in which I fight to stay focused

I don’t know if you’ve ever written a novel, but in my experience, the process of writing a first draft for any novel always goes down about the same way.

Stage 1: The Brilliant Idea
It can come at anytime, anywhere. On the bus to work. In the shower. In the middle of the night via a dream. But when it comes, it hits you hard, and you become jump-up-and-down excited about it1.

Stage 2: Wild excitement
You are in overdrive. Envisioning scenes. Shaping characters. Perfecting witty dialogue in your head. It is all you think about, and the more you think about it, the more sure you are that you have the next Harry Potter on your hands.

Stage 3: Frenzied writing
You begin, and it is glorious. The words flow like something that flows really fast and awesomely2. You’d rather be writing than doing anything else. You forgo social situations to write. You stay up late into the night working. You think, ‘Writing is easy!’

Stage 4: The sagging middle
This generally happens for me when I hit the places in my outline that I filled in with phrases like “and then stuff happens.” You encounter plot holes. Questions. You get stuck. Things start to move a little slower. You find yourself compulsively checking facebook in the middle of every other sentence, and you find you’re tweeting more about writing than you are actually writing. Things are getting hard, and so much less fun, and you will basically do anything to avoid writing3.

Stage 5: Totally stuck/abject despair
Needs no explanation


this pie chart, while slightly off topic, is depressingly accurate.

Stage 4 is usually where something enters the picture that Laini Taylor calls “The Slutty New Idea.” That’s technical writer talk.

The SNI is a brand-new idea that calls to you from the dark corners of your mind and says, “Come write me, I’m so much easier.” And because it is currently occupying stage one, it is bright and shiny and looks just so pretty that you cannot resist its siren song, which is why most novels are never finished—they are abandoned in favor of other projects that, from a distance, look easier and better.

The problem with the SNI is that as soon as you start working on it, it becomes your work in progress, and the whole darn thing starts over again.

Right now, I am in the throws of stage 4, the least fun stage of writing. I have hit the sagging middle, the place where I start to see all the holes in my current work in progress and use them as an excuse not to press onward. And from the dark recesses of my imagination, the SNI is calling to me. Come write me, I’m so much easier.

The last two novel-length items I have written did not make it past first draft4 and in all likelihood, never will. I don’t regret writing them, because I believe in a habit of completion, but after two projects dying as infants, I’m ready to finish something and do something with it. Writing first drafts is too hard to just let it die afterwards. So the SNI is looking particularly appealing of late. It looks easier to finish. Easier to revise.

But I am resisting! I am trying really, really hard to not only to finish the current first draft, but to finish it as something that can be revised and later actually finished5.

Any writers out there have any ideas about how to get over the hump and resist switching projects? Because right now, it’s harder than giving up diet coke6.

On a separate note, my blogging is going to be sporadic and infrequent over the next month, because finals are making me want to Sherlock-style throw myself off a building. I shall return to normal programing once April is over. I can almost see the light at the end of the tunnel7.


  1. If you are not jump-up-and-down excited about any idea, it’s not worth writing a novel about. Because writing a novel is too hard.
  2. I am clearly not in this stage at the moment.
  3. This is why our kitchen is really, really clean right now, and why I’ve been doing an uncharacteristic amount of cooking lately.
  4. You may remember the famed Mormon hook handed zombie killer novel. While still awesome, it is inherently flawed, and whipping it into anything usable would require basically starting over.
  5. Those of you who think writing a novel involves one burst of brilliance and then instant publication are incorrect.
  6. Which I am doing. And it is a lot easier than I expected it to be. Though the constant exhaustion and caffeine-withdrawal head is less fun.
  7. And that light looks like the new Star Trek movie, and the Great Gatsby movie, and the new season of Arrested Development. So close…and yet so far away…
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6 thoughts on “in which I fight to stay focused

  1. Lisa says:

    Yep. Sounds about right. Regarding advice on how to get over the hump? No-backing-down deadlines. Imposed by others. With abject failure and embarrassment as your punishment should you not meet said deadline. It’s how I got through the novel that got me an agent…I signed up for a manuscript critique at the SCBWI summer conference and then I *had* to have not only a completed draft but a well-revised draft that I was happy to submit by the deadline.

    You don’t have to be as drastic, but…threat of public humiliation always works for me.

    Also…physical manipulation of objects often gets things going. I’ll write down questions about the plot and character and whatnot, along with character names and settings and objects on index cards and shuffle them around on a table until I start seeing connections I hadn’t seen before.

    • MackenziLee says:

      I never thought of the threat of public humiliation….that’s a good tip. I have plenty of friends who would happily hold me accountable to that one. I like the index card idea. Sometimes switching things from internal to visible can help with a new perspective. Kind of like shuffling your tiles around in Scrabble :) Thanks Lisa!

  2. Great article by a writer worth following on twitter.

  3. Jason stclair says:

    This is exactly where I am right now but without the slut beckoning. I’m even planning how to get over it as an excuse for not writing. Nearly there though. My ideas are:
    1. Find a new place to write. I hate my desk, the weather is improving so I’m going to have an afternoon in the park with my laptop.
    2. Make someone read your WIP. If they like it and beg for more you’ll get a boost. If they hate it, maybe it’s crap after all our just ask someone else.
    3. Try a new approach. My planning is pretty poor so I’m going to try something new. I like flow charts and the sight of rolls of leftover wall paper gave me an idea to create a flow chart of my story. One that I can roll up and take with me to all the new and exciting places I’m going to find to write.
    4. Disconnect the Internet and turn off your phone . In fact, I shouldn’t be wasting time writing th…………

  4. […] I write, in structure and tone and topic. I talk about what’s on my mind here. Sometimes that’s writing. Sometimes that’s anxiety. Sometimes that’s my family. Sometimes that’s traveling. Sometimes […]

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