Sunday, July 18, 2010

How to finish writing your rough draft no matter what!

Here at, 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!

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!

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.)


  1. I talk about my stuff. Seems to help. Turns out I'm a performance artist and NOT having an audience for what I'm doing (as I do it) slows me down.

    I'm taking advice from Victor Moran: Write 5 words a day. Just commit to 5. You will finish doing that. (So far, the fewest words that 5 has been turned out to be 32)

  2. Hi, Angelia, and thanks for the comment! Outstanding! It's a source of comfort to me how many different solutions there are to how to get yourself to finish the rough draft (or lose weight, or give up smoking, or complete a lot of common goals). These solutions can even seem contradictory -- talk about your idea, don't talk about your idea -- but different things work for different people.

    And that 5 words per day advice is awesome! Only 5 words doesn't sound like a remotely intimidating goal, and we just might trick ourselves into writing more once the momentum gets going.

  3. Excellent help for this perfect specimen we call Ms Stalled Momentum :(.

    If I'm even remotely overtired or stressed - work or family or anything other than writing - the whole thing grinds to a halt. I find it helps to REMIND myself at these times I'm under the influence of this, and it will pass. Then I lower my expectations for that day - a day at a time, right?! - and look forward to starting afresh the next day. I think that may be a bit like taking Stourmy's advice.

    And, goodness, but #3 is the exact reason I'm stuck at the moment with my current WIP. I stopped neatly at the end of a chaptere - now I'm strugging to get my 'voice' back! :)

    I like the 'just 5 words' approach.

  4. How about a combination. LOL I am always going back and reading over what I wrote and changing it, adding a comma, etc. It helps me I guess "remember" where I've been, so those parts are fresh in my mind because sometimes it may be weeks (or days) between writing jags.

    I also sometimes get stalled out when I'm not really sure how I want the next little bit to go. I know what came before, I know what I want to come after, but the bridge is looking murky. However I CAN NOT be one of those people who hops over the divide and continues on writing then goes back and builds the bridge. Just can't do it. I've tried it for bits and it grates on me so I have to go back and fill it in or it just sits there bugging me and I can't focus on the next part. Call it a quirk. :-) I also can't use an outline I discovered. I tried, got to page 10 and it all went to hell. Not my thing I guess.

    I've kind of stalled out on my circus story for that reason. I need to let it sit and gel maybe so I wrote something else completely different that's been nagging at me. I'll be on vacation then I'll come back and hopefully the supplies for the bridge will be waiting. Because writing is not my career or income source, it's just something I piddle around with, it doesn't matter if I don't write for weeks. LOL And sometimes that happens. *shrug*

    Great advice though with some hand tips.

  5. Hi, Clare and Tam! Thanks for the comments. You both have some great feedback to add here.

    Clare, you're so right about the one day at a time approach. Angelia's version of this with 5 words is great -- it gets us around all that guilt and procrastination. And you're right, the blocked feeling will pass, and it does help to remember that we've come through it before.

    That stopping in the middle of a chapter or scene technique (even though I know how it ends) really does seem to "prime the pump" when I sit back down to write the next day. I wish I could take credit for that advice, but it's something I heard somewhere before. I've even heard advice to break off in the middle of a line of dialog, but I think I wouldn't be able to remember specifically how it should end. Breaking off mid-scene seems to work.

    Tam, I know just what you mean. I find it subtly irritating when I can't do the scenes in linear order. It's very hard to jump ahead and write the ending first like some do. I do work with outlines, so I can do this (write scenes out of order) if I have to, but it does feel awfully weird. :) Good luck with that circus story! I want to read it.

  6. Val,

    Thank you so much for this post. I emailed it to my inbox as well as printed it. Hopefully, your advice will serve me well when I finally gather the courage to begin writing M/M


  7. Hi, Ozakie! I'm so glad I could help. I think that's awesome that you're interested in writing m/m fiction! I look forward to reading it. :)

  8. Wonderful article and great ideas (comments included). I have problem with writing in linear fashion. The story I am working on started out very linear, until I started taking a notebook with me when I went to the laundromat. At that point I had two parts I worked on, one was at the end of my story and one was a way to explain how and what happened to my main character prior to meeting Ivan and Donovan. I am still trying to figure out how and exactly where to incorporate that part into the story but at least I have it in the notebook ready to be added when I can type it in.

  9. Val! I miss you!!!!! *sniff*

  10. Bless your heart, Chris! I'm having a hectic few weeks, but I'm going to get back to full time reviewing by the middle of this week. :)

  11. Hey Val, I just wanted to thank you for all of your writing information. I used to write a lot, but I haven't for about 5 years and this is helping me start back up seriously. I'm writing my first novel now and this is really helping me out. Thanks :)

  12. Cole, that's wonderful! I didn't know that you were interested in writing fiction, and I'm very happy to hear that these articles are helping. I hope you'll keep us posted on your novel!

  13. This article, like all the rest, was really great!
    Ever since I began to want to write stories when I was 10, I've been having a lot of problems. Right now, I have a million drafts all over my room, and all of them from different stories I gave up on. It seems that every time I get a story outline in my head, a lot of ideas about the plot of that story comes running in, so I always edit my story and end up with a completely different one. I can't seem to settle on one :/
    The other problem is that while I have so many different scenes in my head, I can't seem to pen them down! When I do, they lose the feel that they had when they were still living in my mind. Ugh!
    Your article did help quite a lot though. Thanksya!

  14. Hello, Faith Estelle, you're very welcome and thank you for the comment! I'm glad the articles help. You sound the luckiest of all writers -- all those ideas! Definitely take notes so you don't forget them, and then keep writing on the best one.

    That's an interesting problem you describe about the written idea losing the overall feel that it had in your mind. Maybe there is a way to recapture that feel on the rewrite? Hmmm. Food for thought.

  15. I realized recently that talking about my ideas kills them instantly, and I'm forced to shelf them even if I really like them. I even tested it out - I had an idea for a book based around dreams, and refused to tell anybody about it. Then one day I told a friend, and I instantly lost interest. It sucked. Nowadays, I don't even tell people whether I'm working on an idea or not. It seems to be working so far.

  16. Hello, Anonymous, and thanks for your comment. I can totally understand what you describe. I think the act of communicating an idea verbally takes away from the momentum to communicate it in writing. It's always awful when this happens. I'm with you -- I try not to talk about the idea too much either at first. :)

  17. I got so many ideas just waiting to be typed that it's hard to really focus on my plot and my main characters and other things.I want to type all the new ideas I have out but I'm afraid that it might ruin the story. so I am just giving up -I don't have anymore good ideas anyway.

  18. Anonymous, it never hurts to break off from writing your main project and type a paragraph about each idea into an Ideas File as you think of them.

    Then you can get back to your main project and put in the daily practice on that, knowing that your new ideas are documented and you won't forget.

    When you finish your daily wordcount on your main project, you can open your Ideas File and play around with developing the ideas.

    The important thing is to prioritize your main project so that you keep making progress on that, but to allow a few moments to document those new ideas (and allow some time after your daily wordcount is met on the main project to play with your future ideas).

    If you feel like giving up, you're probably putting too much pressure on yourself and need a short break. Not to worry. When you come back to it, writing will seem like fun again. :)

  19. Thank you for making this article (along with the others). Ive been writing since the 6th grade, they were mostly children books and short stories but now Ive decided to take up the challenge of writing my first novel. Its been a pain since i constantly get writer's block or just get bored of it. Now i realized that I made so many mistakes that i actually thinking about rewriting the entire story, but i actually like the plot and my characters. Its very frustrating. Please help me.

  20. Anonymous, you have my sympathy. I have been there. :) Sometimes it helps to take a break from your writing if you are at the point of utter frustration. You may be surprised how good your rough draft looks when you read it again after taking a break of a few days or a week.

    The other thing that helps is to think about the novel and figure out which part of it is the most interesting to you. It could be the overall conflict. It could be one certain character. It could be the chance to write about a group of characters who are very different from yourself. Or maybe it could be a certain scene of reunion or revenge or first meetings or something else that you have been looking forward to writing. Or it could be a whole stretch of dialog between two characters.

    Whatever your favorite thing about the novel is, go to that part and write it (no matter where it falls in your plot). Then see if you can build backward or forward from that point and fill in the rest of the novel. Often the experience of writing something really fun for you will bring the whole thing to life. Very best of luck to you!

    1. THANK YOU SO MUCH,Val! Youve been a big help!! Ill start right away!

  21. Anissia, you're very welcome! I'm so glad I could help. :)

  22. Awesome advice! I'll definitely use these tips next time I'm stuck on my WIP.

  23. Thank you! I'm glad I could help. :)

  24. I went (and still going through) some stressful times. I used to write all sorts of things I have several story outlines that I've never quite finished because of personal issues. But I've finally (I hope!) gotten back to writing and I'm feeling pretty confident about my current novel. :) These topics have helped me out a lot. Especially the descriptive articles. Thank you so much for these.

  25. You're very welcome, Kate, and thank you very much for the comment! I'm so pleased that these articles have been helpful to you. Very best of luck with your writing. :)


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