Monday, February 17, 2014

How To Cope When You're Stuck In Your First Draft

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 including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

As I've discussed on here, I'm a plantser when it comes to figuring out my novels. I typically:


  • Write a blurb similar to backcover copy. (Sometimes my ideas now come to me in the form of backcover copy. It's quite handy.)
  • Spend some time letting the idea simmer. I'll carry around a pad of Post-Its and a Sharpie and jot down thoughts about the story. Sometimes I post them on my board just to get idea of how the story is fitting together.
  • When I have my idea for the first line and opening scene, I write the first couple chapters of the book. Once I've spent time in the storyworld, I have a clearer idea of what of my original ideas will work and what won't. Like in the book I'm working on now (which is a 1920's mystery, kind of a Veronica Mars meets Great Gatsby feel) I thought my main character's brother killed the girl. But after I wrote those chapters, I just didn't get a murderer vibe from him, and I had to reevaluate.
  • After those first few chapters, I'm ready to figure out the rest of the book. Usually that involves a couple things:
    • Making a list of what I think will happen and trying to figure out my major plot turns.
    • Writing a 2-3 page synopsis. (Sometimes I have to write half of the synopsis, then work on the list, and then come back to the synopsis. Not sure why.)
    • An emergency phone call to a writer friend. Last Monday, Roseanna White helped me hammer out my 1920's book. I'm also in a group with several other YA writers, and they will frequently help me as well.
  • Now I'm ready to write.
And once I've switched my brain from brainstorming mode to writing-the-first-draft mode, I usually get in a good groove with the story. I'm not thinking about my synopsis or my Post-it notes, I'm just writing. If I'm getting consistent writing time, then I typically hit that magical place where I know my characters so well that it feels as though the story is writing itself. Ideas for plot twists come along and surprise me, and yet they feel just right for the book. Everything is unfolding so rapidly that it seems like - for the first time - I'll be able to just write, write, write myself all the way to the bittersweet ending.

Without fail, however, I hit a block somewhere around 60 to 70% of the way through the book. It's typically the place where I'm trying to wrap up the middle part of the story and nudge my characters toward the climax.

That's when all those great plot twists and backstory ideas that came out of nowhere when I was in my writing groove start to mess with me. While I like them better than what I came up with during my original brainstorming, it also means that my plans for the last quarter of the book don't work so great anymore. What to do?

1. Don't panic.

But I always forget this until I email Roseanna all panicky and she's like, "Hey, you do this every time and we always get it worked out. Don't panic."

As you gear up for the climax scene in your book, it's super common to feel like you've got so many loose threads, you'll never be able to tie them up well. Try to tell yourself that it's normal to feel this way, and that you're almost through it.

2. Don't revise - it's not time yet.

It's certainly close to the time, and that's what makes it all the more tempting. 

As a young writer, I flitted from idea to idea and barely ever wrote more than an opening chapter or two. Then I decided to buckle down and write a whole book. When I hit this block in the first draft, I panicked and started to re-read everything I had written. I wanted to be sure I was remembering everything in the story correctly, but it only made me panic more because I saw all the gaping holes that needed to be fixed.

I started thinking, "I don't need to finish the book yet because look at all these mistakes! I need to fix these before I even consider writing the ending."

But the best time to do revisions is after you've written the conclusion of your book. I know it makes your inner editor frantic because it does mine too. Tell her she needs to sit down and be quiet. It'll be her turn next.

3. Indulge yourself with another brainstorming session.

This can be hard because up until now I've been in a groove and blowing away word count goals for weeks. It's hard to go back to just thinking about the story and the characters. Here are some ideas for what you can do:
  • Spend some time doing a character journal for your antagonist, or for another character who wound up playing a bigger role than you anticipated.
  • Make a list of surprising things that could happen at the end of the book. A lot of them might be too far out there to be useful, but you also might strike gold.
  • Pull in your writing friends again. Tell them where you're stuck and see if they have any thoughts. This can be great because they'll throw out suggestions that are great, but would be a lot of work. I don't know about you, but my brain tends to search for ideas that are great but require minimal effort.
  • Put the shower principle to work. (Or whatever we call the fact that we always seem to get our best ideas when we're not actively trying.) Go for a walk or vacuum or sketch your characters. Don't try to force the words because you have a goal of a thousand words a day. Remind yourself that once you have this figured out, you'll get back into a groove.
4. Press on.

All you need, really, is the idea for the next scene. When you have that, write it! Even if you're still not 100% about how the rest of the book is going to play out. Pushing through the block by writing the next scene can get you there.

Have you noticed a place where you commonly struggle in the first draft? What do you do when that happens?



33 comments:

  1. I once left a manuscript with ONE CHAPTER left to write. It sat there for something ridiculous like a year, because I knew it needed major revisions, and I just didn't feel like writing an ending to a book that was so messed up. Finally made myself finish it. But usually, my difficulty comes more in time-spent than a particular place in a MS. I think it's the 3-month mark. That's where I start bemoaning my lack of time to write and get convinced that this book will never be finished, and if it is, it will never be any good... That, of course, is when I email Stephanie in a total funk and moan and groan... ;-)

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    1. And I'm happy to listen :)

      One chapter left??? Did you ever do revisions?

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    2. No, I never revised it--it was the sequel to Yesterday's Tides, so without selling that one, there was really no reason to dig into it...

      And oh how happy I am to have someone to moan and groan to. =)

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  2. I'm stuck right at chapter 3. I'm being double teamed with flat and confusing characters.

    But this was good advice. I think what I need to do is sit down and brainstorm. Get a better feel for my main character before getting back into the story. Otherwise, this whole story could be a big disaster. And that last thought also makes me a little panicky.

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    1. That's a common stuck place of mine too. In my early days, that's when I would switch to a new, exciting story idea. But now I know that all I need is time to figure out how my characters will get from point A to point B. (And, frequently, I need to figure out what Point B even is.) Hang in there!

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  3. I'm kind of stuck at the moment with a bunch of scenes but no main plot... I'm totally going to do something along the lines of your plot chart photo, though, that seems so awesome. :D

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    1. The plot chart makes me very happy. Partly because it looks very official and writer-ish :) But there's something about having that visual reminder that the story needs to escalate that makes it easier for me to think through scenes.

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  4. I have two chapters left in my WIP. For whatever reason I can't write them. I'm pushing through thanks for the tips. I find it hard to write when it seems like my books are headed for the trash can.

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    1. Yes, that's a very discouraging feeling :( I would plan a reward for yourself. Movie marathon, ice cream, paintball, whatever does it for you.

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  5. thanks so much for posting that. i think that's one of my main struggles when writing.. i write and write frantically, and then BAM.. i can't think of another thing to write. Sometimes i have several different plots for throughout my story, but i can't connect them all so it runs smoothly!

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    1. I do that too, where I dry up. When Roseanna and I did our writing retreat last year, I wrote 35k in three days. And then barely wrote a thousand words during the whole next week. The ebb and flow is very natural. And connecting plot lines sometimes happens for me in the first draft, but frequently it's in edits as well, so don't be too hard on yourself :)

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  6. A 1920s mystery? That sounds so intriguing, Stephanie!

    A few days ago I was stuck in my WIP, and every idea I came up with didn't make sense in my mind. Normally I don't get writer's block so close to the ending of a story, but I really had no idea what to write next. Fortunately, after brainstorming with some writer friends, I finally got an idea for the next scene. With this new idea it'll mean I'll have to revise a lot in the beginning of the story, but that's okay. At least I'm writing again :) Thanks so much for the advice!

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    1. Thanks, Jillian! I'm still in the early stages of it, but it's been a very stretching experience so far. In a fun way.

      And you didn't even need my advice! You'd figured it out for yourself :) Glad to hear you're back at it!

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  7. I'm maybe half-way through my WIP (though for some reason it seems a lot closer to the end, in my mind) and I know I'll have a LOT of editing to do, but it'll be ok. :) Thanks for the post it was great!!

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    1. It's just part of the process, so don't let the need to edit get you down :)

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  8. I'm in my second draft right now, but this post seems applicable still. I revised the first three chapters, only to figure out I would like to brainstorm and all some more to tighten my plot and characters before carrying on with my second draft. So I'm kind of in the "stage 3" part right now

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    1. I used to think I would find "my system" and then writing books wouldn't feel so messy, but I still haven't. Even when I'm working within my normal system, I still have to remind myself to trust the process. Good for you, taking time to work hard on revisions!

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  9. I'm on my 2nd draft for one of my novels at the moment. But for me first drafts are the hardest (not that revision is a walk in the park). Thanks for this post! And a 1920s mystery sounds extremely interesting.
    ~Annie-Jo
    PS. I've always wondered how you do those whiteboards or pin boards with a plot chart so perfectly. How do you actually make one?

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    1. I cut a long sheet of paper off my daughter's art easel and then used a ruler to draw the graph. I've used it a couple times, and I think the next one I make will be longer. I have a hard time getting all my Post-its on there!

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  10. Am I stuck? Oh yeah. Right now my problem is that I know all of my characters better than I do my main character. I hardly know anything about her so what I have decided to do is sit down and write a list of things about her and what makes her worthy to be a MC. Lets hope it works.

    HP

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    1. I'm glad you've decided on a course of action! That's great!

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  11. As much as it bugs me half to death, after the first few chapters my excitement and anticipation for how great my novel is going to be dies down, and then I don't feel motivated to keep it going. My inner editor kicks in, tells me it's not good enough, and I can hardly ever finish a story - even a short one, at that - because of it.

    Sometimes I have to force myself to keep going even when I start to hate the story, the plot, the characters and everything about the book because "it's not as good as this book I just read" and in the end, I'm really proud of myself. I just have to remind myself over and over again how great it will feel when I finally do finish the final product.

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  12. I was about 30,000 words into one of my stories when I realized the plot needed some attention; however, I've let it simmer for a few months while working on other projects, and I've come up with some cool ideas. By the way, do you have any tips on researching for historical settings? I have one story set in the 1700s England and another set in late 1800s England.

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    1. Hi Emma! I'm not Mrs. Morrill, but I remembered a previous post here that might help you. :)

      http://goteenwriters.blogspot.com/2013/08/how-do-i-start-researching-for-my-novel.html

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  13. The moaning and groaning and panicking sounds familiar...

    I'm not sure if I have a spot yet. Everything still feels a little all over the place. :P But something I seem to have trouble with is actually starting something. Be it the next chapter of a book, brainstorming, a dreaded item on the to-do list...I'll keep putting it off and it only seems worse in my mind. I've learned once I actually start something, it's sooooo much easier to keep going.

    For example, since NaNo I haven't really written anything on my WIP. Mainly because I was finishing editing the other book. Now I'm trying to get back into it, but it's been so long it's slow and painful. Ugh!

    Anyway though, thanks for the post!

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  14. I hate first drafts. And actually, I've never made it past them. But my friend and I are writing a book, and it's really kept me going a lot farther than I've ever gone with others. But we've hit a bit of writers block. *Shudders* It's awful when your zooming right through and then suddenly it's like, now what? But we've gotten really far and I'm proud. Even though it needs desperate editing. ;P

    I am going to try that chart thingy. It looks pretty cool. :)

    Your awesome post came at just the right time, Mrs. Steph!! :)

    teenwordsofsteel.blogspot.com

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  15. I'm still in the first few chapters of my story. I think I can make up pretty good characters and scenes, but the plot is still missing! *moan*
    By the way, after February can I still earn, just not redeem GoTeenWriter points? Thanks

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    1. Yah, that's what I've heard in other comments. :)

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  16. Every draft without fail it's been 10k. I hit that and go, I just spent ten thousand words on these characters they're still flat and/or I hate them. And did I really only hit the first five plot points (out of an obscene amount) in 10k?

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  17. I'm stuck in the middle of chapter four, and this (between chapters three and five) is when I usually get stuck. I wrote a beginning and now have realized that it really tells you practically nothing about the characters, and they seem like robots. I've written the beginnings to three different books (if you count my current WIP) because I couldn't find a story I liked. I finally did find one I liked (my current WIP), but now I've gotten stuck in this middle point where I know where I want the story to go, but I don't know how to get to it. And I feel like I want to rewrite the beginning. (I've started rewriting it because I know if I don't rewrite the beginning now, I might have to completely rewrite the entire book afterward because I've left things out key to later in the book, and I can't add them in in the middle."

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  18. Great tips! I particularly liked the bit about indulging in a brainstorm session. Brainstorming is the funniest and easiest part of writing for me, but it can be a productive way to get out of a brain freeze.

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  19. I really like this article. VERY useful. Thanks! :)

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