Do you ever wonder what the writing process is like for other writers? Or if they run into some of the same challenges or traps as you do?
Well, in this post, I'm giving you a glimpse behind the scenes and sharing some of the key takeaways I learned from coaching writers this year. And although there's no theme to these takeaways, they're all patterns or issues that have come up over and over again.
My hope is that you'll be able to reap some of the benefits of these lessons so that you can move forward with your writing in the most efficient way possible. So, let’s just dive right in.
The first big thing I noticed this year is that most writers have trouble with the emotional layer of their stories. And what I mean by this is that most writers have trouble conveying their character’s emotional reactions, and because of that, they have trouble evoking emotions in readers.
If we don’t properly convey what our characters are thinking and feeling, and why they’re thinking and feeling that way… it’s going to be very, very hard to make readers feel anything because they won’t understand why things matter.
And our number one job as fiction writers is to make our readers feel things, right?
A lot of writers are afraid of revealing too much about their character’s emotions. Or they don’t want to be too obvious with what their character is thinking or feeling. But in most cases, writers take this too far and put close to nothing on the page in terms of character reaction. And thus, their stories don't have any emotional impact.
I worked with a writer earlier this year who was so afraid to put their character’s emotional reactions on the page that their story just felt completely flat. And this writer was a very smart, very emotionally intelligent person, but you would never have guessed that from their first draft.
And, funnily enough, whenever I asked this writer questions like, "What's going on in this scene? Why is your character slamming doors and pounding their fists on the table? Why are they so upset?” This writer would have so many wonderful reasons for their character's behavior. They'd explain all these things to me about how the character was interpreting the events of the scene, and why the character is feeling the way they feel–but none of that was on the page.
So, to me, and to an outside reader, all we see are slamming doors and pounding fists–we have no idea about all the other really fantastic stuff that was going on inside this writer’s (or their character's) mind. So, what could have been a powerful story in the writer’s mind fell completely flat on the reader’s side.
And here's the thing...
Novels are the only medium that lets the reader into the character’s head, so if we don’t let readers in on our character’s thoughts and feelings–or how they’re processing the events of the story–readers are going to feel cheated.
And, to me, this is what “show, don’t tell” really means, especially in this first draft. It’s almost like the advice “show, don’t tell” has multiple levels. Level one is showing how your character reacts to stuff and processes things–what they’re thinking and feeling. And then when you’ve constructed a working draft, you can move onto level two, which is using those sensory details and actions to relate information to readers.
Readers want to know what your characters are thinking, what a moment means to them, what they believe, and how their perceptions change. It’s really all they care about. Nothing matters unless readers know WHY the events of the story matter to the protagonist.
So, my challenge to this writer was to literally make themselves uncomfortable with how many of their character’s thoughts and feelings they put on the page. I asked them to just do an experiment and put way more than they ever thought would be necessary on the page–and you know what happened?
This writer was blown away by the quality of their own work… and as a reader, I felt the emotional impact of the scene events. Remember, I didn’t feel anything close to an emotional experience the first time, but the second time–when the writer stepped out of their comfort zones and got their character’s thoughts and feelings on the page–I felt something.
So, that’s takeaway number one. Most writers have trouble with the emotional layer of their stories. And to not fall into this trap, make sure you’re including your character’s thoughts and feelings on the page. Make sure you’re showing why the events of the scene matter to them–or how they’re processing what’s happening around them.
The second thing I learned this year is that it’s not always easier to write your second book than it was to write your first book.
And at first, I thought this was a one-off thing, with one writer who was tackling book number two. But then I ended up working with three writers over the last 12 months who were all writing book two–and all three of them were having similar issues.
This reminds me of that saying, “new level, new devil” because all three of these writers have grown a lot since book one.
They have way more tools in their writing toolbox than they did when they were writing their first book, but now that they’ve leveled up, there’s a whole new set of issues coming up.
And some of these issues are craft-related. For example, these writers now have the ability to see that certain things aren't working in their first draft the way they were planning. But most of the issues these writers are facing have to do with mindset.
All three of these writers thought their second book would have fewer speedbumps than their first book–and in a lot of ways, that was true.
But a first draft is still a first draft. No matter if it’s a first, second, third, or fourth book. You still have to go through the process of writing a messy first draft so that you can discover what your story is really about.
So, that’s one part of it. But the other thing I noticed was that all three of these writers faced self-doubt. They asked questions like, “What if I could only write one book? Or what if I don’t have any more creative juice left in me?”
And the interesting thing is that since I worked with all three of these writers on their first books, I was able to remind them that they felt the exact same way about book one. So, I vividly remember them each asking some version of the same question, “What if I can’t write a book?” They were worried about writing one book, and now they're worried about writing another book.
So, my point in sharing all of this is that just because you’ve written one book, that doesn’t mean all of the issues or roadblocks will just disappear. You've reached a new level with your writing, and because of that, you will have a new set of things to work through. It’s normal!
Think of it like this... Professional athletes don’t make it to the big leagues and then stop practicing, right? They don’t become pros and then never strike out or throw a bad pass. And it’s the same for us writers.
So, if you're in this position–or when you’re in this position someday– try to think of it as an opportunity to practice your craft and don’t expect everything to be 100% easier, because that’s not realistic.
Realistically, some things will be easier, and some things will be more challenging. It’s just the nature of the game. And I truly believe that if you could write one book, there's no reason why you can't write another book. So, hang in there!
The third thing I learned this year is that it’s really important to speak up about what you want, what you think, and what’s important to you. And this lesson came from one writer I worked with, but it can apply to all of us.
This writer I worked with, their first book is with a traditional publisher, and now they’re working on their second book. They submitted a synopsis of their second book to the publisher who gave it the green light and said, "Get it to me by 2022, but can you change this one thing?"
And long story short, the writer agreed, but a few months went by and they were having a really hard time making progress. So, we got on the phone and this writer told me they really missed having that one detail in the story and that it didn’t feel the same without it. However, because of what their editor said, we ended up brainstorming a second-best solution so that she could move forward with her draft.
A few more months went by, and this writer was facing the worst resistance I've ever seen. They were super busy and had a lot of reasons why they weren’t making progress, but having worked with this person before, I knew something else was going on.
And it turns out that it all came back to that one little detail.
That one little detail meant so much to this writer that they couldn’t make progress because the new version of their story felt inauthentic.
So, after hearing this, I suggested that this writer reach out to their editor and ask if there was any other way we could incorporate that one detail. I told this writer to explain to their editor why this detail meant so much to them and to ask if there was some kind of win-win solution we could come up with. So, that's exactly what this writer did! And their editor was really flexible!
And for context, the detail was originally part of the protagonist's backstory. The editor didn't want that kind of detail in the protagonist's backstory because it was too similar to the character's backstory in book one. So, the solution we came up with was to include that detail as something that happened in the town, on the periphery of the protagonist’s life, but not in her backstory. So, it was truly a win-win.
And now that writer is making a ton of progress because the story feels authentic to their original vision again.
So, my takeaway from this is that it’s important to speak up about what you want, what you think, and what’s important to you. At the end of the day, you’re the one writing the story–you have the vision, and people like me–editors, coaches, or whatever–we’re all here to help you execute that vision.
Now, of course, there are compromises to be made sometimes… for example, if this writer had expressed her feelings and the editor shot them down, they could decide to keep moving forward with that publisher or not, but it never came down to that.
It was really all about communication. So, just something I want you to keep in mind.
The fourth thing I noticed this year is that most writers don’t spend enough time developing their antagonists.
And there are so many things that could go wrong if you don’t flesh out your antagonist–the middle of your story could fall flat, your protagonist won’t grow and change because no one’s pressuring them to, your protagonist won’t have agency because there’s no reason for them to take action or do anything, the list goes on…
An example of this that immediately comes to mind is that I worked with a writer earlier this year who is one of the most imaginative people I’ve ever known. She always has the coolest ideas for stories, but the draft she was working on was really very flat.
There was all this conflict that got in her protagonist’s way, but it was meaningless conflict–it was just random stuff thrown in the protagonist’s way to make achieving her goal a lot harder.
And this writer really didn’t like her story. I remember she even said something to me like, "How did I end up with a story that was so far from my original vision? Like how does that even happen when I know what I want my story to be like and then I write something completely different?!" And as strange as that sounds, it happens all the time!
So, we went back to the drawing board, and turns out, she didn’t really know anything about her antagonist. And that’s why she struggled so much to get meaningful conflict in her story. And it was that manufactured conflict that sent her story down a detour and made it veer away from her original vision.
So, long story short, we spent a few weeks going back and forth about who her antagonist is, what he wants, why he wants it, what his plan for getting it was, things like that.
And it was so cool because when she started writing the second draft, everything came to her so much quicker and much more easily. The conflict was popping up organically, and the quality of her draft started to match what we both knew she was capable of producing. Plus, she fell back in love with her story idea, too.
I won’t belabor this point because really, what I want to say is that I highly recommend doing the same amount of work to flesh out your antagonist as you do for your protagonist. What do they want? Why do they want that thing? How will they go about getting what they want? What happens if they don’t get it?
Really get inside their head and think about the ways your antagonist will compare and contrast your protagonist. Trust me, this will be some of the most important work you do when it comes to crafting your story!
The fifth takeaway I want to share is that it’s so, so important to get to the end of your draft even if it’s not perfect.
I can’t even tell you how many writers I worked with this year who specifically wanted to work with a coach because they had so much trouble finishing a draft–and who by the end of the year, not only had a finished draft but were blown away at how they felt at the end of their drafts, too.
So, they finished an imperfect draft, but instead of feeling bad about how messy it was (which is 100% how they were expecting to feel), they were excited to get to work on the next draft because their vision for the story was so much clearer.
And yeah, they did have someone to give the feedback on their story along the way, but I guarantee you they would have had similar insights just by finishing their draft and learning more about their characters and their story.
So, if you’re having trouble finishing your draft, I want you to think about this… If you do finish your draft, what’s the worst thing that can happen? Or what are you worried about once you type “The End?”
And once you have your answer to that, I want you to think about this… If you do finish your draft, what’s the best thing that can happen? Or what’s possible once you finish?
Also, let’s say you’re worried about finishing your draft because it might be bad or messy or imperfect. So, that’s the worst-case scenario you came up with. Is that really a better outcome than never finishing a draft?
Because if you ask me, where you are right now, not finishing any drafts, not sharing your story with the world… I think that’s probably the worst-case scenario. Right?
This is why in my Notes to Novel course, I encourage everyone to get to the end of their drafts as quickly as possible. Because once you're done, and only once you're done, can you see your story as a whole and make informed decisions that will help you shape your messy first draft into something that matches the vision in your head.
So, those are the five biggest takeaways I got from coaching writers this year. My hope is that you can see yourself in some of the examples I shared and that maybe you’ll realize you’re not alone in some of your struggles.
Beyond that, I hope you can reap the benefit of these lessons, too, so that you can keep moving forward with your work in the most efficient way possible.
And if you want my help mapping out your story and getting to the end of a draft, go put your name on the waitlist for my Notes to Novel course, If you’re on the waitlist, you’ll get the chance to join early and get an extra special bonus, so don't miss out!
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