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!

The Rewrite

On December 30, 2018, Kyryiann wrote, So, editing. This last November I finished a first draft for the first time. Any tips on the whole editing process?

A few of you had suggestions.

The NEWLY REPRESENTED Melissa Mead: I usually let it sit for a bit, so I can re-read with fresh eyes to spot errors and make sure that everything makes sense.

Christie V Powell: I like to make a list of all of the scenes, describing them in just a few words, then organizing those descriptions into chapters. It helps me see at a glance what needs to be rearranged and what scenes I still need to write.

viola03 says: Congrats on finishing the first draft!

I’m like Melissa Mead in that I like to let it sit for a bit and re-read it with fresh eyes. My first drafts often turn out more like just the plot line and not a whole lot else, so I start with reading it over and adding some more detail, description, backstory, etc. In a draft that I spent a year editing (I know, yikes!), there was one scene that I just couldn’t get right. I tried it one way, let it sit, then tried it another way, let it sit, until I was happy with it. Sometimes trial and error is the best way to get a scene right :).

Once you’re happy with your edits, let your friends and family read the draft and ask for constructive criticism.

Yes! Congratulations, Kyryiann! You’ve done what for me is the hardest part!

Last night I sat in on a webinar on revision conducted by children’s book expert and free-lance editor Harold Underdown, along with his business partner, Eileen Robinson, another kid lit publishing pro. You can link to their revision workshops and revision info here: Harold, whom I count as a friend, is the person behind the informative website, The Purple Crayon, which I encourage you to visit and noodle around in if you’re interested in writing for children. The book that Harold and Eileen had chosen to illustrate their revision process was my historical novel, Dave at Night. I was honored!

(Many years ago, before I was published, I submitted my picture book manuscript called “Dave at Night” to Harold. He was one of the few editors at the time who took interest in my work and gave me thoughtful feedback. He asked me to expand the story into a chapter book, which I did, and which he rejected–but in the revision I discovered that I’m a novelist, that the longer form suits me. Before then, I had been afraid to try a novel, and I’m forever grateful. Several years and many revisions later, the book was published with a different editor.)

This is a long way to get to telling you that the process the webinar described is called a revision grid, and it’s very much like what Christie V Powell does. Essentially, it’s a list of scenes along with description. The descriptions are organized into a few metrics, like thoughts, dialogue, setting, that characterize the scene. In the process of creating the grid, the writer sees what she’s accomplished and locates the spots that need work.

I agree with Melissa Mead that it’s useful to wait a while before diving into revision. Distance gives us the perspective to see our work fresh. Depending on our natures, we can be less hypercritical–or we can see that not everything is perfect.

If you feel that the draft is dreadful–no worries! First drafts are supposed to be a mess. You’ve done it right.

Here are some of the major things to look at in going through your draft:

• In places, our story feels rushed. In these spots it may be hard to know how the character got from one setting to the next, one feeling to the next, one time to the next, or how relationships, attitudes, or feelings have shifted. In those places, we have to expand to show our story’s evolution. We may need to add scenes and reveal more, remembering to include our MC’s thoughts and feelings, as well as who-said-what and why and where. This expansion and seeming slow-down is likely to have the paradoxical effect of making our story appear to speed up, because, for the reader, being on the ground where events are happening is thrilling.

• We’re bored when we’re reading our manuscript. The problem here may also be that we have to add more showing. We may be narrating too much. Or it may be that we’ve been protecting our MC and we have to inflict the worst, or almost the worst, on her.

• Our setting may not be fully fleshed out. The reader may have trouble envisioning it. I know some of you draw maps for your stories. In this case, you might like to draw the setting. Or you can draw it in words in your notes, and then think about how your characters would experience and navigate the space and what they would react to in it, keeping in mind what you want to make the reader aware of.

• Are your characters consistent? Are we making them do things for plot reasons that they wouldn’t do? In revision, we can think about how to move our plot along without forcing our characters to go against their natures. Or we can rewrite our characters so they’ll naturally do what we need them to. Or, we can have them change, making sure the reader is looped into all the steps in the change.

• Here’s one I’ve been guilty of more than once: making my MC, whom I want the reader to adore, unlikable. For me, when I’ve done this, I’ve made her a tad self-centered and clueless about the people around her. I hasten to add that you may not want the reader to love your MC, or you may want him to come to love her gradually as she evolves. In this case, you just want to be sure you’re achieving the effect you’re after.

• And another I keep running into: pacing. Mine is often too slow, especially at the beginning. My solution is to trim, or, more accurately, hack. Every sentence is a candidate for the chopping block. I don’t think I’ve ever revised a novel without cutting more than 100 pages. As I’ve said before here, I don’t just send them to oblivion–I copy them to my Extras document in case they turn out to be essential after all. And this comforts me. They still exist. And my remaining pages move faster. Besides, I believe in concision. Wordiness is my enemy.

While I’m writing my first draft I always become aware of problem areas that I don’t want to go back to fix right then, because it’s generally best, if we can, to soldier on to the end. When I sense an issue, I go to the top of my manuscript–you can do this in a separate document, if you prefer–and make a note. Here’s one from my forthcoming book about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain: Handling slaves. Is there anything apologist about it? Should I make Hamdun be a servant and skip all that?

(Ultimately, I decided to keep the slavery, because it was common then, and I wanted readers to know that, at the time, most slaves in Europe were Muslims from North Africa, and most slaves in North Africa were Christians from southern Europe, both taken by conquest. The sub-Saharan slave trade was in its infancy in the fifteenth century.)

Anyway, when I finish my first draft, I consult my top-of-the-manuscript notes. As I clear them up, I delete them.

I’m an inveterate fiddler, so I repair my sentences and paragraphs at every stage, even in first drafts, when it’s a foolish time-waster–because the sentences and paragraphs are likely to be cut. I vary sentence length and sentence and paragraph beginnings. I’m even, a product of my poetry training, sensitive to the sound of my prose and its meter. Sometimes I add or delete alliteration and assonance. When I want extra punch, I may bring on the iambs, da DUM, da DUM, because ending a sentence, a paragraph, or a chapter on a stressed syllable packs a wallop.

As we go through successive revisions, when our drafts are more polished–and certainly before submission–we make sure all is clear, because clarity is the writer’s deity. We have to say exactly what we mean. (By the way, that last sentence is in iambs. We HAVE to SAY exACTly WHAT we MEAN.)

Here are four prompts:

∙ Your main character is in a twelve-step program and is attempting to make amends to the people he’s hurt. Some take this well, but others not so much. Pick one of the not-so-much characters and write a story about the relationship and how it develops in this real-life revision.

∙ The fairy Lucinda has decided to reform herself. She is visiting the (still-living) victims of her gifts and attempting to repair the damage her gifts created, but, in her bumptious fashion, she brings on hosts of unintended consequences. You can pick gifts from my books or make up fresh ones. Write a story about one or more of her attempts to repair the past.

∙ Pick a paragraph or a page from a finished draft or a WIP and rewrite it five ways.

∙ Pick a chapter from a finished draft and trim it as much as you can. Do this in more than one pass. Trim. Walk away. Wait an hour. Go back and trim again. Pay special attention to your adjectives and adverbs. Do you really need this one or that? Sometimes I discover that I’ve written two sentences in a row that say the same thing. One can go. When you’re finished and have waited at least another hour, read the skinny chapter. What do you think? Better or worse?

Have fun, and save what you write!


After my last post Erin Edwards wrote:

I was thinking some more about this. It is interesting that you don’t do a lot of planning and organizing before you write, because I have found that if I don’t do at least some, I can’t write *anything* that isn’t extremely boring (if I can write anything at all.)
I am beginning to think that what some writers call first drafts and some call outlines look nothing like what I think a rough draft or an outline would look like. I learned a lot once from a conference where an editor showed the steps a manuscript took between submission and the final picture book. I wonder if you would consider showing us the rough draft of a scene and how it developed in the final book?

I asked for clarification, and Erin answered:

What I mean by a rough draft or an outline is what is the first thing you write down about a scene?

Then do you build directly on that? Or just take those ideas and start writing something new on a clean page?

I thought it would be easy to answer Erin’s questions, but when I looked at my notes I founds that my method isn’t methodical. Many many many and more scenes that I start with vanish and new ones take their place. I found an example, but I don’t know how representative it is.

Anyway, I write notes first. Sometimes I write some of the scene in my notes. Then I copy what I’ve written into my manuscript, which is just story, not a mix of story and notes. If I’m beginning a book, I write notes and then, when I figure out my beginning, I write it in a separate document (the clean page). This isn’t particularly the right way, it’s just my method.

The notes and the three fragments below are from my Mesopotamian fantasy Ever. These are my notes for the scene. The words in parentheses are from me now.

Maybe Kezi is there when Father swears oath. Maybe she plans to be there, to have oath carried out on her. Maybe she thinks father wouldn’t carry it out on her. Maybe the 3 of them are there. Maybe mother says she’ll be ok. Maybe mother says, keep everyone from him for three days. Then the oath will have no power, or Kezi knows this. She tries to keep everyone away, but a cousin comes. Kezi saves the cousin.

If Father had sworn that if Mother recovered he would sacrifice a goat, he would have had to do it. He wouldn’t have been able to wait three days and then forget about the oath. But if he swore, for example, that if IL (god whose name changes in each version) gave him a safe sea voyage he would sacrifice the first fish he caught to IL, if he didn’t catch any fish in t first three days, he could eat the fish on the 4th day. If no one congratulated Father (Trails off here, which notes can do.)

This story fragment, the beginning of the oath scene, was written around 3/24/06:

Only IL’s altar flame is steady. I am thrumming with fear. I’m pouring Mother a cup of water. The pitcher isn’t heavy, but I spill water on my hand anyway.
Mother is trembling more than I. Beads of sweat stand out on her forehead, and yet she shivers. Red welts run up her arms.
Father paces. He sits on the divan next to Mother, dries her face with his own sweat cloth. He stands, paces, sits again.
“I don’t want to die, Senat,” Mother tells Father, shaking so hard her voice is staccato. “I wish I could die.” She laughs jerkily, but it is her usual ironic laugh.

In the next version, the POV changes to third person. It was revised before 4/21/06:

Only Anlil’s altar flame is steady. Kezi thrums with fear. She pours her mother a cup of water. The pitcher isn’t heavy, but Kezi spills some of the water anyway.
Merem is trembling more than Kezi is. Beads of sweat stand out on Merem’s forehead, and yet she shivers. Red welts run up her arms.
Senat paces, which frightens Kezi more than anything. Her father is always confident.
“I don’t want to die, Senat,” Merem says, shaking so hard her voice is staccato. “I wish I could die.” She laughs jerkily, but it is her usual ironic laugh.

This is from the copy-edited manuscript, revised in 1/08, but the scene didn’t go directly from the one above to this. There must have been more changes along the way. Notice that the POV has gone back to first person. What you cant tell from this scene, though, is that now there are two first-person narrators. Here it is:

My bones hum with fear. Mati (Mother) didn’t rise from her bed this morning. Pado (Father) and I are with her. She’s shivering with fever and sweating at the same time. She presses one hand into her belly.
Pado paces, which frightens me almost as much as Mati’s fever. He’s always the calm one. An hour ago he sent for an asupu – a physician. Asupus are called when there isn’t much hope.
Admat, the One, the All, pity my pado and me. Let Mati stay with us a little longer. As You wish, so it will be.
There is no sign from Admat. The altar flame is steady. My prayer pulses through my mind, under my other thoughts.

I’m not confident in the usefulness of this example. It’s only one scene, and everybody works differently. My problem is rarely awkward writing; it’s getting the stories and the characters right. I head off in wrong directions and write lovely scenes that I adore and mourn when I have to amputate them. In my last three novels, Ever among them – I may have mentioned this earlier in the blog – I’ve had trouble making my main character likable. A lot of my revising has gone to making her someone a reader can identify with. I don’t think this is an issue, however, in the scene above.

To get a really solid idea of the way I wander around until I get things right, one would have to go through all my drafts. It may be possible actually to do this for an author you love. The Kerlan collection at the University of Minnesota holds drafts of children’s literature and I believe there are other libraries that do the same. I’ve donated to Kerlan, but never enough for a thorough reconstruction.

If you’re in a critique group, you could share notes and outlines with one another. If you’re not, you might ask other writers you know how they revise. And it’s worthwhile to look through your own past work and outlines and notes to understand your personal mysterious process. Have fun!