All published books have one crucial characteristic in common that you must master before you will be a published author. It’s not any of the usual qualities writing teachers insist upon—showing instead of telling, motivation/reaction units, or proper character arcs.
What is the secret?
All published books are finished.
While many published books are poorly written, some to the point they’re painful to read, they are finished.
I don’t have much experience with getting published, but I have completed the first step—finishing a rough draft, so I’ll provide some tips on how to do that. Keep in mind every writer has his or her own style, so this may not apply to you. This is what works for me.
- Set goals you can reach. These goals can be daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly. I’ve been using Scrivener, which tracks these goals. For example, I know that I won’t write on the two days I work at the library, and I’ll plan on having another day that I don’t write. If I get behind, I can use that extra day to get back on track.
I recently had the goal of writing 30K words on a story between January 11 and February 15. Scrivener told me how many words I needed to write each day, so I got slightly ahead, allowing me to finish on time.
Figure out what sort of goal works best for you and do it. This helps get you into the habit of writing every day, or at least every day you plan to write.
- Try to avoid editing. My rule follows: if editing is going to take more than ten or twenty minutes, I’ll make a note of the problem and fix it in the rewrite. When I write a first draft, even if I created an outline beforehand, I usually bounce around in the plot as I feel out what works and what doesn’t. Wandering around is okay in the first draft. You can fix it in the rewrite and throw out all those dead plot bunnies.
If you’re really worried about forgetting important things you need to fix, keep a document with notes to yourself about what you need to do in the rewrite.
- This goes double for rewrites. You might know your first chapter isn’t working, but this doesn’t mean you should go back and rewrite the first 10K words before you continue. Once you finish your book, you’ll probably have a better idea of what you need to put in the first chapter. If I know that something big needs to be fixed, I normally pretend I already rewrote the first part of the book. Remember, it doesn’t have to be publishable right now. It’s a rough draft. Relax and finish it.
- Don’t start writing until you know you’ve got a story. This seems to be a common beginner problem. If you start writing and you’ve have only two chapters worth of story, you might have trouble finishing. Even if you do finish, the plot may be convoluted since you didn’t know where the plot would go. This is one of the reasons I’ve started outlining. It lets me know if my idea can become an entire book. You don’t necessarily need to outline, but at least think the idea over for a while. (Some people are good enough at seat-of-the-pants story creation to disregard this advice.)
Something that may help you with issues like this, especially if you have enough time, is NaNoWriMo, an online writing program that challenges people to complete a novel (50K words) during the month of November. The challenge forces you to keep writing rather than editing. Unless you’re used to doing NaNo-like word counts, the book you have at the end of the month will probably be awful. This isn’t the point. The point is to realize you can write 50K words in a month, which was a huge confidence boost for me when I first participated.
So, now that you know some ways to finish, what if you get the dreaded writers’ block?
Identify what the block is.
The biggest block is what I’ve called LWS (Lazy Writers’ Syndrome). This isn’t really a block; it’s when you would rather watch funny cat videos instead of knuckling down and writing. If you want to be an author, you need to learn to write even when you don’t feel like it.
The second block is not knowing what to do next with the story. When I’m confused about what happens next, I don’t want to write, which leads to LWS. One way to get past this is to give your character an urgent goal since it gives him/her direction. The desire to get your character to the goal will drive you toward the finish line. Remember, the main character isn’t the only person with a goal. Minor characters, villains, and yes, even evil henchmen have goals of some sort.
Recently, I started outlining. It allows me to know what to do and write faster, as well as to make sure I’ve got a proper plot arc and some idea of the character’s goals. Remember, outlines can be very basic, and you don’t have to follow the outline if you come up with a better idea.
Research block is another obstacle. If I don’t know enough about the subject, I succumb to LWS. The best way to get out of this is to finish the research, or in the first draft, push through and worry about details later.
Another type of block occurs when an author simply runs out of ideas. This hasn’t been a problem for me, but I have heard it can help to go back and edit earlier parts of the story, listen to emotion-inducing music, or brainstorm with creative friends. Asking “What if?” is useful too, especially while watching movies or reading books. What if the evil empire won? What if no superhero came to stop the supervillain? What if the “Chosen One” got killed? These are things you can ask that might jumpstart a new plot.
Once you identify the type of block you are facing, you can attack it head on and get back to writing. Keep at it and eventually you’ll have a rough draft, then comes the scary stuff, like editing. I’ll let someone else handle that issue.
Jessi Roberts is an aspiring writer from Montana.
Here is her contact information:
Categories: Guest Post
Thoroughly enjoyed this. Inspiring and readable. Would like to get to know you!
Thanks! I’m glad you liked it and I enjoy getting to know new people.
I find that’s one of my biggest problems. I have a great idea work at it for a while, then hit writers block. I usually have the arch of the story but it’s the connecting points I don’t always have. Then I move on to another idea. Thank you so much for your advice!
I’ve had that issue before, but I’ve gotten better with it. I try to avoid moving on to another story too soon since a lot of writers who do that never finish very many stories. You might also want to try outlining, which can be a big help in middles.
That’s typically how I do it. In short, I think about each scenario as a series of possible outcomes. For instance, that opening scene from Reapers. If I were writing it, it would have been something like this in my head: “I have Phoenix, Alex, and Molly’s family. Phoenix is likely to do A,B, or C, here, which means Alex will do D, E, or F. If Phoenix does…” Well, you see how it is. It’s based where they are and what’s around them, the situation itself, and the combination of characters. So, if were to trade out Phoenix for Singapore, this scene would be much different, for instance. Or if Alex weren’t present. Or if Molly’s mother reacted differently than she had. So, when I’m not sure, my first line of defense is always “who do I have in this scene, where are they, and what’s the situation?”
If that doesn’t help, or there’s just too many options, I look at the bigger picture, my next road mark. Road marks are the things that don’t change; they define the story. Which option will best get me there?
And if that doesn’t work, a friend taught me another one, which is to look at the upcoming marker and work backwards to the scene I’m stumped on.
That’s a great idea. I will make good use of that.
Kaci, I teach writing to homeschool students, have done so for 25 years, so I love finding new “story starters,” etc. May I use your idea w/the possible outcomes theme? I like to challenge the kids to use stories they’re familiar with and change them in various ways. This would be a fun exercise, to substitute a character in a scene with another, either from the story itself or from another genre, historical time period, etc. Teaching writing to young people, showing them how to use their writing to reach their peers, is a passion that never dies in me. They’re incredible! I love them all.
Certainly! I’m happy to find it’s helpful! 0=)
This is an excellent post, Jessi! I love that you gave different options for different writing styles, because I am still trying to find what works best for me. Keep writing, warrior woman of the Lord!
Reblogged this on Jessi L. Roberts, author and commented:
A guest post I did for Bryan Davis.
Wow, it’s almost like this post was written for me. Finishing my stories is my main problem. This was very helpful! Thank you!
I’m glad I can help you. Not finishing the story is something I see a lot of writers struggling with.
Wow. The timing is impeccable. Because I need to actually…finish a story…and have it published by June. 😛
This was a great reminder that I seriously need to blast my block, and the advice was very helpful. I’m planning on using a few of those jump-starts. 😀
Now, time to break out the instrumental music and lock up my inner editor (who insists on critiquing as I go!) for a little while…
Thanks for the article!
And in the spirit of not succumbing to LWS, I’ll be as quick as possible. 0=) Great post.
I think this was hard for me as someone who honestly never planned a book until my senior year of high school, and that was iffy (my friend and I planned the gist together, and then I apparently tried to recreate a system as big as the Star Trek cosmos), so really don’t count anything pre-college. I never considered my need to stop and think through the next sequence as writer’s block, because, well, I knew where I wanted to go, just not immediately how to get there (I described it as a road trip).
Accordingly, that’s made the editing/revisions part a challenge, and #3 is actually the one I’ve been trying to figure out. I can and will finish out of sheer stubbornness, but then I want to move on, not edit (this is Impatient Writer Syndrome – IWP).
Another side-tip to alleviate the editor/researcher bug: Use Track Changes Comments. This lets you make the note right next to the point of contest (can’t remember a story-detail; don’t like this sentence; exchange this modern American word/cliche for something witty and in-world; fix this sentence; flesh out this scene; research sword types; how long does it take to walk from the English Channel to Scotland; what is the world record for long-distance running, in both speed and distance?) and move on. It also lets you click through the comments later at a much quicker rate than scrolling.
IWP? Impatient Writer Pyndrome? 🙂
You see what happens, Bryan? It can’t even spell itself right! Horrible, horrible malady.
I think many authors ask “What if?” when it comes to moments in movies or books they’re read, but I believe it’s more like “I can do this a lot better than they did!”
I am guilty of this as well.
I’ve had it happen a fair amount with themes from a movie. I’d think something like “I could write a much better alien invasion story,” or “If I had a world where babies could be grown in artificial wombs, things could get interesting.”
This is a great post, Jessi — both for beginning writers and for those of us who may just need a little encouragement. =)
The itch to edit is my biggest problem. I see a phrase that just doesn’t sound write, and I really want to fix it. And I can spend a good ten minutes re-writing one paragraph. I also have that tendency to want to fix the first chapter before moving forward. But it really is important to let it lie, as terrible as it is, and push through for a while.
Now, if only finals would accommodate my writing schedule… 0=)
Bryan, excellent blog! Love its name! Do you still teach youth writing? I remember when Sarah took your class at Montrose; she enjoyed it. And my youngest, Faith, loved your books. Blessings to you and your family. Say hello to your wife for me, altho’ she’ll probably not remember me. (Tell her I’m the one with the unwed daughter that was the same age as your one son. 🙂 She’s still unwed! But Sarah found her “true love”!)
Cathy, I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. I hope you will spread the word.
I remember Sarah’s name, but I can’t remember her face. Sorry.
Feel free to contribute anytime. I noticed in another comment that you teach writing. If you would like to submit a guest post, I will be glad to consider it.
I just finished teaching the teen track at the Florida Christian Writers Conference. It was my tenth year doing so, and I decided to end that string. For the foreseeable future, I plan to teach through this blog, though I have not slammed the door with regard to teaching at conferences.
My love for the aspiring writers might someday bring me back. We’ll see.
Thanks, Bryan. How would I go about submitting a guest post? I’ve been working with a young friend, who has been helping me design my website/blog; we’re hoping to get it up within a month or so (she’s also planning her wedding, so she’s busy). I know about guest blogging, but what are your guidelines – length, topic, etc. I’ve just connected w/your site, so I will read some of your archived posts to get a feel for all you do. Blessings on your plans for this site.
Cathy, just email me for more information – author (at) daviscrossing (dot) com.
I get LWS all the time. Thank you for this post. I’ve been blocked lately and I need to sit my butt down and push forward, even though I don’t know where I’m going. I may have to use some of your tips. Thank you again.
You’re welcome. I’m glad I can help.
Thanks for posting this Mr. Davis. Jessi had a great tip that just might work for me: start at the next marker and work backwards.