First-draft Doldrums

With this post, I’m starting the thread of questions that came in after I appealed to you. Many, many thanks for the big response!

On December 4, 2019, Writing Ballerina wrote, How do you make yourself keep writing the first draft? I’m sure we can all agree that writing the first draft isn’t that pleasurable at times. How do you make yourself keep going when the story starts to drag? How do you make yourself write when you don’t want to?

Two of you chimed in, most helpfully.

Future_famous_author: If you write your first draft as some do, almost like you are just puking out ideas and writing stuff on the paper that isn’t really that good but still tells the story, try writing it like a real book. Sure, you can still leave out detail in some places, but you can also write with more detail.

Now, if you are like me and write the first draft well just because you write better that way or have more fun doing it that way, even though it takes more time, try going the other way. Write a “vomit draft” as I have heard it called. Just get your ideas on the page, and then save the character personalities and details and all that for the later drafts.

Raina: I struggle with this a lot too, but here are some methods I’ve worked out, both in regards to writing in general and writing the first draft specifically.

In general:
The biggest thing I used to struggle with was self-discipline. I’d always think “oh, I’ll write later when I feel like it or when inspiration strikes” and never do so, and when I did write, I’d frequently only get through a couple hundred words before getting distracted by other things. Then one evening in college I realized that I was never going to get anything done like this, so I told myself “Raina, you are going to go to the library and write, right now, and log the time to keep yourself accountable.” I created a time log spreadsheet with my beginning and ending times, beginning and ending word count, and time elapsed/words written, and I’ve been using it ever since. I think there’s something psychological about treating writing as a structured, scheduled event, like a class or job you have to show up to for x amount of time, even when you don’t want to, that really clicked for me. I used to write in bursts, with good days where I got a lot of writing done (usually during NaNoWriMo) and then long stretches of nothing at all, but having an accountability spreadsheet and set schedule was what made me settle down and be able to churn out words slowly but steadily. Of course, this is just my method and may not work for everyone, but it’s helped me a lot.

The first draft specifically:
It’s easy to get stuck on your first draft, and I’ve found that it helps to take a step back and ask yourself *why* you’re stuck, and then troubleshoot from there. Here are some common reasons that happen to me, and how I deal with them:

1. I don’t want to write right now – sometimes I’m legitimately tired from classes and real life and I don’t have the energy or brain capacity to write. In that case, I show up at the library anyways and make myself try to write for 15-30 minutes. Sometimes when I start writing, I’ll get into a scene and I’ll actually feel more energized and I’ll want to keep writing. But if after that time, I still can’t write, I’ll let myself take a rest and return the next day when I’m fresh.

2. I don’t know what to do next – this doesn’t happen that much to me since I’m a heavy plotter, but sometimes I’ll deviate from my outline and thus need to figure out where to go next from there. When this happens, I’ll always stop and re-plot, like a GPS recalculating its course. When I’m back on track and have a new outline, I’ll keep writing. This method might not work as well for pantsers, but others might have better suggestions.

3. I don’t want to write *this specific scene* – In this case, I’ll always ask myself *why* I don’t want to write the scene, and why I think I *need* to write it.
–> Is it boring? In which case, is it really necessary? If you don’t even want to write it, chances are readers won’t want to read it. Try to think of ways to make it something you’re excited about, or ways to get rid of it altogether.
–> Is it overly long/dragging? Sometimes I’ll start a scene that I’m excited about, and lose interest as the scene goes on because it starts to slog. (This is a problem for me especially because I have a problem with overwriting in general. I’ve written 5,000-word scenes that I later had to cut down to 3,000.) In this case, I’ll usually try to wrap things up as quickly as possible (usually by either cutting content or telling instead of showing) so I can move on, and then promise myself I’ll fix it in the next draft.
–> Does it “suck”? (Nobody’s writing actually sucks. Ever. But first drafts can be messy.) Sometimes I’ll have moments where everything just feels horrible and I don’t want to look at it. At times like this, I’ll usually try to get the scene done with as fast as possible (see the above point), remind myself that it’s okay if it’s not perfect in the first draft, and that I can always fix it later. (There have been times I’ve left comments to myself in the document that say “this needs to be completely rewritten but I don’t want to deal with it right now.”) The important thing is to get the story done. Sometimes in school I’ll turn in assignments that are not my best work because I just want to get them over with. That’s my mentality for first drafts. The only difference is, you get unlimited revisions until you’re happy with the end result.

4. Something is wrong with the story that I recognize on a gut level but don’t know how to fix – this one is more a feeling than anything, so it’s important to listen to your instincts. I still struggle with this a lot, but my advice is to stop, take a step back, and think about things. Make a list, take a walk, or whatever helps you make decisions. There have been times I’ve pushed on and dealt with things later. There have also been times I’ve backtracked and deleted entire scenes and started over from there. Usually, the deciding factor for me is when I ask myself: 1. Will doing this take the story down a path I don’t want? and 2. If I go down this path, will I be able to come back?
For an example from my work, I wrote a scene near the beginning of the book that was waaay too dark and completely wrecked the fun, lighthearted, satirical mood of the story. I had a bad feeling while writing the scene but I pushed through, but at the end of it, I looked at it again and realized that if I continued, I wouldn’t be able to get the story back on its happy original track without causing major mood whiplash. So I stopped and rewrote the scene to fit the tone better. Looking back, that was absolutely the right thing to do.

These are great!

I use Raina’s method of timekeeping, not on a spreadsheet, just a document. I record start and stop times, even when the stops are short, like just to let Reggie (dog) in from the backyard. My goal is at least two and a quarter hours a day. Usually I make it, but when I don’t, I forgive myself–or it’s harder to get started the next day. Forgiveness is part of the bargain.

I don’t have a page or word count goal, because I’m so slow, and I include research in my writing time. Right now, as I work on my novel about the Trojan prophetess Cassandra, I often google questions that come up, like How old was Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia when she died? (No one seems to know.)

So that’s a strategy: Set a daily time goal and keep track of how we’re doing as we go along.

For me, too, writing the first draft is the hardest. As a mostly pantser, I don’t know what I’m doing a lot of the time. But I love to revise when the worst is over!

One thing that helps me keep writing is to bar myself from thinking that my draft sucks, or to think anything globally negative about it. That kind of name-calling just makes writing harder. Better to imagine the first draft as a baby animal that has to be cuddled and coddled and soothed. Sure, it messes up, but it’s an infant!

(Even when I’m done–even when the manuscript has become an actual book, I refrain as much as I can from overall judgments, because they aren’t useful for the next project. There are enough critics who will, asked or unasked, offer opinions. I don’t want to pile on–on myself!)

Of course, I’m making specific judgments as I write, the sorts Raina mentions: Is a scene moving too slowly? Do I need it at all? Have I rushed it and left out the detail that will engage the reader? Even little things like, I have a string of sentences that start with I. I should break that up.

That’s a second strategy: We don’t judge our work in a global way.

I think it’s best to write the first draft straight through to the end, but sometimes, like Raina, I can’t. My story has turned to sludge, and words have stopped coming. Then I have to figure out what’s wrong and go back. Sadly, I’ve started this new project several times, though I think I have it now.

One of the main things that keeps me going is curiosity, and this, I think, is an advantage that pantsers have. It’s important to me to know, in at least a general way, the ending of my story, because that ending is what I’m writing toward, and lately I’ve been writing a very minimal outline. But I don’t know in any detail how I get to the end or what happens along the way, and I’m eager to find out, so I soldier on. Curiosity is, if not a strategy, a help. We won’t know how we solved the story problem if we don’t write it. And we won’t know what we’re capable of it we don’t write it.

Also, there are pleasures that I can give myself along the way. If I’m writing a funny book, I enjoy laying on the humor. Looking for places for humor, often humor that has a poignant side, helps me keep going. And you all know how much I love poetry. In the new book I’ve imagined a Greek chorus, spoken by crows (sacred to Apollo). The crows’ lines are short poems. Every five or so pages I have the crows caw about the action, and I look forward to those moments. To write their parts, I use some of what I learned in my class on The Iliad in poetry school.

So that’s a strategy: to build in bits we enjoy writing.

When we’re slogging through one part, we can always jump ahead to a scene we’re eager to write. Once that’s written, we can go back, and we may find that the dreaded one has become easier, informed by what’s ahead. Another strategy.

This one is probably ridiculous, but I’m including it because I do think it: If I weren’t going to write, what would I do, I mean, aside from distractions like the solitaire game I play on my cell phone? What other big thing would I do? (I don’t mean that spending time with friends and family, playing with pets, going for walks, etc. aren’t worthwhile, even essential–they are, and we should do them.) I can’t answer the question, so I get back to work.

Here’s another one: Not every one of my books has been pleasurable to write, and, surprisingly, the misery doesn’t matter in the outcome. The quality of the books I disliked writing the first drafts of (Fairest, Stolen Magic, The Two Princesses of Bamarre–you know I’m talking about you!) is the same as the ones I mostly enjoyed writing. If we don’t expect pleasure, we aren’t shocked when we’re not getting it.

I like trying new things. In the new project (I would call it something if it had a title), I’m writing two parts, a first part from one first-person POV, and a second part from another first-person POV. I’ve written alternating POVs, but never successive, but I’ve liked books that do that. So we can work in something new and challenging.

Since I keep worrying about my pacing, I’m exchanging pages with a writer friend who has also started a new project recently. Fresh eyes will help me see my own work. If she’s excited about the book, that will lift my excitement level, too. We can exchange work with a writing buddy or with critique group members, or we can involve beta readers or friends or family.

Here are three prompts:

∙ This one comes from Greek mythology. Annually, seven maidens and seven young men were sent from Athens to Crete as tribute–to their death, really, because they were forced into a labyrinth that was so complicated no one had ever managed to find a way out. What’s more, the Minotaur–half bull, half human–lived in there and eventually devoured the poor victims. Theseus later killed the monster and, with help, found his way out. But for your story, your MC and her friends are pushed in, and they have no help. If they are going to survive, they have to do it on their own. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ Your MC is running an ultra marathon, a hundred-mile race. She is doing it just to see if she can–not a tension-charged reason. Your job is to bring in the tension. Pin your reader to his seat. Write the story.

∙ Hansel and Gretel are imprisoned in the witch’s cottage. As in the fairy tale, Gretel has figured out how to fool the near-blind witch into believing that Hansel isn’t plumping up. Days turn into weeks, and things are mighty dull. Liven them up with a scene and then keep going.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. This question is only mildly related to the post, but here goes. I finished the first draft of a novel back in May, after a December-March break, and tried to start a second draft, but the more I edit it, the worse it seems. The plot meanders through the characters’ lives without following any particular structure (because I’m a pantster), one of my MC’s is ridiculously flat and the other one is essentially a carbon copy of myself, there are 76 named characters all told, and there are several chapters in which legitimately nothing happens. To make it even worse, it started out as a school assignment, so I wrote it because I had to, rather than because I wanted to. (My few, brave beta readers love it, but I can’t for the life of me see why.) And I stopped working on it this fall because of a creative writing class and a portfolio of other stories I needed to write, and now I can’t convince myself to start again. What do you do when you know something needs tons of work, but the very idea of working on it is distasteful, and you have several other far more interesting projects you could be working on? Sorry for the long post. I guess this has been building up for a while. 🙂

      • I have been. But at some point, I’m going to have to either work on this or abandon it, and I don’t particularly like either idea. I’d really hate to abandon it, because that would be giving up on it. But I really don’t want to revise it either, because of all the work. And my other projects are so much more interesting…

          • Gail Carson Levine says:

            I’m with Melissa Mead. You may need a long vacation from this one–a month to a year. You may be too close to it to be able to see what your beta readers love, which, if they love it, must be there.

          • I read a quote somewhere that every forgotten thought goes into “the compost pile of the imagination”. Maybe you’ll rewrite it someday. Maybe you’ll reuse parts of it to make something new. Or maybe you won’t end up using any of it, but the experiences you’ve had, the things you learned, and bits and pieces of the story will end up in other things you write.
            It’s like practicing the piano. Just because you’re not performing in front of others that minute doesn’t mean the practice was wasted.

  2. My MC has hurt his dominant hand and it is now immobilized. What do you think would be some of the best and worst things for him to have to eat? For various reasons, he doesn’t have a lot of control over what he eats.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      What a fun problem! Lobster would be very difficult. Chili and other soft food, probably easy. Who’s cooking?

      Other ideas?

    • I’ve had surgery on my dominant shoulder twice, and both times had this problem. Stuff that needed to be cut on the plate, like steak and other meats, were especially tricky. I also struggled with figuring out the best angle to hold my fork when eating, and even then it was super uncomfortable. Food that spills easily, like soups or loose foods like peas or such, can also be difficult to eat if the person is especially unused to eating with their non-dominant hand.

    • Things that can be eaten without much use of hands, like smoothies or soups through a straw, would probably be the best. Things that require a lot of dexterity with utensils, or require utensils in both hands, like the steak or lobster others mentioned, would be hard. I think soup, especially hot soup, would be really tricky as well (and if it’s scalding hot soup, a little dangerous). It’s surprisingly hard to balance a liquid inside a spoon to bring it to your mouth.

      Also foods that need peeling (if his allies are mean and won’t peel it for him) like oranges and hard-boiled eggs could be hard to peel with one hand.

  3. I don’t generally get this problem since I often write my first draft, look at it again, decide I like it, and just edit spelling.

  4. I have yet another question! If anyone could answer it that would be great.
    I’m going to be writing a book with my friend. We each have a character to write and I got the male. I read all of Ms. Levine’s posts on writing opposite genders but can’t find anything of what goes on in a males mind. I’m probably going to write the character from a third person view. I just can’t decide how he will act. I don’t want him to be in love or anything. Just a normal 15(or so) year old boy.
    Does anyone have any ideas of what I could do?

    • Speaking as a trans/nonbinary person, gender is fake and G-d is dead.

      …that probably doesn’t help you , though! So advice. I would say don’t think about it like you’re writing “a guy” think of it as writing Kaito or Lucas or Jackson or whatever your character is called. His gender may influence his life and world view, but you should write him based on his character and personality.

    • There is a video on YouTube from Mark Gunger about what goes on in a man’s head versus a woman’s head. To sum it up:
      Women think in a ball of wire. Everything is touching everything else, connected by emotion. Women can think about everything once and still be able to function.
      Men think in boxes. None of the boxes touch AT ALL. They have a box for work, a box for the car, a box for cooking, a box for fighting… Moving from one box to another requires them to put the box away, search for the box they need, and open it up. They also have a box for ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. When they go to this box, they literally think about nothing. If a woman tried to do that, they would mentally explode.
      I went into a little more detail with men because you asked for that advice. The video is really good and I recommend watching it.

    • I think sex and gender matter less than personality, but for purposes of your story, here’s an anecdote that maybe will come in handy.

      I don’t know if this applies to all guys, or if it’s because I’m into drawing + painting + he’s not, but my husband and I had a conversation along these lines when I was trying to describe a color (olive vs sage, etc.):

      Him: “I don’t think I see colors the way you do.”
      Me: “Well…What color is that tree?”
      Him: “Green.”
      Me: “And the grass?”
      Him: “Green.”
      Me: “So they both look the same?”
      Him: “No. But they’re both green. Maybe it’s a guy thing.”

  5. I’m planning on teaching a middle/high school flash fiction class in a few weeks, and I was wondering if anyone had any advice for something like that. Also (this one is specifically for Ms. Levine) would it be fine if I used the character questionnaire in Writing Magic for the class, or would that get into copyright trouble?

  6. I saw that Mark Gunger video! My learning frameworks class watched it together. It was both hilarious and insightful and worth checking out.
    I’m have also wondered how to write from a guy’s perspective, specifically for my Elf MC. I agree with Blue Rive that personality should come first when writing a character and gender second. I’m in first person and part of what I’m for my MC is having him describe his surroundings more than he describes people, the exception being when his friend’s appearances are particularly striking (ex. his best friend’s wild hair, or how the fairy he likes is very pretty). Even then, he doesn’t go terribly detailed.

  7. Writing Cat Lover says:

    So, this post got me thinking, and I was wondering, how do you link things? Like, I, as a pantser, always have trouble with the plot – and it seems that everything is separate. Any tips on linking everything together so my plot doesn’t die? Any advice would really help!😉

    • I think it has to do with linking cause and effect. For example, in my rough draft, I had a teenage daughter of the family run away right before the climax begins, when her father and brother confront angry townspeople. So, in editing, I had to figure out what might have caused the running away, and what consequences of running away would have in the story. In this case, I decided that she ran away at this particular moment because her friends warned her that the angry townspeople were gathering against her family. Her father and brother go into town trying to find her, and that’s why they end up in the middle of this dangerous meeting.

      I’ve enjoyed following KM Weiland’s blog, and she likes to talk about how story threads need to be linked thematically. The main characters have a Lie they believe about the world, and over the course of the story they learn to reject that Lie and learn a new Truth (for a positive arc story). Each action in the plot takes the characters along that path.

    • I’ve had the same problem, and here are some strategies I use:
      1. Cause and effect. This is probably the most basic one. A detective finds a clue, which leads them further down the trail and into the next plot point. Two friends have a fight, and one of them goes off on their own, advancing the plot. The cause and effect connections doesn’t have to be super direct or big (though you probably don’t want too many extremely-tenuous connections either). For example, my character ends up at a tavern where a major plot point happens because she’s on her way to somewhere and passing through. The tavern is not directly connected to the previous plot point (her escaping a magical tower), it’s just a small “normal” thing that happens as a result of her travels. The cause is that she needs somewhere to go on her way away from the tower, the effect is that she ends up stopping by the tavern because that’s where a traveler naturally would stop. In contrast, the plot point AFTER that is directly caused by her actions in said tavern. The cause is that she accidentally starts a bar fight. The effect is that she gets hauled off by the guards, which leads directly into the next plot point, which is her escaping from a dungeon. In both cases, the connection is there, but in one it’s more direct (consequences to her actions in the previous scene) but in another it’s more transitionary (she finished doing this, and she was on the way to do something else, and this happened to her).

      2. Character motivation. This is a big picture thing, and it’s important for more than just connecting plot points, but it’s a useful tool to connect plot points. Everything your character does is connected to an overall goal, in addition to being connected with the cause-and-effect of their previous actions. If cause and effect is like two lego blocks linking together, character motivation is like a tree. The branches aren’t all necessarily directly connected to each other (though they can be), but they’re all connected to the trunk (underlying character motivation). For example, if a detective visits a hotel, a mall, and a warehouse. Maybe those three places and the events that transpire there aren’t directly related, but the reason the detective visits all of them is because they’re his leads to solving a mystery (his motivation).

      As a note, characters can have (and frequently do have) multiple sources of motivation. Maybe the detective visits the hotel, mall, and warehouse to look for clues (motivation: solve the mystery), and then goes to a bar to meet with his crush (motivation: love). These things aren’t necessarily cause and effect, but they’re all “caused” by the detective’s personality, who he is and what he wants as a person.

      Hope this helps!

      • Oh, and one more point: coincidence is also a tool you can use, although you shouldn’t use it too often. It’s perfectly okay to have your character randomly stumble into the inciting incident because they were walking on the street and saw/heard something that propels them into the plot (like the beginning of Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones, where the MC is at a party, just another normal day for her, and sees someone gets murdered, which then leads to her finding out about a secret world of demon hunters). The problem with this is that it’s a passive form of plot progression (where an outside force acts on the MC, rather than have the plot be based around the MC’s actions and their consequences), so you don’t want to use it too often. That’s why you typically don’t see this used beyond the inciting incident. You can also later reveal information that justifies the coincidence or suggests that it wasn’t really a coincidence at all (in the case of CoB, MC was actually the daughter of an ex-demon-hunter-in-exile, and thus she has the ability to see magical things, which was why she saw the murder).

        And since you can continuously edit stories (at least before they’re published), retconning (changing previous events to make them fit with new ones) is a powerful and very useful tool. A new plot point doesn’t fit with the old ones? You can change the old ones! You need your character to do something that doesn’t fit with their personality or motivations? You can change their personality! Granted, you should do so carefully because it’ll change the whole story, but if you don’t like it, you can change your entire story and as long as the change is consistent throughout the entire thing, no one will ever know. I think writers sometimes take that for granted, because I certainly did, until I figured out that other mediums (like role-playing games) aren’t like that.

  8. Jillian (Jill) B says:

    Hello again Gail! Long time no see!

    It’s been a while since I’ve been able to sit down and read your blog and comment (so long I doubt you remember any of my previous blog interactions). Over the last few years, I graduated from college, lived in France teaching English, and moved from Oklahoma to Philadelphia (So now that I’m on the East Coast, expect to see me at your next East Coast “In Person” event)!

    Now that my life is settling down a bit, my New Year’s Resolution is to write at least 30 minutes every day. I have been looking forward to this time every day, it’s almost a spiritual time when I get to write. I was writing today and turned to your blog to solve a writing problem, and I suddenly became so nostalgic. I searched and found the first blog post written in response to one of my questions: Commented February 25, 2010. Almost exactly a decade ago! I think the Jill of 10 years ago couldn’t have imagined me having to set aside time to write, but I suppose that’s being an adult.

    This has been a rambling, fangirl-esque comment, but I hope your 2020 is off to a great start! See you again in the blog comments soon. -Jill

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Welcome back! You’ve accomplished a lot in the interim. Congratulations!

      There should be events in the spring, after my next book comes out. I look forward to seeing you!

  9. Pleasure Writer says:

    This post was actually super helpful for me because I’m in that sticky stuck space of writing right now! I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a jam when it comes to writing my first draft. I also have a question. I have a really hard time writing action scenes. They turn out so awkward and most of the time I feel like they’re boring to read, which is obviously not the goal for an action scene. Any suggestions on how to better engage my readers in the story?

    • For me, a good part of what makes action scenes exciting is the vocabulary. “He looked around at” is much less exciting than “He caught glimpses of”. As a general rule, use fewer, vivid words. Also, you might need to adjust the amount of showing vs. telling. I think there is an old post about how to write action scenes, but I don’t remember what it was called.

    • For action, you want shorter, simpler sentences, and shorter paragraphs. It makes it faster to read, and it also creates white space.
      For example, the writer I edit for had a sentence that reads: “The outline of a man holding a knife in the air sent her screaming as she struggled out of her bed and ran out of the bedroom.”
      I changed it to four sentences: “A shadow crossed her chest of drawers: a man with a knife. She screamed. Her feet tangled in her covers and she struggled out of bed. Somehow she made it out of the bedroom.”

    • There’s a video where Henry Cavill, an actor on Netflix’s The Witcher (a very action-based tv show) breaks down a fight scene and says something along the lines of “an action scene should tell a story, and not just be action for the sake of action”. (I won’t link to the video here because it’s kind of violent, but if you’re interested you can look it up) I think that’s so true. While action is fun and exciting, what makes it compelling is the characters and stakes behind that action–characters we care about fighting for something that matters. Literary agent Janet Reid once said “It’s the difference between working the speed bag and a boxing bout.
      Both involve punching but one has something at stake and the other does not.” which summarizing this points perfectly.

      Other bits of advice: short sentences and frequent paragraph breaks are good for action scenes because they create the illusion of fast pacing. Use active words whenever possible, and sometimes less is more. Keep it short and sweet, and make every word pack a punch. Plotting out the choreography of fight scenes, whether just visualizing it in your head, writing it out step by step, or even acting it out, can make sure that your actions flow and make sense logically. If your action scenes involve a lot of movement or technical detail, keep track of things (a simple map can be helpful) to make sure that your characters aren’t crossing an entire room in 1 second, or moving their limbs in ways that aren’t possible.

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