Where Novelists Get Stuck: 3 Common Issues with Early Drafts

Image: a child's shoes with laces that are too long and tangled

Today’s post is by regular contributor Susan DeFreitas (@manzanitafire), an award-winning author, editor, and book coach. She offers a first 50-page review on works in progress for novelists seeking direction on their next step toward publishing.

Many believe that having written a novel is a sort of superhuman feat, but in reality, the bigger challenge is revising—and this is where so many writers get stuck.

I love to work with clients at this stage of the process, because this is when an outside eye can mean everything. There’s nothing more satisfying than the moment when a client responds to editorial feedback by saying they’ve gone from feeling frustrated and overwhelmed to experiencing real excitement at the prospect of revision.

Over the decade plus that I’ve been doing this work, I’ve seen certain issues over and over again—issues that tend to dog the work of newer writers, and even that of seasoned pros. So I thought I’d share them with you all here, in the interests of helping as many writers as possible turn that corner.

1. Pacing and Tension

I have a longtime client who writes middle grade fantasy, and his series is largely set in a second world where his young protagonist has magical powers. In book five of the series, that protagonist is stuck back home on Earth and has to find a way to use his powers here, so he can travel back to that second world and reverse the death of his best friend (via time travel)—in time to prove to the authorities here that he didn’t actually just murder her.

The big issue I saw in the early draft: The protagonist’s efforts to manifest his powers on Earth were largely fruitless until near the end, which threw the pacing off—and when he told people about that second world he’d traveled to, no one seemed quite as skeptical as they should have been. The evidence tying the protagonist to his best friend’s disappearance also seemed pretty flimsy, so the threat of him being found guilty of her murder didn’t seem all that convincing.

Also: If the protagonist could just travel back in time once he returned to that second world, what was the rush to get there? And if the evidence tying him to his friend’s disappearance was so flimsy, why wouldn’t he just sit around and wait to be exonerated via due process?

My first suggestion for this author was to address that lack of urgency by giving his protagonist a window of time during which, if he gets back to the second world, he might be able to reverse his friend’s death—but if he doesn’t, she’s done for.

I also recommended that this author think through the case against the protagonist from the prosecution’s POV, and create a more realistic murder scenario—one that really looked convincing, and therefore put the protagonist in real danger of being convicted. This would then create a ticking clock for the protagonist here on Earth as well.

Finally, I recommended that the author have the protagonist’s efforts to manifest his powers on Earth prove more fruitful early on, and then establish a clear pattern of ups and downs—ups being the points where he appears to be making progress toward his goal, and downs being places where people either don’t believe his wild claims or actively stand in his way. The former would make the protagonist appear more active from the reader’s POV, while the latter would help to ramp up the tension.

The issues: Inconsistent pacing, lack of urgency and tension

The fixes: A ticking clock, and a pattern of “ups and downs”

2. Character Arc

A new client came to me with a novel somewhere between women’s fiction and romance. In it, a middle-aged woman, at loose ends with her job, sets off on a road trip—and in the course of that trip meets an injured hiker, himself at loose ends with his life. The two of them wind up having a wild Western states adventure, and (of course!) falling in love.

The big issue I saw in the early draft: The protagonist appeared to have a big realization at the end that was all about the power of self-love, but there was very little at the beginning to suggest that this was even an issue in her life. In fact, at the beginning of this novel, the protagonist seemed pretty happy—until some trouble came along to destabilize her work life.

There were also various points where it was suggested that the protagonist’s real problem was that she felt a sense of powerlessness, that she’d never really taken the reins and gone for what she wanted in life. So what was the real issue here? Her lack of self-love or her lack of gumption?

In real life, there are many internal issues we all struggle to overcome. But in a novel, an effective character arc is the product of bearing down on one internal issue clearly—one that the protagonist is struggling with at the beginning (often without realizing it) that the events of the plot will help her overcome. That’s the key to creating a real emotional effect for the reader, and it’s also critical to establishing a sense of depth.

To address these “dueling character arcs,” I suggested to the author that he make the protagonist’s lack of self-love the reason she never stood up for herself or went for her dreams—effectively keeping both angles, but making one central and the other secondary.

I also recommended that he make it clear that the protagonist’s pattern of not going for her dreams played into this problem at work, thereby showing us how she herself had played a role in creating the trouble in her life at the beginning—thereby setting the stage for an affecting transformation by the end.

The issue: An unclear character arc that kept the novel from generating real emotion, and a lack of setup on that arc

The fix: Focusing on one internal issue for the protagonist, establishing it clearly at the beginning, and sticking with it all the way to the end

3. Plot Structure

A client who’d been a student in several of my online classes came to me with a novel incorporating elements of time travel, portal fantasy, and alternate history. In it, a foundling in an alternate version of Georgian England seeks a way to save his adopted brother from execution, and along the way receives help from various magical entities connected to his mysterious past. The novel also featured multiple threads from other POVs pertaining to various secret societies and the historical struggles between them, incorporating many minor characters and their personal dramas.

The big issue I saw in the early draft: There wasn’t enough focus on the POV of the protagonist for the reader to really identify with him and his struggles—the author seemed more interested in exploring this fantasy world than he was in actually telling the protagonist’s story.

Another issue I saw was that while these various other POVs and threads were supposed to make it clear how the magical elements of this world operated (e.g., why some characters could transform into animals), they offered more questions than answers—and these two issues, in tandem, made the story itself hard to follow.

The first thing I suggested to this author was that he cut down on all of those asides and POV digressions and stick closer to the protagonist’s story, thereby imparting a sense of focus to the plot.

The second suggestion I made was to provide exposition in context from the protagonist’s POV—for instance, by having that protagonist already know how it was that certain humans could transform into animals, or by having another character appear to explain this phenomenon. Many newer authors seem to believe that leaving such things mysterious will draw the reader in, but if you go too long without any explanation at all, you’ll make the story itself difficult to follow, and risk losing your reader’s trust.

The issues: A plot that was hard to follow, absent exposition

The fixes: Simplifying, by focusing on telling one person’s story clearly, and including the essential exposition in context

Bringing a novel from concept to completion—and eventually, publication—can be a lonely, solitary process, and it’s easy to feel like no one else struggles with the sort of issues you do with your work.

But that’s seldom true. The truth is, there’s a good chance one of your favorite novels was afflicted by the same sorts of issues as an early draft.

So take heart: Consult your books on craft, take a class, or hire someone like me to help you—but don’t give up! The world is waiting for your story.

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