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!