Monday, September 21, 2015

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 (Birch House Press). 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.

(This post is part of the Writing A Novel From Beginning to End series. You can find other posts from this series on the Looking For Something Specific? tab.)

After I write my big middle scene, like I talked about last week, I've usually given myself enough material to work with for a few chapters. But inevitably, around 2/3 of the way through my first draft, I find myself doing more staring at my Word document than actual writing. It's not that I'm exactly blocked but I've definitely lost momentum.

Most writers have a place in the first draft process where they find themselves stuck. By now it's happened to me enough that I've learned some ways to handle it:



1. Clean my desk. 


Yes, I'm serious. Often I've been in such a writing groove with my exciting middle scene that my desk is now a cluttered mess of story notes, research books, receipts, and random items that my kids have brought down to my office and left for me.

I don't do well working in chaos, and if I invest 30 minutes in getting the mess cleaned up, I find the words magically return.

2. Review my story notes.


Sometimes in the wake of whatever happened in the middle scene, I've lost touch of the other story threads I had going. Simply scrolling through my document or reading through my story notes will often jog something. Like in chapter four when I mentioned a character coming for a visit and who has never actually arrived...


3. Deal with holes in the story.

When I scroll through my Word doc or review my story notes, I sometimes discover I'm currently stuck because there's an enormous hole in my story.

I need a character to do something, but I haven't motivated them properly. Or my character has developed a terrible illness, and I haven't yet bothered to research symptoms of said illness. Or I planned on "something mysterious" happening at the party, and I still don't know what exactly that mysterious something is.

Identifying the precise hole is sometimes the trickiest part. Other times it's figuring out the best way to patch it. There's nothing wrong with waiting to fix a hole in edits—if I'm in a writing groove, that's often what I do—but if you're struggling with what happens next, patching the hole could help you get your momentum back.

4. Brainstorm with others.

Sometimes I'm stuck because I have no idea where the book is going.

Coming up with the right ending is often a struggle for me, and I always fumble my way through the first time. So when I'm blocked, it can be because I'm trying to ramp up to a conclusion that I don't know yet. Or even if I outlined an ending, it's probable that I've changed enough story threads along the way that my original idea needs help.

In this situation, I take time to brainstorm. Preferably with a writing friend or two because I have such tunnel vision that I can't see what's surprising and what's predictable.

5. Examine my personal life.

Sometimes getting stuck isn't about the tidiness of my office or poor character motivations. Sometimes it's because I'm sick, stressed, suffering from self-doubt, or not getting the big chunks of writing time that I like. If my personal life is draining my energy, it's only natural that my creativity will suffer as well.

In those situations, I've learned the best thing I can do is just sludge forward one awful word at a time and tell myself that I can clean it up in edits. Taking time off is sometimes helpful and necessary, but often I have to climb my way out of a writing rut by putting words on the page. If I do that faithfully, the momentum returns.

Have you had times when you've gotten stuck in your first draft? How do you motivate yourself to get going again?

26 comments:

  1. When I get stuck, it's not so much because of a plot hole or lack of plot--I am a plotster--but rather because I need a break. Sometimes simply re-reading some of my favorite scenes earlier in the book is enough to get the creativity flowing again.

    Thanks for the post, Mrs. Morrill!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's a good point, Linea. Sometimes you just need to get re-energized.

      Delete
  2. When I get stuck (like right now) it's not because of a plot hole (even though I'm a pantser) but because I'm just not sure how to move from one scene to the next. Where I'm at in my document, my MC and his friends just found sponsorship for a dangerous competition in the form of a creepyish city leader. His mom gave him clear instructions to both stay away from the races he's trying to enter and also to stay away from Councilor Llewellyn (the creepyish city leader and a really important character). Now he has to go inform his mom he's just broken both of those rules, but I can't figure out how to start the scene in which he does so.
    My best method is, like you said, to scrounge up one word at a time and stick it on the page in a way that sorta-but-not-really makes sense and hope to pretty it up in the edits.
    Thanks for the post!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lily, I'm glad you at least know what's coming next! Sometimes if I know I'm writing a scene like that, I get paralyzed by starting it right and once I get going, I'm fine. I hope the same thing happens for you!

      Delete
  3. I always get stuck in the later connecting scenes, the things that need to happen between the action for the action to make sense. Since I'm 2/3 of the way through, I'm no longer doing much world building or character fleshing, so the transition scenes are difficult to push out.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Absolutely. It comes much more naturally to me to draw readers into a story and raise questions than it does for me make good on things I foreshadowed early on :)

      Delete
  4. This is my life. I am NOT first draft person; for me, most of the magic happens in the rewrites. I usually promise myself some ridiculous reward if I can make it through the draft, because I know everything will be easier from there.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm very similar, Allison. Rewrites are my happy place.

      Delete
  5. This is all so, so true!! It's amazing what a clean space can do. I'm dealing with this right now and this morning, allergies woke up around 6:20...so I decided to organize all my clothing and clean my room! It's making me itchy to write in this clean, new (even through it isn't actually new, but cleaning makes everything new) space. So love knowing that I'm not the only one that gets bogged down towards the end of a draft!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hope you had a very productive writing day in your nice, clean space! So sorry about your allergies :(

      Delete
  6. Urgh. Usually I don't get that stuck in first drafts- I like it, y'know, and usually don't have a lot of problem with just sticking in miscellaneous scenes and such to fill in until I get to my planned points. (Often, in fact, some of my best material comes from that unplanned stuff.) But right now I'm stuck and it's mostly a mix of not knowing how to get where I'm going and just not wanting to write. So, I'm slogging on and hoping something will come up to cure my malaise.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Slogging on is an excellent strategy. It's not very fun, but I definitely think it's the best cure for those sticky spots.

      Delete
  7. Yeah, personal life is often a big factor me. That and my pantsing nature. The last book I seriously planned out using the Snow Flake method lost complete interest to me by the end of the planning. I cringe when I see the notebook.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm similar and found that planning too much kills the fun of the first draft for me. There's definitely a balance (for me) of knowing enough to produce a quality first draft but not knowing too much that I lose motivation.

      Delete
  8. I've only finished one book and to be honest, when I was at the spot where I was really stuck I just took a ton of time off and barely wrote anything. I kind of put it aside and didn't do anything until there was a GTW word war and then I went and sprinted to the end! Word wars and Nanowrimo really help me to stay motivated.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I recently got stuck in my first draft at a place where the words just didn't want to come. I knew what would happen; I knew my characters, their motivations, their conflicting goals. But getting those words down on the screen was tough. Very tough. Eventually I realised that I'd been writing a lot recently—20K in July, 20K in August—and my creativity wanted a break in September.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That happens to me sometimes too. Especially if I've pushed myself hard for a while. I'm glad you realized it!

      Delete
  10. When I get stuck, I find it helpful to take a 15 minute jog around the block to kind of kick-start my brain.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I call it when the story turns oval. The story rolls along for the first 100 or so pages and then it suddenly takes a whole lot more effort for it to turn. I find that my creativity stops when I've written too much. It's almost like when you're sledding and you accidentally go the wrong way you have to back up and start from where you went off track to actually get to the end. Also like someone had said up in the comments, going back and reading some of my favorite scenes makes me realize that I don't want to stop this idea all together. Thanks for this post! I struggle a TON with this kind of thing and this was really helpful :D

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's an excellent image, Emma! Thanks for sharing that!

      Delete
  12. Agh! This is perfect timing-I'm still currently writing my first draft! Usually when I'm stuck in first drafts I take a break and/or I read. Like, a lot. Then I get inspired that people will be reading, just like me, the book I'm writing (even though it's still on it's first draft)!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Cleaning my desk is always such a big help! It's crazy how much stuff I lose on my desk...

    ReplyDelete
  14. I thought I was the only one that cleaned my desk when I'm stuck haha! One of the best things I can do is go back and do some editing, then I get a bit more 'into' the story and I can focus more. One of my biggest problems is my school work and homework--it's usually the reason I lose my flow of the story. Thanks for this post, though! Hopefully these tips will help in the future :)

    ReplyDelete
  15. When I'm stuck on my draft, I often write a short fanfiction that's totally different than my original story. Something like a short one-shot, or just a commission story for somebody.
    I also enjoy drawing whenever I get stuck. Most times, in fact, when I get stuck, I'm just not in a writing mood. Drawing helps to get my writing mood back, and, most times, gives me new ideas for a story!

    ReplyDelete

Home