A Rough Draft Can be A Maze

If you feel paralyzed while working on a rough draft, think of your work like a maze. Sometimes you have to write down a dead end to discover that this is NOT where the story needs to go. Writing and deleting is better than not writing at all.

Imagine tracing your finger down a maze and coming to the first forking path. If you can glance ahead and see it’s a dead end, no problem. But sometimes the dead end is too long or there are too many branches ahead to know which way to go.

The important thing is to choose and keep moving. Find out what works and doesn’t. You can always go back. What you can never do is finish a maze if you stop at a decision point and wait for the entire solution to come to you.

39 responses to “A Rough Draft Can be A Maze”

  1. My dead end prevention method is outlining. It allows me to plan out the twists and turns ahead of time at a detailed level. Most of the time I never have to throw away words because I took a wrong turn. Most of the time, but not always.

    1. I definitely want to know the direction I’m going and a host of points I want to hit along the way. However, the problem with a strict outline is that it gets in the way of using connections that don’t appear until the story has been fleshed out some. I think the best literature is not only a process of discovery for the reader, but for the writer as well.

      1. I’m definitely finding this. I’ve got a story that’s been outlined for a while, but I’m discovering new, moments as I trundle along with the grunt work. A combo of outline and discovery seems – for me, at least – to work better than either alone.

  2. I used to write by the seat of my pants, but it led to too many writing dead ends. I wrote out a detailed outline/synopsis hybrid before I started the actual work on my current project, and it’s a completely different writing experience.

    I still have writing dead ends, I don’t think I’ll ever escape them completely. When I first started writing, I didn’t realize how full of trial and error writing could be. It’s a learning experience for me with every project.

  3. Rebecca Hodgkins Avatar
    Rebecca Hodgkins

    Sometimes my dead ends turn out to be puzzle pieces. They belong, but they are in the wrong spot. I’ve learned that trying to outline too much kills the story for me. Going down some ‘dead ends’ opens up views that lead to a better story.

    1. That’s what I just said, without having read your comment first. I like the idea of “pantsing” certain stories. And no, it’s not a real word. Flying by the seat of my pants is a helluva lotta fun.

  4. Love this. Thanks for the encouraging words, Hugh.

  5. This was nice to read this morning. For the last couple of things I’ve worked on, I’ve written detailed outlines that /mostly/ kept me from getting to far off track but I’m trying more of a loose outline half-planning, half-discovery writing approach this time (not sure I like it) and I’m sure I will have some trouble knowing what to cut. This approach could make it easier to know what I’m just keeping something because it is mine, rather than because it works.

    Bye “darlings”.

  6. Timely and appropriate, thank you! Have fun at Dragon Con :-)

  7. I always thought of writing as a jig-saw puzzle. But the maze concept seems more apt.

    That being said, don’t you count your blessings that there are no limits to *how many* book projects one can be working on at a given time? Even if their content is as disparate as the distance from the earth to the sun? I do!

  8. For me, the toughest maze is figuring out the right order of revelation for the reader.

    Like many plots, mine is mystery- or suspense-driven. I’m 100 pages in. There are plenty of things that will completely change, like the first five pages, etc. Those don’t bother me in the least. Editing is fun. But the big a-ha moment, which lays out the central conflict or “mission” for the protagonist, is due in the next few pages. And it’s killing me.

    It’s a story where lots of apparently unrelated mysteries all come together to be explained by One Big Thing. If I were telling you this aspect of the story from the antagonist’s point of view, it would take only three or four sentences. But it’s very hard to parse out what the reader and protagonist should learn, and when. Should the reader already understand that X is the cause of Y but suddenly discover it’s also the cause of Z? Or the other way around? It’s hair-pulling.

    For all the plethora of how-to writing resources out there, I haven’t found one that tackles this particular problem.

    1. I find myself often thinking about stories as the process of revealing the unknown to the reader. The challenge is to reveal the information in an interesting way that happens to also be a pleasing narrative.

      1. Many, many stories depend on revelation to drive them forward. Not just mystery and suspense, but plenty of lit fiction and stories of family secrets and even self-discovery.

        It is hard to map out the order of revelation and even harder to force yourself to keep going when you know it’s wrong. Partly because the reveals can affect the entire shape of the story, so it’s easy to lose motivation when you realize you should be heading in another direction.

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  10. I like the analogy, but I’d prefer to think of it as a labyrinth instead of a maze. Most people think that a labyrinth and a maze are one and the same when in fact a labyrinth is a type of maze that doesn’t actually have any dead ends. All turns lead somewhere but there is still only eventually one way out.

    So with writing, as you said, sometimes you need to explore each turn to find out that it is not the right way to go, but that process is still necessary. Saying that it is dead end implies that it is a waste of time when in fact it helps you refine and eventually write a better story. As long as you keep trying different twists and turns in the labyrinth, you are still moving forward and eventually you will find your way out. Then, at the end, knowing the correct way out, you can go back and refine that path and cut out the extra twists and turns that aren’t necessary.

  11. I find drafting fun, my problem is restarting. How many time do i get a few pages in and then decide to redo it, over and over. If I could stop that, I would have quite a collection of books out there, and not a huge collection of outlines with great first chapters, lol.

    1. John, try taking your outline and writing a paragraph for each bullet point. Go through the whole outline this way. Then, on the next pass, expand each paragraph. Repeat until your story is told.
      Alternately, figure a word count you’d like the work to be, say 60K words or 80K. Divide that into 10, 12 or 15 chapters and apply a bullet point to each chapter. Move on when you hit your word count for the chapter. You’ll have finished before you know it. Good luck! :)

      1. That is pretty much what i do, when i don’t restart. Currently reading “The War of Art”, by Pressfield, it is helping already.

    2. Along with what M. Frank said, try completing NaNoWriMo in November. I wrote my first novel that way! It forces you to just write and pour out 50,000 words in 30 days! The forums on Nanowrimo.org spark alive about a month from now!

      Just my thoughts. ;)


  12. My rough drafts are a hedge maze. My second draft is a chainsaw.

    Dead ends? No. Just overgrown weeds.

  13. I worked on a novel for years. It got WAY too big, yet had tons of gaps. I was writing chapters that no longer fit. That drove me to outlining. Now I’m writing short stories because I wanted to sharpen my writing style. Here is my current writing method:

    0: Get the idea. (Yeah, step zero, is that a prologue?)
    1: Outline. One rough paragraph for every main action. Step out the entire storyline.
    2: Write a first draft, which I often wince at, the operative word being “rough.”
    3: Write a second draft. Here is where most of the writing gets good.
    4: Rewrite to smooth out bumps and the like.
    5: The step I still need to do, FINISH AND PUBLISH!

  14. My wife and I refer to this as screwing it up first. I think that it’s definitely important to not be afraid to screw up a scene that we’re not sure of, but everyone in writing is saying this over and over. This is eminently evident in the mentality of NaNoWriMo.

    The danger of moving forward with no regard for what is being screwed up is that a chain of mistakes get made. The problems with scene one affect scene two where even more mistakes are made, which affects scene three, and so on. Searching down that long wrong turn branch of the maze gets expensive. It becomes so much of an investment that it is extremely painful to remove it from the book, so it doesn’t. This hurts the final product.

    This is why it is important to know that every scene, even the ones we think are brilliant, is screwing up your plot. Understand that we’re going to war and are probably dead. Accept it. Then don’t be afraid to take a second look at things before moving on. Don’t be irrational and nitpick random details. Just make sure there aren’t problems that will compound down the road. Having a record week or month of writing will do no good if we go in a random direction.

    My point is that it isn’t only important to not let fear of doing the wrong thing stop us from doing anything. Fear of doing the wrong thing shouldn’t make us irrationally embrace the way of the shark, moving forward no matter what, and stop us from checking which way we’re going.

  15. I’m an avid outliner. I spend more time on character sheets and the outline than I do writing the first draft. Sometimes more than the revisions as well. But the payoff is I avoid dead ends. And I get to enjoy the revision process.

  16. Great piece of advice Mr. Howey, I’m finding (in the novel I’m writing) that there are a lot of holes forming. I know where I need to go but the complexity of my story line are as you say, causing me to hit dead ends on a constant basis.
    – Love your writing
    – Love reading your blog
    – You have a reader for life

  17. The best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever gotten are on a coffee mug I won in a writing group raffle: http://www.cafepress.com/mf/59256712/the-rules-of-writing_mugs?productId=570599360

    Once I gave myself permission to follow Rule One (“write crappy first drafts”), moving the story along got a whole lot easier.

  18. Imagine tracing your finger down a maze and coming to the first forking path. If you can glance ahead and see it’s a dead end, no problem. But sometimes the dead end is too long or there are too many branches ahead to know which way to go.

    That’s why they invented writing backwards. Then there is no question where it will end, just how you get there. It can be done for scenes, chapters, or the whole book. I don’t know if it is true, but there are accounts that say Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With The Wind back to front. Some say she just wrote the last chapter first. Who knows?

  19. Great advice. Just remind yourself that whatever you have to delete in order to back up and find your way back to the right path isn’t lost work–it’s all practice. Musicians hit a few wrong notes but keep playing; artists make some errors and cover them up and keep painting.

  20. Nice way of putting it. A maze is certainly what it feels like… there’s always a way out

  21. Sometimes, especially with a short story, I come to one of those multiple pathways and don’t know which way to go – kind of like Gandalf in Moria in “The Fellowship of the Rings” – “I have no memory of this place” – and I pause it there. But while I am waiting for the answer – “The air is fresher this way” – I start a new story and forget the other one. When I come back to the story I left, often the answer has worked itself out and I can continue. The key is to keep writing no matter what. With a novel, another option is to skip ahead a few chapters. I know that Kris Rusch, for instance, has written about how she writes chapters out of sequence and assembles them later. You might find, in fact, that you were writing yourself into a dull zone, and that skipping ahead puts the story back on track.

  22. Writers are mining such deep levels of the psyche, the ebb and flow of those currents can be strange and unpredictable. A maze is a good metaphor.

  23. […] A Rough Draft Can be A Maze | Hugh Howey […]

  24. […] To understand what Howey means, check out his blog post here: “A Rough Draft Can Be a Maze” […]

  25. “first forking path.”

    heh :)

  26. I am currently reading your recomendation Hugh, “The War of Art”, half way through and have a good feeling about it…. but let me get off the internet now because this is just a form of Resistance, lol

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  29. […] The writer’s maze: right paths and dead ends […]

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