Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Common First Draft Misfires

Remember when I posted about finishing your book?

I am back today with gusto. Because I really want all of you to finish your books. Myself included.

Despite what your muse/creativity might tell you, jumping from book to book to book like stones in a river is NOT the way to a career in writing. As I alluded to in my last post, I used to play this book hop-skip-jumping in high school all the time. And guess what? I never finished a single book ever. This was before I spent time on the Internet, so I didn't know better.

The logic is that you will return to your half finished manuscript when your interest returns. But that almost never happens. Really. You get so caught up in this new idea you forget about the old one. Plus, even if you miraculously figure out how to jump start your half finished manuscript, going back is hard. The characters feel between slightly foreign to complete strangers depending on the amount of time you spent away. You can't quite remember where you were going with the plot. If you didn't take any notes, it might be impossible to remember why you even started the book in the first place.

Your Muse is out to lunch today. Tomorrow's not looking too good either.
It's tempting to jump ship with the waters get rough. I know. I am half way through the rough draft, and it's soooooo hard to keep going. I have no idea why it's hard, and it's really annoying. I logically know the only way to finish a book is to...keep writing it. But for some reason the book feels old, it feels like a big pile of steaming garbage, it feels like the worst thing ever written in the history of ever (yes, my muse likes to be really dramatic).

But guess what? Even though in the middle of the book you feel like it's awful, it's not. I mean sure, it's still a rough draft, and depending on how messy your drafts turn out the book could be covered in warts and have three heads (*coughcough*like mine for example). But there is still something there. Something worth keeping. I know this for a fact because I started writing a book a few months ago, and I started to hate it. It might have been the timing--holidays and moving--but I was utterly convinced this book needed to be kicked to the curb.

Except the other night I read the 20,000 words I had on it already, and I was happy to find it doesn't suck. It's still rough, but I even made myself laugh a few times (that probably sounds really narcissistic, but if I am not laughing the readers certainly aren't). I was disappointed when I got to the end of what I had written. Best of all, I want to continue, so that's what I am writing after this WIP (after a short break). This is empirical proof that despite your anxiety, your book isn't totally worthless.

Writing isn't always sunshine and rainbows, but if you try the first solution to the writing doldrums (Just keep writing and push through it) and you still want to set your book on fire and dance on the ashes, you might have another problem at hand, and this malaise is your muse's way of letting you know. 

Most of the time this is what starting a book feels like.
Common First Draft Misfires:

*Your main character is underdeveloped. You haven't thought too much beyond age, name, and physical description for your character. Now you've run out of steam and feel uncertain about what your character would do next. 

The remedy for this is to develop your character a little bit. I said a little! Don't dash off and fill out three bajillion character sheets. Just ask a few important questions. I like Holly Lisle's Create a Character Clinic for this reason. It has a series of questions to ask your character rather than a laundry list of traits. Important things like "What is the one thing in the world you regret most, and what have you done to prevent that from happening again?" Just do enough to get your creativity flowing again, and go back to writing.

*Your main character is too developed. You've come up with a brilliant idea that could change everything, but the character you built before you wrote the book wouldn't do that. Now you're fighting with the character you want them to be versus the character the book needs.

The remedy to this is painful: forget about the ten pages of information on the character you already have. Be flexible with the character and allow them to grow with the story. Your plot will thank you for it.

*Your main character made the wrong choice. This is hard to explain, but go with me on this one. Back up to the place where the writing started to feel like you were trying to suck your eyeballs out of your head via straw. You might have to back up further than that, depending on how much you pay attention to your writerly intuition. In one of these scenes, someone did something out of character. The spunky heroine dropped a line of acid.  The villain let the hero live, because you couldn't figure out how to get your hero out of trouble, and it wasn't time for him to die yet. 

It could be something small. It could be something big. Either way, your story zigged where it should have zagged. Another way of diagnosing the problem is look for when you took the easy way of out of scene. Back to the gun example: Your villain has your hero backed up into a corner with a gun in his face. Your villain is the type who would just shoot the guy. We've seen this in movies so many times, I think we're brainwashed into thinking it's OK for the villain to pause for the three minutes it takes for backup to arrive. Or for the villain to let the hero off with a warning. 

While the rest of us at home are screaming, "Just shoot him!" Well, I am. I don't know about you. The problem is you put the hero into a corner and you couldn't immediately think of a way to get him out, so you just let the villain let him go. If you find a scene where you were lazy, and bent the laws of plot logic, that's probably your culprit. 

(And now I feel like a hypocrite because in the current WIP I actually have a scene where the villain has the heroine at his mercy, and he lets her go. But I actually showed that it's in the villain's character to do such a thing because of their shared back story. Hopefully this makes sense. If not, my beta readers are going to nail me to the wall.)

*Worldbuilding: You've hit a wall in your personal knowledge. Your character has to do something in an area you know nothing about, like diffuse a bomb. It happens. Writing a scene about something you know nothing about is grueling. If it's a one time deal, you can often skip the technical details, and move on with the story ("George doesn't explode, and heads home." End scene). Later, during revision, you do your research and insert the proper details into the scene.
Insert Tab A into Slot B...that's how you diffuse a bomb, right?
However, if the problem pops up again and again, you might not know your setting well enough. Fantasy and Science Fiction authors especially have problems with this, since we're making worlds up from scratch, but the rest of you aren't immune. You might be restricting your scenes to only the places you feel the most comfortable with. Or you might be flubbing the magic system because you haven't developed the details yet. 

 If this is the case, research/make up the details you need to move forward and NOTHING ELSE. Seriously, I will come kick your butt if you abuse this power. :D The object is to get enough information to write the scene and move on. Yes, move on. Do not get on the Wikipedia carousel for the entire day telling yourself it's research. It's not research at this point, but procrastination.  

It is a many splendored carousel indeed.
*Your plot is overdeveloped: A similar malady to having over developed characters. You know absolutely everything that is about to happen. The very thought of writing these scenes bores you to tears. Your muse is thinking "I already know what happens. I'm out."

This is especially problematic if you're writing something highly structured, like a mystery or police procedural. For those of you who aren't writing something like that, I say hide your note cards and forget about what is supposed to happen next. Brainstorm what could happen next based on what has already happened. Force yourself to get creative again, and who knows what awesome ideas you could have? Repeat after me: I am not chained to my outline.

But what if you are? What if you are writing a mystery where you know Alfred did it, because he was sick of cleaning up after Bruce Wayne's weekly benders? You've already laid out all of the clues and foreshadowing to signal the ending, you can't just change things mid course.

But you can! You're the writer, by golly, and the creator of the book. Give yourself the freedom to let the murderer be whoever you might come up with. You've (hopefully) come up with several plausible suspects. What if one of them actually did it? And framed poor Alfred? Remember, you don't have to get this right the first time around. You can decide Robin killed Bruce in a fit of rage because his tight pants cut off his circulation half way through the book, and write the end as though this is how it's always been. In revision you simply go back and make the clues match up with Robin, not Alfred. No one ever has to know you changed it. 

No one ever has to know what happens under the cover of darkness.
*Your plot is underdeveloped. Again, related to not knowing enough about your world or characters. Making stuff up as you go along is super fun, but I always seem to lose steam and interest half way through. Not to step on the toes of the pansters--carry on as your process tells you--but maybe now's the time to start figuring out where this train is heading. Even if you just plan out the next scene or two, it does wonders to your creativity if you have a goal to hit. 

Or you did plot things out, but you left big, fuzzy, I-will-worry-about-that-when-I-get-there places. That's fine too. But now is the time to sit down and figure out how the character is getting from Point A to Point Z. Again, the point is to not take days plotting the rest of the book out, but just enough to renew your interest again. 

*Pressure: While deadlines, self imposed or otherwise, are find and dandy, you might be pressuring yourself too much. You might feel like you have to finishthisbookrightnow. That sort of pressure isn't the best for writing. If it's a self imposed deadline, cut yourself some slack. Slash your word count goals in half. Extend your deadline. Whatever it takes so you don't feel like you have to be done with the book three days ago.

If the deadline isn't self imposed, then try to give yourself some breathing room. If you haven't already, figure out how much you need to write, and by when. Forcing yourself to churn out 12,000 words each day is going to burn you out, quick. Even if it feels like a waste of time, make sure you give yourself some mental space. Take a walk. Watch a movie. Do something to give your brain a break.

Your brain will thank you.
Whatever the problem is, the point is to diagnose the issue and then treat until effective. You don't take antibiotics while you're perfectly healthy, and you shouldn't be researching and worldbuilding and plotting when you're excited about your book again. You should be writing it.

The last ditch method I have is a powerful one, so I don't recommend using it unless you have gone through the rest of the items on this list without luck. No, really. Go through the list, don't just tell yourself your worldbuilding is fine. Think of this as the "In Case of Emergency, Break Glass" tool.

*Time Off. Yes, it's very scary. Do not use this tool unless you really have no other choice. Remember how I told you I hated my last WIP? I wasn't exaggerating. I was so fed up with the characters, the world, the wasn't just insecurity and anxiety. I really thought I would have to do a total rewrite on that book to get it to where it needed to be. 

Even though I am adamantly, wholeheartedly telling you to NOT bounce from story to story, there might still come a time where you need to give yourself some space. Start small, with a day or two.  If that doesn't fix the problem, go to the Compromise, or as I like to think of it, "Tricking Your Muse".

Look at your schedule for your current WIP. Let's say like me, you write every day before work (actually, I am one of those obsessive types where I spend most of my free time writing, especially now that I am actively working on a book).  Allot yourself one day to work on something else, guilt free. I read about the idea for the Busman's Holiday here, and tried it when I was really stuck on a novel. 

Surprisingly, it worked. Something about allowing myself to write what I really wanted to, and not chaining myself to a sinking ship reopened my creativity. I also find that when I allow myself to work on another project, my interest in the current WIP is renewed. Most of the time I don't actually start writing another book, but merely do some worldbuilding or developing that shiny new idea before my interest in the current work in progress returns. I also don't stick to the Busman's Holiday religiously if my interest in the current project is still going strong.

Again, the caveat here is you are still working on your WIP. We WANT to finish our books. Give yourself one day to work on something else, but then get back to work on your current project. This is not an excuse to bounce to another idea and allow it to take up more time then it's allowed to. I find starting a second book is just too much temptation to abandon ship on the current book, so I usually restrict the Busman's Holiday to fleshing out shiny new ideas and worldbuilding for future projects. It's like a mini-vacation from my current book. 

Your last ditch effort is take a break from your book. This is time off, only more than a day or two. Again, don't use this option unless you've tried everything else. It's really easy to think that if you just leave the book alone for a few weeks you'll think of something clever, but you won't. We've ALL been seduced by chasing Shiny New Ideas. We've all thought it would be the best use of our time to just work on what was actively engaging at the time. 

But it's not. Writers write books. It's what we do. A half finished manuscript isn't a book, it's just half done. You wouldn't serve your party guests a half baked cake and call it cake. Before you can do anything meaningful with your book--revise it, query agents, sell it to publishers--it has to be finished. 

So go forth and finish your book!


  1. The changes I'm making to WCO right now are hot! I'd love to have your opinion of it when it's done, since you read the original version. I am very enthused. I think it's a lot better.

  2. Joe: Yaaaaaaay! I am so glad it's finally coming together for you! Let me know when you're done with the changes.

  3. My first novel, I was so ready to be done, that I just waded through the ending. I was fine until that last - Okay, it's been well over a year, so I can't remember when I hit that point, but it was gearing towards the end. I just slogged through. And yes, I wrote crap, but I got to the end.

    When I went back, I was able to fix the crap, because it was at least down, out there, in the world. Birthing is messy and painful, but things always get cleaned up and the end result is worth it. Writing is, too. ;-)

  4. Yes! That's what I think I will do...write the scenes that I know and then work on bridging the rest.

  5. Bridging between scenes... hmm... such a clever idea. Where on earth did you come up with that? ;-)