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Good Writing Is...#4 Why new writers get lost and give up.

Updated on December 2, 2011

Why did you give up on that novel?

How often I hear the remark “I dragged out the old manuscript; I haven’t worked on it in _____ (insert: 2 months, 6 months, a year, a decade.)“ Or as another wrote to me, “…my novel, got frustrated with it and stuck it in a closet two months ago.” How often do we abandon our work before it’s anywhere near finished, telling ourselves a rest will bring a clear mind? The thought of returning to the work fills us with dread, so we walk away convinced we suffer from writers’ block.

Why does this happen?

I can tell you why. (Good, you’re thinking; else why would you write this article?) I can give you two reasons.

  • Expectations

Many, probably most new writers sit down to a clean page and expect to roll out a reasonably finished piece of literature – just like that. Yes, we tell ourselves, the resultant product will need editing for the fine points, but that first draft should be next to publishable.

And when it isn’t, when our inner critic won’t stop yelling “garbage, ridiculous, pathetic, give it up,” we assume we’re not as ‘talented’ as we thought we were, and our enthusiasm disappears; we turn a cold shoulder on our efforts. We are to blame, and we can barely stand to look at what we’ve produced.

  • Lack of Direction

In the beginning, many of us start to write a story with only the vaguest notion of where our story is going; only knowing it will be a bittersweet romance, a tale of our adventures in the Navy, yet another pale reflection of Harry Potter, or Twilight. (We have enough vampires now – find a new wagon to hitch up.) Whatever our destination is will come to us in the creative process. Isn’t that how it works?

The Hard and Bitter Truth

Listen up – I’m about to share with you one of the most important secrets of writerdom. It is so important I want to print it here, bold, italics and underlined:


I’d show you some of mine, but I erase them as soon as I’ve moved on – can’t stand to look at them. I live in the fear I’ll be in some traffic accident and right after the EMS checks to make sure I’m wearing clean underwear, they’ll send someone to go through my computer files and find my first drafts. Then they’d think I wrote like that. At which point I’d die of embarrassment.

I write slapdash for the first draft. Some of my sentences are two words long, but they gallop towards wherever I’m going. Which is my destination, and that comes next, but we haven’t finished with first drafts, yet.

Here’s how one might look:

“What the world knows: 2 years earlier 2006:

The crime: Tracy Gable and her husband, Richard (Dean) are on vacation with her three children: Angela (Angie) age 12, Stuart age 10 and Courtney age 7, in Orlando (Disneyworld trip) and she’s rented a house in the city. They are part of a group of friends, two other couples and their children.

Angie isn’t feeling good one day, and wants to stay home. The other two children are terribly disappointed so Dean says he’ll take them. Tracy decides that Angie’s fever is a little high, and decides to whip out to a nearby drugstore for aspirin. She is involved in a car accident, minor, with another woman while exiting the parking lot, which delays her for a couple of hours. She calls home first time and Angie is fine. She calls home later and there is no answer. She calls her husband, and he says they will head for home. Tracy and her husband get home around the same time, but Angie has disappeared.

Police were called immediately. The bathroom door latch is broken. Small traces of blood discovered on the vanity.

Some of Angie’s clothes are missing – jeans, tees, underwear and bra, and toothbrush. Also her ipod.

Police set out amber alert. Days go by, with no news.

Dean takes other children home to Calgary. Tracy stays in Florida for month – no news.

They look at Dean as possible suspect. Dean contacts Abe. Abe clears Dean and Abe puts Tracy in tough with Bria who is in Florida.

Police decide even though bathroom door broken, could have been done anytime in family disagreement, and think that because of the missing clothes and ipod, Angie could be a runaway.

Nothing Tracy and Bria can do change their minds. Case goes cold.

Bria and Tracy try to keep story alive in media and on internet.

Two years go by.”

That's right; this is the first, first, first draft of the opening of a new novel I’m starting right now (when I should be editing the previous, but I can’t edit for more than four hours at a stretch.) Is this good writing, a work of literature, showing great gifts for storytelling and a way with language? Hardly. But this is the starting place. This is scene one, take one.

(And some of you may have noticed this is so rough one of my characters keeps changing name from Richard to Dean. I think I'll go with Richard as Dean is the real name of my friend's husband and the basis for this character.)

Even before this point, I’ve done a lot of work. I know who my characters are, and as some of them live in my previous two novels in this series, I know them well. The newcomers, well they’ve already had the full treatment as described in #3 of this series dealing with characters(linked below.)

This is reality.

Get this: my first novel in the series, This Bird Flew Away, now in the hands of fifteen trial readers, and two agents considering representing the book, will undergo another rewrite following the reviews of my beta readers. Here’s what it’s been through already.

I started the first draft of the total novel in February of 2009, but prior to that had worked out my characters, my plot, and I’d written three of the pivotal scenes in advance. So when I set out to write the novel itself, I knew where I was heading, and got there the fastest way possible. I had a rough draft by the end of March, and I rewrote. I put it away for a couple of weeks and started doing the ground work for the next. I started my next rewrite at the beginning of April. At the end of April, the manuscript went to my editor and I will use her name here because she’s great with new writers, Kathryn Lynn Davis – New York Times bestselling author, and creative editor extraordinaire. (And all round gracious lady.) I worked some more on the second novel, when I wasn’t writing new scenes or rewriting existing ones for Kathryn. Eight weeks later, my manuscript almost completely covered in red, blue and green type in MSWord’s editing program, returned to me. For the next two months, I rewrote. I sent some sections back to Kathryn. I rewrote again. Then, I put it away and finished the first draft of the next and sent that out to Kathryn. I recovered “This Bird” and rewrote again, and again. I worked on polishing certain important scenes. I rewrote. I sent my MS out to fifteen volunteers for a trial read, and I will rewrite again.

Put the picture of the great artist carefully selecting each word from his pocket version of Roget’s Thesaurus , straining over his complex sentences (“Oh please, let me write one true sentence!”) and calling on the muse to tell him what’s next, out of your mind. By the time quality of language comes into play, the novel is already built.

Good novels are constructed.

  • First, we design.
  • We prepare a foundation.
  • Then we frame.
  • We put up walls and a roof to protect the interior.
  • We work on the internal details, like cupboards, flooring and paint.
  • When the structure is sound, we add the final touches: rich language, texture, complexity and style.

Isn’t writing a gift?

Popular myth says that Iris Murdoch (Dame Iris Murdoch, author of The Bell, The Black Prince, The Green Knight, The Sand Castle, among others) sat down and wrote every word of every book verbatim the first time round. She had all her characters, each word of dialogue, her plot – all of it, all worked out in her head and just let them flow to her fingers. What a gift! And oh, don’t I wish I’d been so blessed!

But I wasn’t, and chances are, neither are you, or you wouldn’t be reading this.

No, most of us must grunt through the above listed process. Building a novel, a good novel, is dependent on two things:

  • Great characters
  • A plot

We covered characters in “Good Writing Is…#3 What is the most important element of successful fiction?” linked below. We will begin our study of plot: Good Writing is…#5 The Plot Thickens – Plotting for New Writers. I hope you tune in.

What we covered today

  • Let yourself write shitty first drafts
  • Know your destination
  • Good stories are constructed, not dished out by the muse.

And previously

  • Know your characters before you begin writing.
  • Keep your characters real.
  • Present your characters in direct methods.
  • Stay active
  • Show and share, don't tell and describe
  • Keep you own voice out of the story.
  • Let your characters do the work.

I wish you all good writing, the friendship of true characters and a destination along with the fortitude to get there.

Back in a couple of days to start talking about plot.

Lynda M. Martin


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    • lmmartin profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Thanks for the comment jlwhets. Hope you enjoy the rest. I'll look for more comments from you.

    • jlwhets profile image


      10 years ago from West Branch, Iowa

      I usually refer to first drafts as "extremely rough first draft", but I like your idea of simply calling what it is: A Shitty First Draft.

      I am moving on to the rest of the series!

    • lmmartin profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Thanks betherann -- I hope you move on to the rest of the series (which is not complete, by any means.)

    • betherann profile image

      Beth Morey 

      10 years ago from Montana

      Great reminders -- thank you!

    • lmmartin profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Thanks allaurice -- haven't we all! Thanks for the comment.

    • a.l. laurice profile image

      a.l. laurice 

      10 years ago from United States

      This hub made me laugh--but only because it's all so true! I've certainly been guilty of combing through a thesaurus for an hour before writing one sentence. Thanks for the good advice, Immartin.

    • lmmartin profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      You're very welcome Sherbet Penny; always nice to see you. Yes a novel, like every other endeavour, requires a lot of planning and work -- contrary to popular myth. Lynda

    • Sherbet Penny profile image

      Sherbet Penny 

      10 years ago from Galway, Ireland.

      Well Lynda, I've finally got a chance to pop back over, and I can see you are flying ahead and up to part 7 so I have a lot of catching up to do. Another great hub. I can see you have to go through a lot to get a novel out there, great advice again, looking forward to the next part, thank you.

    • lmmartin profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Thanks author2be, I always thought writer's block was simply not knowing where you're going, a common problem for writers who don't plan ahead. Never had the problem, but do suffer from the occasional bout of laziness.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      Educational, motivating toward those who feel they are suffering from writers block. Great post.

    • lmmartin profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Good morning. Thanks itakins -- as always. Lynda

      Hi Sara, Thank you for the comment. Glad you find this of some help.

    • Sara Tonyn profile image

      Sara Tonyn 

      10 years ago from Ohio, the Buckeye State

      What a fantastic collection of information and tips you've provided! Any writer who fails to add your name to their must-read list simply isn't serious about writing. Your "Good Writing Is..." series is an invaluable resource for anyone with a story to tell. Thank you! :D

    • itakins profile image


      10 years ago from Irl

      Brilliant advice-as always

    • lmmartin profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Now why would I do that -- delete a comment full of good tips? Other readers here may benefit from this. And thank you very much. Lynda

    • Marisa Wright profile image

      Kate Swanson 

      10 years ago from Sydney

      Another great Hub - and I'll offer a tip: it's acceptable to put links to your other related Hubs within the text. I'd recommend it, as it's more visible than the Grouping feature.

      You can use a Links capsule, create the links in a Text capsule (which I prefer) or use an RSS feed capsule (but I confess I always struggle to make that work myself!).

      You might then consider floating that capsule to the right, with a coloured background, next to your summary.

      Oh, and since this is a tip rather than comment, please feel free to delete after reading.

    • lmmartin profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Thank you Tammy, and may I say your "stab" at fiction came off beautifully and I also appreciate the link from your hub. I do hope the fiction writers here on hubpages will come together and learn from each other. Writing is such a lonely occupation, we need community.

    • profile image

      Tammy Lochmann 

      10 years ago

      I am just catching up. I am so lucky to have found you and your advice is sterling.

    • lmmartin profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Hi Kartika and welcome back from your short hiatus. You are right in all you say here. It is work. No matter how beloved a craft, sooner or later it becomes work, and that is when we seperate the writers from the daublers. Happy to hear This Bird is providing you with nigh-nigh entertainment. That's my favorite time and place to read as well. With one drawback -- I often get so involved in the reading, I don't want to go to sleep.

      Thanks for dropping by and hope you caught the first three -- or maybe not as you confess you have no desire to write on a large project, so this may be out of your range of interest.

      And for the record -- I love building novels, making up my own world, my own people who behave the way I want them to, and I'm in charge of what happens and who says what. My hidden God complex, I'm sure.

    • kartika damon profile image

      kartika damon 

      10 years ago from Fairfield, Iowa

      Although all writers have their own approach to writing (whether they write fiction or non-fiction), writing is work. And writing is a craft. While talent is a part of the picture, it doesn't replace hard work and a willingness to learn the craft. Writers need to read, especially read works in their genre. All art requires discipline. I read Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott years ago and she also discusses the shitty first draft - I give kudos to you, llmartin for your willingness to do that work - I have never been willing to undertake the challenges of a novel - completely daunting! Oh, and I am enjoying reading your work in bed before going to sleep - my favorite time to read.

    • lmmartin profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      We've all been guilty of attending to details before actual construction, Peg. And what happens? We get bogged down. Thanks for your comment, and I'm glad I'm not the only one with shitty first drafts hidden away, scribbled skeletons in my closet.

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 

      10 years ago from Northeast of Dallas, Texas

      Lynda, I love your analogy of building a house to writing a novel. Sometimes I'm guilty of trying to paint before putting on the roof! Hah. You are too funny with the clean underwear and the unproofed first drafts. That is so true. I worry that if I pass unexpectedly someone will read my ridiculous first drafts and pronounce me an idiot. Oh well, if the shoe fits.

    • lmmartin profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Hi papajack -- yes we both showed up here on hubpages around the same time, and we've been supportive, which is how fellow writers should be. And you're not off the mark -- your confession as to the fate of your novel was a catalyst for this article, because it is the fate of so many projects and a stumbling block for many writers. The next on plotting will show how to put the foundation and frame in place (or at least what works for me, as I was taught by others.) Thanks for the comment, and the best wishes.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      You have been a staunch friend from my first attempts at writing, and you have influenced me greatly. I know that this is vain, but I feel that this was written just for me. You have presented me with a formulae for success that I had never been able to achieve on my own. Thank you so very much, Lynda, and all my best wishes for the success that you so richly deserve with This Bird Flew Away.

    • Quilligrapher profile image


      10 years ago from New York


    • lmmartin profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      The chicken and egg. What an excellent question. Certainly, I need to know the basics of my story to develop characters, and yet, this latest series is more character driven, yet the plot is complex. I honestly have trouble saying which came first.

      I guess it is the outline of the story -- the idea. But I can tell you I develop my characters before I do the plot. Yet, I know of some writers who write plot driven fiction and tailor their characters to fit.

      I do the reverse, and find my characters often run off and do things I hadn't planned on. I let them, just to see where they're going -- and I know this sounds schizophrenic. I think up people and then wonder what has happened to them. Others think up situations and populate the landscape afterward. Even so, without good, full characterization, the plot won't work.

      But under neither scenario can the author sit back and let them take over. When writing fiction the author is and must be God.

      I don't suppose it matters whether your style is plot or character driven, providing you do the development work on those personalities.

    • Quilligrapher profile image


      10 years ago from New York

      Somewhere in my past I acquired the notion that if fictional characters are thoroughly and skillfully developed, the author can sit back and let them take over the job of steering the plot. Yet, shouldn’t the characters be crafted to take the plot in a specific, plausible direction? So I wonder which comes first? Does character development come before plot or after? Or, do the two evolve at the same time?


    • lmmartin profile imageAUTHOR


      10 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Hello, Hello-Hello, nice to hear from you again. What are George and Harry up to these days? That is such a cute idea and could be worked into the foundation of a children's book. I hope you keep at it.

      Hi resspenser. I'll do the best I can, but I try to balance article writing with editing one, promoting another, and starting yet another novel. Patience. And thanks: your eagerness bodes well and is quite a compliment.

      Hi Ann Nonymous. It isn't the dimes for the started novels, it's the pennies for the finished ones that count, and even if we don't sell it, I now make it a rule to finish every project I start. Why? Because we learn so much going through the process. Thank you for dropping by -- and go and write a shitty first draft.

    • Ann Nonymous profile image

      Ann Nonymous 

      10 years ago from Virginia

      If I had a dime for every novel I started I would be rich! This is me all over, lmmartin! Such excellent advice it's almost..ALMOST.. overwhelming! And I agree with resspenser....hurry back!!!

    • resspenser profile image

      Ronnie Sowell 

      10 years ago from South Carolina

      Hurry back with the lesson on plot. Pretty please????

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      10 years ago from London, UK

      That is a good lesson and down-to-earth. Thank you very much.


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