Here at Obsidianbookshelf.com, I got a comment the other day from JD who described a problem that all of us encounter at least once when we're trying to write fiction -- not being able to finish that first rough draft. Many icky obstacles can rise up to prevent us from finishing. The good news is that countless writers have already experienced the same problems, and have developed many helpful tips. What works for one personality type may not work for another, so you just have to try various solutions and see what works for you. I'll list a few obstacles and solutions as follows …
A note on the advice to be found here. It is simply information on techniques that have worked for one published author (me). Only you can decide if my information will be helpful or not helpful to you.
For example, I point out clichés to avoid, and you can decide if you want to use them as they are, avoid them, or improve the terms with additional description. I personally love the cliché "flashing eyes," even though I know it is a cliche. I will go on using it in my writing.
Improving as a writer is all about experimenting. The only "ironclad rules" in writing fiction are the laws of physics and the principles of grammar, and even those can be bent, if you know what you're doing.
This obstacle jumps into my path a lot! Some writers, including me, can't stand wasting time, which inevitably happens on the rough draft because we're not sure where the plot is going because the idea is so new. We can't stand rambling around with our writing while not knowing where we're going, and then having to cut huge amounts of it later when it becomes more obvious what fits the plot and what doesn't.
Many authors say that they routinely need to delete the first few chapters of their novel because they find out later that it doesn't really start until page 50 or so in the rough draft. But they needed to write those first 50 pages to get to the real beginning.
So we sit, unwilling to start writing until we've either outlined or visualized the entire plot first. Right there, we're already wasting time! Sometimes, you have to start writing in order to get to a point where you can see further along the plot. This involves writing on faith to nudge the plot along. I've heard it compared to driving at night. You can only see what is immediately in the beam of your headlights, which isn't very far, but it is also all you really need to see at that moment. As you continue on, you will see a little farther.
Other writers can't stand how awkward their writing sounds at first when they're not very familiar with their material. They can spend hours writing and re-writing the beginning of their rough draft to make it sound more polished, which kills their momentum. I do some of this, but the time-wasting thing bothers me more.
Solutions for Perfectionism.
1. Give yourself permission to write a really crappy first draft and tell yourself that you can make all the improvements you want as soon as the draft has structural integrity (by that I mean, it has an ending). Nonfiction writer Anne Lamott discusses this in her often hilarious writing guide Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
2. Never stop writing to revise. Keep writing original material until you finish writing the rough draft. I'd advise not even stopping to read back on what you've written. I used to start each new day by reading what I'd written the day before to catch the "mood" of the piece, but I found myself wasting a lot of time reading. If you must read back on what you've written, try keeping it to just that one page that leads up to where you stopped writing for that day.
3. To be added as I and others think of more solutions. Feel free to make suggestions!
Obstacle: TOO MANY IDEAS.
This is what JD is describing here in the comment I received: "… whenever I lie in bed, I develop my story further and, because I delay the writing process, by the time I've done one chapter I have a large amount of ideas. The problem with that is I then get discouraged from writing it when I have a rough idea of an ending because I no longer have the excitement of wondering what happens."
This tough problem can become a strong point if you can keep your momentum going (see next obstacle) because it means you have a fertile imagination. Writers with this problem need to get their ideas under control by documenting them (briefly - with a few words on a list, maybe) and sorting them into groups based on what you'll use for the current project and what might work better in future projects.
A related problem involves losing your enthusiasm to keep writing once you've figured out the ending. That can be difficult, no question! A good practice is NEVER to let yourself talk about your work-in-progress to friends or writing communities or anyone. Talking about it can sap your momentum. I read somewhere that author Amy Tan had this happen to her -- she talked about an idea to the point where she no longer wanted to start writing it.
If you've figured out the ending of your story and it's caused you to lose enthusiasm about writing towards what you've seen, you might have stalled momentum. Me, I'm usually so incredibly happy and grateful to have seen the ending at all that it carries me a long way with the actual writing. But I know what you mean. I've had that moment where I see the ending, I get over being happy, and then I realize how much work it's going to take to write the whole thing up. The thought of all that plodding can kill your energy, at least for a short while.
One thing that helps me is a solution I describe below under "Stalled Momentum." If you've visualized the ending already but don't know how you'll find the energy to write it up, you're already looking at the big picture. Try to shake yourself out of your stalled situation by doing the opposite thing and look at the close-up. Pick the very next small obstacle the hero has to overcome to get to his ending, and ask yourself questions about the details. How will he find out the information he needs? Who will he talk to? What will he have to offer to get their cooperation? And so on.
Solutions for Too Many Ideas.
1. As future scenes occur to you, add them to an outline so that you don't forget them. Then drag your focus back to the place in the novel you're actually working on. If you continue to get a flood of ideas, note them down briefly (so you don't use up your time and energy on lengthy descriptions). Then put them out of your mind and go back to your work-in-progress.
2. Never talk about your work-in-progress with anyone, or post outlines, or interact too much with critique groups, especially where it involves describing your entire work. Ideas can get stolen that way, and at the very least, momentum gets lost. Critique groups and beta readers are most useful when you've finished your rough draft and have revised it close to publication.
3. If you have a problem with too many ideas, you're probably one of those writers who are great with seeing the big picture, but not as good at seeing the close-up. Once you've seen the big picture (the entire plot), choose a scene and focus on the details of that scene to draw yourself back into the writing.
4. To be added as I and others think of more solutions. Feel free to make suggestions!
Obstacle: STALLED MOMENTUM
This problem ambushes me even more frequently than perfectionism. For various reasons, I just can't write any further. If you're a big-picture type of writer (see Too Many Ideas above), you might run out of energy. Try a close-up approach to jolt yourself out of your stagnation. Those like me who are more of a close-up type might not know what to write next. We should try looking at the big picture to force ourselves into motion. Usually, when you try doing the opposite thing than you would ordinarily do, you can jump-start your momentum.
The best thing you can do to overcome stalled momentum is to write daily, which is what Stourmy advises in the paragraph below. Start writing on your project as if you already have good momentum. Sometimes pretending that you do is enough to bring it on. If that doesn't work, try the approach of looking at either the big picture or the close-up view (see solutions list below). If neither approach works at that moment, try writing up things that you might not actually use verbatim in your project, but which will help you understand your main character better -- because plot grows out of desire which grows out of character. Write up a description of your hero's weird childhood, even though you know you won't put any of it in your story. It might jog loose a new idea that will pull you into action.
Fill out a character sheet that lists all of your hero's phobias, physical scars and how he got each, hobbies, and favorites (food, color, music, clothes). All of these exercises can coax forth new ideas and give you a better understanding of your main character. Here's a book that might help: List Your Self. If even that doesn't work, write about how you feel about being blocked, as Stourmy advises below. At least, you're writing now rather than sitting in blocked frustration. You can often think of unexpected ideas this way, or at very least your momentum going.
Here is Stourmy's advice from a recent comment to this blog: "... I read somewhere that a good way to finish what you start or even improve your writing is to do it daily. If you find yourself stuck at a writer’s block in terms of the story, then write on a separate paper why you are blocked. I found that very helpful when I was trying to get my character moved from making herself lunch to the important meeting she had (I didn’t want to just "pull the curtains closed" and have her appear already at the meeting. I wrote in my notebook about why I could not think of how to get her past the kitchen and then several ideas that could work. In the end I used another character to speed the pace and make her want to get to the meeting."
Solutions for Stalled Momentum.
1. Take the big picture view. Imagine yourself viewing your own plot the way you might view your hometown in Google Maps once you've pulled back to a continental view. Figure out the answers to the following essential, but broad, questions: who is your hero, what does he want, what obstacle stands in his way, and what does he do to overcome that obstacle and get what he wants?
Take the original Star Wars movie as an example. Who is the hero? Luke, an inexperienced farm boy. What does he want? To gain experience and have his coming-of-age (see how this grows out of who he is?). What stands in his way? The evil Empire, which wants to acquire information stored on this new droid R2D2 that has fallen into his hands. They threaten to kill him and take his droid, and his droid is the key that he needs to lead him to his coming of age. What does he do to overcome the Empire and get his coming-of-age experience? He takes his droid to the rebellion and joins the fight.
You write all this down, and you have the big picture. (Here is another handy book that can help you analyze popular plots like Star Wars: The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition. To see the big picture to begin with, sometimes you have to look at where your story is stuck and ask what would really happen from here? I can get very bogged down with polishing up the details endlessly. I find it helps me to race ahead and rough in the plot structure with dialog and simple descriptive tags only, and insert the elaborate descriptions (or the sex scenes, ha, ha!) later. Just keep moving. Write your story like a screenplay at first if you have to, and then add the descriptions on your second pass.
2. Take the close-up view. In the Star Wars example above, let's say that you've just introduced Luke and the thing he wants most which grows out of his nature (he wants experience). You know that he ultimately has to be threatened by the Empire because of his droid, and he has to overcome this threat by winning a big victory for the rebellion. But right now, you're stalled on his home planet, having filled in all these great details about the sand everywhere and his boring aunt and uncle, and how he has nothing to do. Where do you go from here?
If you were writing this story as a rough draft, you probably would have begun it with Luke living on Tatooine, feeling bored. Your opening scene would involve him going to the droid market where he acquires R2D2 and C3PO. You need to ask yourself questions about what happens next to start filling in the details. What is special about R2D2? Well, he's carrying a holographic message for help that will connect Luke with both Obi Wan Kenobi and Princess Leia. Who is Princess Leia?
As soon as you answer that, you've filled in some back story. Keep writing to the end. Later, you'll realize that the true beginning involves the spaceship battle and droids' escape above Luke's home planet that you came up with in the back story. You'll rearrange scenes, which is not something you want to distract yourself with right now when you're trying to finish the rough draft. When you chip away at the details with questions and find out things, that should renew your enthusiasm for the story (that you've already visualized) and to help you to write it down.
3. When you're nearing the end of your writing day, try to break off in the middle of a scene. It's much easier to start writing again the next day if you've just broken off while still mentally involved with that scene. By contrast, if you completely wrap up that scene or chapter, it can be hard to start again from a full, cold stop the next day and flesh out a whole new scene or chapter. This is because beginnings are the hardest thing to write.
Note: There is more! Because the website traffic is so high on these "how to write" articles, I have expanded two of them from the roughly 2000 words per article that you see on the website/blog to 15,000 words each. I am offering them as Kindle documents on Amazon, if you are interested. Here are the links if you would like to have a look and download a free sample.
How to Write Descriptions of Eyes and Faces
(Just so you know, this 15,000-word book contains the 3651-word Eye Color list from my website plus the 1731-word article How to Describe Eyes, also from my website. The other 9618 words in the book are all-new material.)
How to Write Descriptions of Hair and Skin
(Just so you know, this 14,900 word book contains the 2000-word article HT Describe Hair from my blog plus the 600-word Hair Color list from my website. The other 12,300 words in the book are all-new material.)
Do you not own a Kindle? No problem. You can get a free Kindle app to read Kindle books on your reader of choice, and it is very easy to install. You click the link for the app you want and it practically installs itself. Believe me, if I could do it, anyone can. With the free app, you can read Kindle books on your computer (PC or Mac), iPod, iPad, iPhone, Blackberry, Android, and Windows Phone 7. Here is the link to all the Kindle reading apps available: all FREE Kindle reading apps located here.
Copyright © Obsidian Bookshelf. I don't allow my content to be copied and reposted in full. You may use an excerpt (a few sentences) with a return link, but not the entire post. (You're more than welcome to save these how-to articles to your computer for your own private reference.)