Friday, May 16, 2014

5 Tips for Finishing Your First Draft

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 including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

I've had several writers email me in the last few weeks who say they struggle to finish first drafts. I can relate. I was such a flighty writer in my early days, only wanting to work on stories for a few chapters before switching to another, that buckling down and writing a full-length manuscript was hard for me.

And with the quote I posted on Tuesday from James Scott Bell and then Jill's fabulous post on Wednesday inspired by the book Do Hard Things, today seemed like a good day to address this question.

I don't know your individual struggles. Maybe you're having a tough time getting words on the page because you're battling health problems, or because it's the season for finals and graduations. Maybe your family is in a time of crisis or a strained friendship is weighing you down. Please remember that there's a time to have grace with yourself. In seasons when life is hard, you need to give yourself permission to not write.

Or maybe life is full of great, non-writing things. You're graduating or going on a mission trip or backpacking through Europe. Writing isn't all about racking up words.

But sometimes it's not a busy life season, and you still struggle. Each word feels hard. Or you've lost your passion for the story. Or you're discouraged because you lost a contest/had a rough rejection/read an amazing book.

If you're in that place, here are 5 suggestions I have to get you back on track for finishing your book:

1. Pinpoint where you struggle and brainstorm how to solve it.

When my husband and I were newly married, instead of finding a part-time job, Ben encouraged me to write books instead. I worked an awesome freelance gig that took me out of town a few weeks a year, but otherwise my time was my own.

And I couldn't seem to finish a first draft.

I was working on a story idea that I loved, that I was desperate to write, and still I couldn't seem to crack the halfway point before I would realize something that needed to be changed. Or I would have an idea for how to open the book better and set to work re-writing my first few chapters.

My husband, who's a mechanical engineer and had never read a single writing craft book, diagnosed my problem with ease. He suggested I try writing my first draft without editing. He based this suggestion on some engineering principle that I would butcher if I tried to explain, but basically the idea was that I was nit-picking instead of using the first draft for what it's mean tot bea rough draft. Not a perfect draft or a complete draft, but a rough draft. I was trying to take the "rough" out of it, and in doing so, I was preventing myself from finishing the draft and moving on to the next part of the process.

This seemed brilliant to me. I took his advice, and I finish my rough draft within the month. And I've used the "write a bad first draft" principle ever since.

What is that you are struggling with? Maybe it's not perfectionism like it was for me. Maybe your idea is so good that you're not sure how to go about writing it. Or sometimes an idea is so personal, you don't feel satisfied that you're doing it justice. Or maybe you've struggled to find an idea that feels big enough, good enough, to be a real book. Maybe you're plagued with self-doubt.

Us writers are incredibly skilled at finding reasons not to write. What's yours?

2. Kill squirrels.

We all have shiny objects in our lives that distract us from our goals. Let me be perfectly clear that I'm in NO WAY talking about homework or siblings or children or parents or any of those responsibilities we have as people. While I do sometimes have to draw back from my family for a week or two when I need to meet a deadline, that isn't the balance of life that I'm striving for.

What are my squirrels? The three biggest are Pinterest, email, and snacking. When it's writing time, those are my three main distractions.

I'm just anti-social enough that chatting with friends, texting, and lunch dates are NOT squirrels for me. I'm in the habit now of saying no to those things, but they could easily be squirrels. Chit-chatting or venting with my best friend can feel a lot more fun than struggling through a scene that's giving me trouble.

The best trick for me when I need to minimize squirrels is to set my timer. I set it for 25 minutes and the rule is that I have to write (or edit, whatever it is) until the timer goes off. Then I can have five minutes to peek at email, grab a snack, and browse Pinterest.

Have you found ways to curb your squirrel-chasing desires? Please share if you have!

3. Find someone who will hold you accountable.

I knew I had a problem, but I couldn't seem to stop myself.

We had so much candy in the house, and I was eating it all the time. Way, way more than I should have been. And, sadly, the fact that it's not healthy for me wasn't enough of a motivation to curb myself.

Finally I determined that I would be embarrassed if Ben knew how much candy I was eating every day, and that I would feel too guilty to lie about it. So I asked him to please start asking me daily about how much candy I had eaten. That did the trick. While it hasn't made me stop wanting to eat candy all the time, knowing that he will ask and I will have to tell him the turth has steered me toward better choices.

Is there a way that accountability could help you in your struggles to finish your book? What's a question that you could have someone ask you?

4. Make good (daily) choices.

"Life goals are reached by setting annual goals. Annual goals are reached by reaching daily goals. Daily goals are reached by doing things which may be uncomfortable at first but eventually become habits. Habits are powerful things. Habits turn actions into attitudes and attitudes into lifestyles."
-Charlene Armitage
from The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth by John Maxwell

I do it automatically now. Once Connor is down for his nap, I walk past the mess of toys, the dishes in the sink, the laundry that is waiting to be folded, and I go down to my office. I crank the baby monitor as high as it will go (in case this is the day that his seizures start back up) and I write until he wakes up or it's time to pick up McKenna from school. 

I don't feel guilty about the laundry. I don't even consider reaching for a novel and curling up for an hour of pleasure reading. The work that comes with being an authorwriting, editing, blogginghas become a habit. And it became a habit because I chose it daily. 

That's the way you finish a bookyou make a choice each day to work on it. Even if it doesn't feel like the thing you most want to do at that moment, if you choose it more days than not, eventually it'll become a habit. And not in a boring wayI can't remember the last day I was bored while working, because I adore my job!just in a way that gives you mental peace. (Or as much mental peace as a writer is capable of.)

5. Celebrate your victories.

The big moments in the writing life are few and far between, even for a published author. You don't get The Call from your agent that often. Once a year if you're lucky. Twice a year if you're extremely lucky. Release days don't happen too often either.

One of the habits you should work to cultivate is to celebrate your victories along the way. Was that chapter one of the hardest you've ever written? Dish yourself a bowl of ice cream. Did you meet your writing goal for the day? Kick back and watch your favorite TV showguilt-free. Finish a first draft? Hit the movies with your best friend.

Even as a writer who loves writing, there are days where I'm having to sweet-talk my way to my goal. Just a few more minutes and then you can get a snack. If you hit your word goal now, it means you'll be able to watch 24 tonight. 

If finishing a novel were easy, everybody would do it. Going back to Jill's post on Wednesday, you're choosing something hard. And there are rewards that come with it, but there are struggles too. Even for published writers who have finished dozens of novels. 

If you're struggling (or celebrating!) today, please share in the comments. We'd love to walk alongside you today!


  1. This may have been exactly what I needed today. I just have to write a few more chapters to finish my CampNaNoWriMo draft, but I'm struggling so much now that April is over. I keep getting frustrated over how messy and unstructured it is, but I think I just need to remind myself that it's a draft. It doesn't matter if it's sloppy. At least, not yet... Thank you!

  2. I am struggling because I keep getting story ideas. I start one, and then don't think that its The One. Then, I come up with another idea and the process starts over.

    1. I used to have that too, Alea. Then I tried to really 'get into' and think about and work with one story. Now with all the work I've done, I don't want to go and do it over with another story, even if it sounds better. :) I hope you can do that too.

  3. I haven't had time to write, lately (thank you, dear teachers. I appreciate it. Not). I'm planning to do CampNaNo in July, but I'm not writing a first draft right now. But still these points are valuable, especially number #2. It really works!

  4. Patience BledsoeMay 16, 2014 at 8:30 AM

    Wow. Thank you, Mrs. Morrill! This post was just what I needed, and I found it such a blessing. I read, ". . . or a strained friendship is weighing you down." That's me. ;) I participated in Camp NaNo, and had my word-count set to a goal of 30K; I reached it with almost two weeks left to go, and was aiming for 40K. My friendship troubles climaxed three days after I reached the 30K, and in the days after that for Camp NaNo, barely made it to 34K. I haven't written anything in my first draft since then. Struggling with the friendship problems - especially since they came because of my writing (they don't agree with the Christian romance in my book) - has been really hard, and I know I need to get back to writing; yet I just feel . . . stuck.

    "Please remember there's a time to have grace with yourself" stood out to me. :) It's difficult, and I want to move on; I hope to move on very soon.

    Thank you again for the post! It came as an encouragement to me. And a great inspiration! :)

  5. These are great tips, Stephanie! Every time I find a video I'd like to watch or an article I want to read, I tell myself that I can't look at it until I have finished at least one scene/chapter. I don't know how I would motivate myself to meet my daily goals otherwise, especially with so many distractions circulating around on the internet. =)


  6. oh my word, this was EXACTLY what I needed to read today. I'm at the final 30,000 words of my rough draft and while I've finally figured out this go around to write a bad rough draft I'm struggling with some inbetween chapters. My reward for finishing them will be to finish the final chapter (oh how I am longing for that one). Saving this. THANK YOU!

  7. Thank you so much for this post, Mrs. Morrill! MY struggle is definitely reading AMAZING books {for instance- Mrs. Williamson's Blood of Kings series, Lord of the Rings :) } Also, the "rough" part of the first draft- I'm a perfectionist :) I haven't finished my first draft yet, bet everything still applies to me, if not more :) Aaaah, Pinterest- SO many pins about writing........and everything else possible :) Once I start writing, I'm fine, but I have to get off before that. Sometimes I will leave it in another room, and I will not get it until I'm finished :) kind of like a reward!! Again, thank you SO MUCH for this post!! GoTeenWriters is such an encouragement to me :) and when those days come along when I don't know what to write- I can look on here on how to kill characters and other wonderful writing stuff >:)


  8. Aw, Stephanie, thank you so much!! I really needed to read this today.

  9. My usual writing routine involves interrupting myself with Facebook, email, and Pinterest every couple sentence or so. BUT THAT WORKED FOR ME. But I didn't stay on pinterest for hours. Usually I barely even looked, I just changed the tab for two seconds and then went back to writing. That's probably NOT the best way to write, so if you're really easily distracted and STAY distracted, please please do not try that, or I'll feel bad XD

    But anyway, the other day, I realized that I was getting distracted TOO much and I wasn't writing hardly anything. So, to get away from the squirrels, //I made a whole new user account on my laptop.// I named it 'Serious Stuff' and if I'm having a hard time staying focused on my manuscript, I switch user from my main account(I don't make myself close everything and LOG OFF, I just switch user) and I go to the other account and I ONLY open my manuscript. No email, no blogs, no facebook, no nothing. I only have my manuscript open and it makes me write. Then, after I write a page or two or a chapter, I allow myself back on my main account for a few minutes as a reward. It's working great for me and I love it.

    As for being accountable, my mom helped me with this a while ago and at the time, it didn't even pertain to writing, but I've applied to to almost every area of my life. It's also good for strengthening your character XD
    First: You're a trustworthy person, right? You would die rather than lie to your best friend or break a promise to her, right?
    Second: You would feel betrayed and let down if your best friend lied to you or broke a promise to you right? So you are a trustworthy person, AND you would hate it if someone was untrustworthy to you.

    So make promises to yourself //and keep them.// You'd keep a promise that you made to someone else, and you would expect someone else to keep a promise they made to you, so give yourself the same respect. Promise yourself things and make yourself keep those promises. Sometimes they're hard. A couple weeks ago, I promised myself I wouldn't eat chocolate until I finished my first draft. I'm probably not going to finish it for several more weeks. I WANT CHOCOLATE SO BAD RIGHT NOW. But I can't break my word to myself, because I want to be a person of my word.

    *gets off soap box* okay that's my speech, I hope it helps someone XD

    1. Wow, making a whole other user account is a very...original idea! I'm not sure I can do that (I don't have my own computer), but it's still cool.

    2. You could use it for anything really. School, work, projects. Anything that you don't want to be distracted while working on ^^ That's why I named mine 'Serious Stuff' instead of just 'Writing stuff' XD

  10. Such an encouraging post. Good to remind myself that not every word I write needs to come out perfectly. I'm allowed to screw up and press that backspace button as many times I need. :)

    Write now, I've a got a new story idea. It took a looonnngg time for it to come because of all the "life" stuff. But now it's here, and I love it and am excited about. I'm in the "honeymoon" phase I think, where all my characters are behaving, the plot is layering itself nicely, and I'm caught up in the story world once again. My biggest "squirrel" can be this phase in of itself. Because sometimes I love my story building/brainstorming phase so much that I don't want to even write it. I just want to research it, post pins on Pinterest about it, and stay up late plotting it in my head. But I know that pretty soon, I'm just going to need to sit down and write it. Those first couple paragraphs are some of the scariest to write, because that's when I realize that I'm out of that honeymoon phase and in the "let's get down" to business phase. It's both intimidating and exhilarating at the same time. ;-)

  11. I'm trying right now to finish my first draft of my WIP. I am soooo close to being done. Only a couple chapters worth left. And I can feel myself wanting to slow down. To procrastinate since "It's almost done anyway". But I'm not going to. I'm going to keep working at it and not start any of these awesome new ideas I've got until it's done.

  12. Thank you Mrs Morrill for that amazing post!My struggles are selfdoubt and after reading an amazing book,my own ideas start to sound extremely boring.But thanks for the encouraging post!

  13. Good timing on this post!
    I struggle with getting an idea that I love enough to finish, as well as procrastination.
    My squirrels are probably the internet, my phone, and other things I want to do more than write.
    Now that school's almost out, I should have time to build up a writing routine!!!!!!!

  14. Wow, I needed this!! Currently, I have given myself permission to plot & plan, but not to write. I have finals coming up and term papers due. (Thanks a lot Professors!!) Now off to read Jill's blog post!! :)

  15. I think I can use this for life in general right now, too, Mrs. Morrill. Thanks. This was very thoughtful. :)

    As for me and my writing, I've been doing pretty well. Didn't write today because this afternoon I had some weird insane level of dizziness for hours, which was pretty miserable, but I have been doing well recently. I figured out I can't let myself off the hook for more than a few days or else I let writing go over...and over...and over and before I know it, it's been a month since I wrote. Oops. So I've been trying to stay on top of that.

    Side note: My family yells "SQUIRREL!" like that alllll the time, so I'm very familiar with the phrase ;)

  16. Oh ouch yes! I need to get rid of my squirrels! I listen to music on Groovshark while I write, I notice a song I like is playing and go to turn it up. Then I hear I line from it I am dieing to find on Pinterest so I can pin it. Then I check my email to see if anyone else repinned it....... Just one bad cycle. I need to turn my wifi off every time I write in order to not get distracted. Thanks for the reminder! I am headed to work on not getting distracted....... hopefully.

  17. Totally relate to the squirrels! Mine is Pinterest and music. I just love to rock out to my favorite bands and not have to write at the same time.
    But I'm also celebrating now! A poem of mine was accepted for publication for a student writing anthology. So yeah, I'm pretty psyched.

    Alexa Skrywer

  18. sadly, I have tried to write a book three times and failed three times. I am trying to work on structuring my characters this time and I'm having trouble choosing plot structure. I have been using both as an excuse because I am afraid I will mess up again. how much work is enough before I should really start writing?

    1. I'm no professional, but I'd say that, if you've been doing this for a while, just stop all the world-building and start writing. You'll never write anything if you're always afraid of screwing up. Like this quote I read recently, "Everything you want is on the other side of fear." In order to write a good story, most writers have to write a sucky first draft. And that's OK. Just write away, and you can take care of the mistakes later.
      If writer's block is a problem, I'd suggest writing in ten-minute increments or so, forcing yourself to write whatever comes to mind, no matter how crazy. You never know what might spark your imagination in a brilliant new plotline.

      Alexa Skrywer

  19. Maddy, Teen WriterApril 6, 2015 at 6:41 PM

    I'm an extreme edit-as-I-go type person, trying to write a first draft without looking back. It's rough! I've spent all my fourteen years of life starting things and editing them into nonexistence. Also, I tried doing The Marshall Plan - you know, plotting my whole book out and everything - but it didn't work for me.
    Somewhere on this site, I saw a thing about keeping a notebook full of edits for your first draft. That's a great idea! I am going to do it. ;D
    You have an answer for every one of my HELP! questions. Thank you!

  20. THANK YOU!!!! Thank you, thank you! This is exactly what I needed!! I have a really hard time actually WRITING my book. Hopefully this will help me a lot.