Monday, October 9, 2017

Writing Mistakes I've Made: Obsessively Rewriting First Chapters

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

I have a love/hate relationship when it comes to talking about my mistakes. 

What I don't love:
  • The vulnerability. Over the summer, I gave a talk about my writing mistakes. The topic seemed like a fabulous idea until I started rehearsing. Spending all that time focusing on the many, many mistakes I've made over the years left me feeling so insecure and inadequate. (My listeners were very kind and responsive, though!)
Things I love:
  • The hope that I feel when I share mistakes. Not only do I see how I've grown as a writer, but I feel hopeful that I can either prevent writers from making the same mistakes I did, or help them to see mistakes they're making currently and break away.
  • Mistakes can feel like a weight, but talking about them takes away the power they have over me.
Many writers are perfectionists. We want to write perfectly, publish perfectly, and have perfect writerly lives. This, my friends, is impossible. 

I want you to see evidence that you can make mistakes—lots and lots of mistakes—and still get to where you’re wanting to go. I would even argue that you won’t get there unless you’re willing to make decision that might end up being mistakes.

One of the earliest mistakes I made was firmly rooted in my perfectionism:

Obsessively Rewriting First Chapters

Raise your hand if you find yourself rewriting the opening of your story over and over and over again.

Then imagine that lots and lots of other young writers are raising their hands too, because this is a really common issue when you're learning how to write a novel.

This was the first real writing hurdle I had to get over. I loved writing story beginnings. They're still my favorite part. I would write my first few chapters and pass them out to my friends. They would give me feedback, and I would rewrite and pass the chapters back out. Then I would have an idea for writing the chapters differently, so I would rewrite them again...

On and on this went. Sound familiar?

There are obvious reason why this is bad:

You can’t finish a book this way. 
If your goal is to write a full book, constantly rewriting the prologue isn't going to get you there.

This is usually the reason that writers cite when they’re asking me how to fix this problem. They want to finish a book, they realize this isn’t going to work, and how do they move past this?

Your growth as a writer is stunted. 
I was doing the same piece of the process over and over. It’s like if all you ever did was create characters, but you never put them in stories. Maybe you created amazing characters … or maybe you didn’t, because you can only find out if you plop them into their story and see how they work. 

I had no idea if my beginnings were good, because I never found out what the rest of the story was. I didn’t know what made a good story idea, or what ideas were big enough, or what kind of characters I needed, because I had never gotten past chapter three. It wasn’t until I found a story idea that I loved enough to push past chapter three that I started to grow as a writer.

There are some not-so-obvious reasons why obsessive rewriting is bad:

Or at least they weren't obvious to me.

I was training myself to be a shiny object chaser.
You know what happens if you don't discipline yourself to push through hard things? You don't learn how to do the hard things. Until that point, writing had always been pure joy for me. I wrote when I wanted, and I wrote what I wanted, and if I wanted to write something else, that's what I did.

When writing is a hobby, that's fine. When you're wanting to get traditionally published, that mindset no longer works. I had to train myself to push into the middle of a story rather than rewriting or starting a new story.

By erasing my writing mistakes and starting over, I couldn't learn from them.
After I gave this talk the first time, a man came up to share how in many art classes they don't want you to use pencils, because they don't want you to be able to erase. Art teachers want you to see the lines that are wrong, so you can more clearly see the lines that are right. 

By rewriting the same part of my story over over, I wasn't improving anything, just changing it. I lost perspective on what worked and what didn't.

I wasn't letting the first draft do its job:
My nine-year-old calls first drafts, "the sloppy copy." The job of the first draft is to get the story down without worrying about how to fix things that aren't quite right yet. When we rewrite those first few chapters over and over without the rest of the story, we're not trusting the first draft to do its job. The first draft just need to be "good enough" that we can go back through and hone it in edits.

Learning how to write a book--even a lousy one--from beginning to end is a huge accomplishment. I learned more from doing that once than I did from writing 50 different story beginnings.

If you struggle with obsessively rewriting, what can you do to get past this? Here are a few ideas:

  • Not every book idea is worth pushing through to the end. Even now, after publishing multiple books and writing many others, I still sometimes write a few chapters and then give up on a story. Sometimes I think I'm excited about an idea, but then I get in there and it just doesn't work for me. Be kind to yourself if you decide to put a story aside for a while, even if you've rewritten those first chapters hundreds of times and you don't want to "waste" your time investment. Just because you're putting it aside now doesn't mean you're putting it aside forever.
  • Push yourself to write a little further before giving up on a story. My pattern was to hit chapter four (which is usually around the time that a story transitions from beginning to middle) and then feel lost on where to go. Then I would either hit the eject button in favor of a new, exciting story idea. Or I would rewrite the first few chapters. If you've only ever gotten to chapter three, try to make it through chapter five. Even if you're not sure you're going in the right direction with the story. Just try to push your discipline a bit before walking away.
  • Give yourself permission to be imperfect. This was huge for me. My issues with rewriting were rooted in my desires to turn out a perfect story. When I embraced the advice of writing bad first drafts,I began to make it through to the end.

What about you? Do you struggle with obsessively rewriting?


  1. Thanks Mrs. Morrill! This was perfectly timed. I only ever write about one chapter, rewrite it continuously then have a new idea. Currently, I have an idea I love so much I have written much more.

    1. Congratulations! That's exciting, Sorrel!

  2. I don't struggle with this (thankfully.) But what I do struggle with is being overwhelmed by the first draft and not wanting to carry on with that story, instead opting to start something new.

    1. I can relate to that too. I've also had times where I push through and write the entire first draft, but then I'm too overwhelmed to edit the thing. Sometimes that's been a totally fine decision, and other times I've eventually pulled the draft back out and pushed myself through edits.

  3. I am definitely an obsessive rewriter. Which is how I am on draft 7 with no end in the immediate vicinity. I was considering just restarting this draft again, but after reading this I am just going to keep moving on and get it down! I'm definitely happier with this draft than the previous drafts, but I just love beginnings as well and like to work on those instead of the dreaded showdown...I really like how you pointed out that we can't learn from our mistakes if we just keep rewriting! That definitely changed my perspective! If I never write the showdown, I'll never learn how to do a proper one!

    1. Megan, this makes me SO happy. I totally get where you are because I LOVE beginnings. It's so much fun to just hint at things and foreshadow things, but not have to do the actual work of paying them off! Push through, you can do it!

  4. Yep. Yep. Yep.

    This is me. :) Great post, Stephanie!

  5. I like having a solid start... so I do rewrite the first chapter three to five times before writing the rest... but then no more ;p that first chapter to me is proof for whether the story should be continued or not :D

    1. What an interesting thought, Keturah. I've never thought about the first chapter in that way.

  6. This is me. I wrote 3 chapters and obsessed about them. I then threw them out and worked out a structured outline and character arc. Now I'm determined to push through with NaNoWriMo.