    This is what I've been needing forever!! ;) Thanks so much. I, uh, hate to admit this, but, um, normally, I hand the reins over to my first draft *ducks head in shame* But I really need to steal them back and take over again. The hardest part in a first draft for me is figuring out what is wrong with one of my characters that is just bouncing off the wall. And I don't even get how the whole character works in the story. *Sigh* First drafts are the hardest for me. I started my 2nd draft of my very first novel about two weeks ago and it has been so much easier to write than when I wrote the first drafts.

    Writing is WEIRD

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    1. Oops, forgot to add a early happy birthday for McKenna! :D

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  18. Wait, you said McKenna turns 6 on December 14? My little brother turns 9 the same day!

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  19. From Amo Libros:
    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mrs. Morrill!!
    Happy Birthday, McKenna!

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  20. This is my favoritest post of yours, Stephanie. Awesomeness in words (which is what we love, right?). Love all these points--and as a preschool teacher the McKenna analogy made it all click for me (though I know she is a sweet girl and have trouble believing you *wink*).

    And Roseanna's example! Man, I remember that ending and, whoa, did it ever work!

    Thank you for this!

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  21. I'm so sorry I haven't been able to respond personally to everyone's great comments. I'll get to it, I promise, but we've had a medical emergency come up. My 3-year-old, Connor, was admitted to the hospital tonight when he had a very long seizure. So my time is absorbed by him right now, but I'll be sure to come back and respond when we've been released from the hospital. Thanks for understanding :)

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    1. Oh my gosh!! Praying for little Connor!! :o

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    2. Oh, that's alright! No rush! Our comments will wait. I hope Connor's okay. I'll pray for y'all.

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    3. Take your time replying!! Hope he'll be doing better soon! I'm praying for you and your family.

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    4. I'll be praying for Connor. I know its not fun to be in the hospital. Get well soon Connor!

      HP

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  22. Thanks so much for this post, Ms. Stephanie! This was exactly what I needed! Happy Birthday to your daughter, Mckenna! Also, I hope that Connor will recover quickly and that he will feel better soon! I'll be praying. :)

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  23. Oh! I'll be praying for the little guy. I know what it's like in the hospital. Happy Birthday McKenna, love that name!

    This is just the post I needed. My female MC is a bit difficult to work with and my male MC just won't stop driving her crazy! Us teens! I really need to get those reins back! I'm the more listening type and my MCs don't exactly know what listening is.
    That example was great, I've gone through the same thing with my horse, but he is 1,000 pounds so I can't exactly pick him up. ;D

    Thank you Ms. Steph!!

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  24. I really like this article. The part about the characters running away with the story really applies to me. Fortunately, I'm too intent on my purpose to let them carry it too far.

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  25. i like this article

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