Keep going: how to power through a draft

You’ve got your novel idea. You’ve named the characters, you’ve figured out some or all of what’s going to happen to them, you’ve nailed your first line. You’ve put in the hours and, slowly but surely, your book is starting to emerge. It’s all plain sailing from here, right?

Probably not, friends. Hardly ever, in fact (although we live in hope). It’s incredibly common for writers to stall in the middle of their first draft, whether it’s their first book or their fifteenth. If that’s you – if you’re having a crisis of confidence in the story or finding the words just aren’t coming and you don’t know why – don’t panic. Here are some tips which might help:

Revisit your plan

You might have meticulously plotted your novel out or perhaps set off with at least the main story beats clearly mapped in your head. You felt confident that the story arc was set, that everything was in place. But now you come to write it, you’re stuck. It’s hard work. Getting from point C to point D on the plan is not the easy task you’d expected. Don’t worry – this is really normal. You’ve spent some time with your characters by now, and so your understanding of them has probably changed. Suddenly the thing you need them to do feels… wrong. It doesn’t work with the picture of them that’s still developing in your head. Instead of trying to force your way through, go back to the drawing board. Are there little changes you need to make to the plot to make everything fit together in a different way? 

And if you didn’t set out with a plan, now could be the time to think about making one. Getting started with an exciting new idea with no real plot in mind is thrilling and a great way to immerse yourself in the world of the story, but it’s also easy to lose your way. Giving yourself permission to plan ahead for the next bit might help you find that enthusiasm again and get you back on track.

Revisit your characters

On the flip side, it could be that the plot’s all technically working fine but you’re struggling to get the words down because you don’t know your characters well enough yet. This could be on a practical level – you need to uncover their backstory to understand why they’re going to do or say the things you want them to – or something deeper; you’re still figuring out what it’s like to be inside that character’s head, how they see the world around them (and, if you’re writing in the first person, what they sound like). This is all part of the process and something that will happen naturally as you continue on writing and editing. But if you feel like it’s really holding you back, maybe now’s the time to pause and do some exercises to build up those character profiles in your head. Richard Skinner often gets his Writing a Novel students to write a letter from their main character to themselves, or you can use character questionnaires as an easy of deepening your understanding of each person in your story (we’ve got one of those here, in fact).

Set a target

There’s no one-size-fits-all way to go about this. Think about your daily routine and the other demands on your time and be realistic: is a set amount of writing time the best thing to aim for, or a number of words? Would a weekly or monthly target be better than a daily one so that you can be more flexible with how you reach it? Or would a stricter set of goals be more helpful for you?

If you started the process with a target in mind, think about how that might be affecting things now – are you disheartened because you keep missing it? Under-motivated because you feel like you could be doing more? Change things up and keep a record for extra accountability (we’re not saying you have to use a star chart, but, you know, consider giving yourself a star chart).

Look at your routine

On a related note, now might also be time to reevaluate your routine. Do you have one? Is it helping? For some people, having a particular time of day (or day of the week) set aside as writing time is really helpful. It can make it easy for your brain to switch into story mode, particularly if you’re sitting down to write in the same place every day. If that’s not something you’re currently doing, think about the ways in which you could find a bit more structure, signalling to yourself that this is book time and that you’ll be closing the door on the rest of the world during it.

But not everyone’s brain works best like that, and it could be that trying to stick to a regimented writing schedule is the thing that’s slowing you down. If that’s the case, think about how you could switch things up to re-energise yourself. Maybe stick with the time of day you like writing best, but take yourself to a different space. The pressure of the blank screen can feel overwhelming; would it help to switch to notebook and pen in the park for a bit?

Find the mood

Once you’ve started getting into the nitty-gritty of your story – the point where that perfect Shiny New Idea has started to grow plot complications and character hold-ups and sentences that just won’t do what you want them to do – you can lose sight of the things that made you fall in love with the idea in the first place. Pinterest is your friend! (Other moodboarding apps are available). Spend a day curating images, songs and objects which make you think about your characters and capture the mood you want in the novel. You can either stick them around your desk or just make a file on your laptop or phone; the goal is to have something you can dip into whenever you’re feeling frustrated with how it’s going or as if you’ve lost your way. You’re looking for an emotional connection; the things which trigger the feelings you had about the story when you first sat down to write it.

Celebrate

It’s very easy to feel daunted by the sheer size of a novel – which is why people often have a wobble around the 15,000–30,000 word mark. You’ve been working hard, the pages are filling up… and then you look at the wordcount on your screen and realise just how far there is to go. Like anything in life, it’s much easier to break that down into several, smaller tasks. Mark each milestone as you go, whether it’s every 10,000 words or every chapter or reaching the end of each of the three or five acts you’ve mapped out; whatever works for you. And celebrate when you reach them! There are authors who actually buy and wrap themselves little gifts for each milestone in their draft, but it could be anything: a day off, your favourite dinner, a film you’ve been dying to rent. Enjoy each of these stages instead of it becoming a race to the final line. It’s great to keep your eyes on the prize but the process becomes a lot more fun if you get actual prizes on the way there.

Reread old favourites

There are plenty of writers who won’t read fiction by anyone else when they’re in a middle of a draft. That’s okay but for others, there’s nothing like reading a really great book to spur you on to write yours. If you’re feeling really stuck in the middle of a draft, consider going back to books you’ve loved in the past. The kind of books that made you want to write in the first place. And remember: those books all started as difficult first drafts too, once upon a time. We promise.

 

Q&A with Holly Race

We always love chatting to our alumni and we were thrilled to welcome Holly Race back for one of our Twitter Q&As last month. Holly’s debut YA fantasy novel, Midnight’s Twins, had just been published and we talked about the inspiration behind it, the process behind planning a trilogy and how she uses her experience in script development when plotting her character arcs.

FA: Welcome, Holly! Thanks so much for joining us and congratulations on the publication of Midnight’s TwinsDo you want to start by telling us a bit about the book?

HR: Thanks! Midnight’s Twins is a YA fantasy set between our world and the dream world. 15-year-old Fern and her twin brother Ollie discover that there’s an army who protects dreamers from their nightmares – because if we die in our dreams, we die in real life too.

FA: It’s SUCH a great pitch… Where did the idea come from? And how long did it take you to write?

HR: I’ve always had very vivid dreams (& nightmares!) which made me wonder what would happen if those dreams were real in some way? If the dream world was an alternative reality we entered every time we went to sleep? Everything else stemmed from there. I had that idea about 10 years ago, so it’s taken a while to come to fruition! I spent a LONG time planning it, then my husband snapped at me to write the thing already & prompted me to apply for Faber Academy, & I haven’t looked back since.

FA: And we’re so happy you came to us! Ten years is an amazing amount of time to spend immersed in that world – the novel is the first in a trilogy, did you have the other books already planned out at that point?

HR: Me too! You guys & @JoannaBriscoe definitely gave me the confidence to get stuck in! I actually originally had it mapped out as a five part series, until I started taking it out to agents, who told me that this was maybe a bit… ambitious. They were right in the end (as usual!). 

I re-mapped it out as a trilogy as my agents were taking the book out to publishers, and it’s a lot stronger, even if some of the smaller threads I’d wanted to explore have had to be cut. Having said that, I’ve tweaked some things in the plans for books 2 & 3 over the last year. One character got a reprieve. Two more are getting the chop…

FA: I love that – ruthless! Actually that leads in well to another question we’ve had about the editing process for Midnight’s Twins… how much did the novel change? And are you someone who edits as they go or do you prefer to get everything on the page first?

HR: Having spent years planning the first novel, I ended up going off piste in the second chapter! Originally, Fern was going to be recruited into the knights directly, but when I was writing it made more sense for it to be Ollie who’s recruited instead. That had a huge impact not only on the plot for the first half of the book, but also on Fern’s emotional journey, because she spends a lot of time trying to prove herself, and believing that she doesn’t belong. Once I’d written that, though, I didn’t go back to re-plan. I decided to power through and get a very rough first draft, which worked well for me in the end. I accepted that I’d end up doing a lot of editing, but I definitely prefer to have words on the page as soon as possible, even if most of those words end up in the bin. 

It also helps to have been through that rather painstaking process already when your editor gives you notes, I think. My editor, who is *incredible*, turned up to our first meeting (before I’d even got a publication deal!) with reams of questions. Midnight’s Twins is now very different from the version that was sent out to publishers. It’s more ambitious, gallops through more plot and the relationships are more complex now. It’s a much better creature for having gone through a ruthless editing process.

FA: That’s so interesting – I think sometimes even the most meticulous of plotters will find the characters pulling them in another direction once they sit down to write! I love how important that emotional journey is to you too, and the relationship between Fern and Ollie – could you tell us a little bit about how you developed that, and do you have any advice for writers who are trying to get to know their characters better?

HR: I have an old system that I used to use when I was a theatre director (yonks and yonks ago!) and was tracking relationships and character arcs in scripts. It’s a bit difficult to describe on Twitter, but it involves making a sort of graph of my characters’ key ‘want’. I map how close or far they are from achieving their goal as the story progresses – ideally I’d end up with a nice variation of curves. If anyone wants to see in more detail how I do this, it’s on my Instagram stories (@holly_race) under ‘character arcs’. I use variations of this for mapping multiple characters, their relationships with each other and also what the reader wants for them. I find it easier that way to see where something is missing, or where they hit a boring plateau.

As for trying to get to know your characters better: there are a lot of brilliant resources online with questions you can ask your character, or ideas for scenes that you can write, and I think a lot of people do find those exercises very helpful. I am not one of those people! Personally, the only way I can get to know my characters is by writing the story – maybe it’s because I’m writing fantasy, but until I can get them into that world, I can’t truly anticipate how they’re going to react.

FA: Oh wow, that’s brilliant – you may well have just sorted out my Friday night plans for me, as I’m at this stage with my WIP at the moment! Okay, another question: Which books helped/inspired you while you were writing?

HR: Ha! Nothing like trying to work out a character arc over a Friday night glass of wine! The main inspiration for Midnight’s Twins is an epic poem called The Faerie Queene, which I fell in love with at uni. It’s set in a gorgeous fantasy world and features horses, knights & battles. I think I’ve probably also been influenced a lot by books like His Dark Materials, The Hunger Games & The Sword in the Stone. Someone told me that the book reminded them of Buffy, too, which was the ultimate compliment as I binged on BTVS as a teen.

FA: Yep, that is *definitely* the ultimate compliment if you ask me! Okay, time for one more question before we let you go… or actually it’s a combination of two (sneaky). On Facebook, you’ve been asked: ‘I got to know Fern a lot in this first book. Will we get to know Ollie more in the next?’ We’ve also had a couple of people asking if you can give away any spoilers for Book 2 – so are there any secrets you can share with us?

HR: The story is still from Fern’s POV, but we definitely get to know Ollie better in book 2. We spend more time unravelling some of the insecurities that led to him acting the way he does in book 1, which I’m really excited about. As for the rest of book 2? Weeeeell… there’s a lot more romance & more at stake because the Big Bad is growing stronger, in this world and in the dream world. We’ve got an influx of new characters, including someone who had a cameo in book 1 (feel free to send me your guesses!)

FA: Exciting!!! And hopefully you’ll come back and chat to us again then. Thanks so much for all your answers, you’ve been brilliant – off I go to start mapping my arcs…

HR: Thank you so much for having me! Good luck!

Holly Race is now a full-time writer, but she used to work in TV and film script development, for companies like Red Planet Pictures, Aardman Animations and Working Title. She is a graduate of our Writing a Novel course, and Midnight’s Twins is her debut novel and the first in a trilogy. Holly lives in Cambridge with her husband and daughter. In her spare time, she enjoys baking, trying not to kill plants, and travelling to far off places at short notice.

 

Midnight’s Twins is published by Hot Key Books and is available in paperback and ebook now.