Nailing my thumb to the wall

So here’s the process I’m going through in order to skip revising the second section of the novel before I’ve finished the rest of first draft.

  • Write a single sentence encompassing what I want each existing scene to become.
  • Try to match that sentence to the characters and action already existing in the story.
  • When I can’t, then come up with a new sentence that fits the spiffy new first part of the book without breaking more of the existing writing than is ABSOLUTELY necessary.
  • Avoid touching a single word in the existing draft, no matter how tempting, even as I hear the tinkling of broken scenes shattering to the floor with every spiffy new scene I devise.
  • Maintain my equanimity while seeing whole buckety craploads of words headed for their doom.
  • Mutter imprecations and profanities at the idiot who wrote some of the stuff I’m dealing with.
  • Realize that repeatedly nailing my thumb to the wall is not the wacky good time it’s reputed to be, and determine that I’m going to have to get out a notebook and PHYSICAL index cards, and work this out in realspace before I’m actually ready to face the new scenes I need to write.

Hope your writing went better.

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68 responses to “Nailing my thumb to the wall”

  1. Scarlet Curls Avatar
    Scarlet Curls

    Hey Holly,

    I’m going through two scenes right now that have me stumped. I’m a HUGE fan if Asian pop-culture so I’m incorporating that into my story but that means that all my main and support characters are either Japanese, Korean or both. I’ve hung out with plenty of Asians and am quite familiar with their culture but I’m introducing two of these characters through conversations with their parents and I’m stuck. I don’t know how parents who live in Asia act and I don’t want to make them sound like stereotypes or white people. Most of my friends can’t help me because their parents have lived in Australia for a long time so they are more disconnected from their Asian roots (mainly language and tradition wise). Can you give any tips for writing characters in situations the author isn’t familiar with? Thanks!

    1. Holly Avatar

      I can. Do what research you can, create as separate group that is your own amalgam (I’m assuming from your post that you’re writing either SF or Fantasy), and extrapolate something that fits the needs of your story.

      If you’re writing real-world, real-time fiction, you have to hunt down someone to talk to who can tell you what you need to know, which is much harder.

  2. Glynis Jolly Avatar

    I’ve had several fault starts on stories, but I am now working on one I feel is going to be seen to the end. I, like you, write a sentence or two about the entire scene before getting down to the nitty-gritty. You stated you write one sentence. I’ve found that sometimes one just isn’t enough to get the essence of the scene. Of course, with this story idea that I’m plugging away at, the complete story has me excited because it’s based on real life, just altered to make it fiction.

  3. heidi Avatar

    typing everything I have on paper to the computer (flash drive) including characters, settings, terms, and exc. Because a girl at my school might have copied either my only scene or my version of an idea/ my idea.

    I just got done writing my one scene in my book. my MC is dreaming and you learn more of the backstory.
    original word count: 136
    word count now: 997
    . . .Wait is the difference that big?
    Thank you Muse

  4. Yvonne Brown Avatar

    Great article! Is it true that the hardest chapter to write is the first? Thanks!

    1. Holly Avatar

      “Great article! Is it true that the hardest chapter to write is the first? Thanks!”

      Hi, Yvonne. No—not even close. The first chapter is the one that has to be flawless before you send out your query letter, but if your book is going to be good, every page of every chapter is equally as difficult, requiring as much thought, planning, and attention…and the FINAL chapter is the one on which you have to pour in twice as much effort. The first chapter sells THAT book, after all. But the last chapter sells the next one, and any hope you have for maintaining a viable career.

      Good luck on your new book, by the way.

  5. No1nptkulr Avatar

    Holly, do you sleep? Keeping a website up as big as this one along with all the writing you do must give you at least all of 5 minutes of sleep at night.

    1. No1nptkulr Avatar

      My apologies for the double post.

    2. Holly Avatar

      I sleep pretty well. What I don’t do is watch TV. 😀

      1. Harsha Avatar

        that actually makes a lot of sense 😛

  6. Collette Anderson Avatar
    Collette Anderson

    I truly thank you for your suggestions. However, I am able to start the chapter I just began to second guess myself. I feel comfortable with the conversation for each of my characters I just don’t know if its correct. I ‘m not sure so I am beginning to now wonder if the book is such a great thing after all. I don’t know

    Thanks again


    1. Holly Avatar

      Here’s the deal. You have to write. At first, you don’t know whether it’s good or not. And mostly it’ll be crap. But you have to get through the crap to find the good words.

      If it’s your second chapter of your first book, odds are it’s terrible. We’ve all been there. Just keep writing. If you finish it, then revise it, you’ll learn how to be better next time.

      If you quit, or finish it but don’t revise it, you won’t learn anything, and your next attempt will be just like this one.

      1. Bob Avatar

        I am lucky enough to have located a very good writers group that are very supportive. Through all my head banging I still can come up a decent plot occasionaly. now I just have to be able to put it down on paper. And I havwe a wife that is encouraging in a gentle but firm manner.


  7. Millie Hinkle Avatar
    Millie Hinkle

    Hi Holly, I am a new fan. I look forward to your emails. Now I will try to go into your archives and learn more from the master. My training is in non-fiction, but I have a true story that must be the inspiration for a fictional saga in five parts. So I am trying to catch up with the principles of fiction. Your words of direction resonate with me as truth. Thanks for your generosity.

  8. Tim Walsh Avatar
    Tim Walsh

    Hi there, Not sure if I should call you Holly or just Great.
    I read your info on Collaboration and posed the questions you raised in your piece to my “Partner”
    “WOW” it really did raise a lot of issues and objections in as much the partnership before it got started has been dissolved. I believe that without checking on your site first the long term consequences could have ended up being litigious and expensive knowing my “Partners” background. The arguments you put forward should not only be used for writing a book but also for any person who wants to consider sharing ideas or finance. Thank you so much.
    A very relieved individual Kind regards

  9. Micole Avatar


    This is very good advice, that some of us writers tend to forget now and again. We have to remember to make every scene count.

    Thank you for this reminder.


  10. Simon Fellows Avatar
    Simon Fellows

    GET OUT OF MY HEAD!!! Guess I’ll have to stop feeling terminally unique now. ps. If you ever happened to run into that jerk who wrote all the crappy text you were left to deal with, I hope you kicked or punched that person in an inappropriate place…you know, like a line at the bank or at a waterpark or something.

  11. Emma Avatar

    Good luck, Holly!
    As to all you fellow writers your making me feel like a lazybones: I haven’t put thoughts to paper in half a week. Gotta get writing, gotta get writing.
    Relil is going to get toasted by his brother.

  12. Wendy Swore Avatar


    Your crash revision workshop was superb, and so is your blog here. I agree that it’s strangly happy and empowering to know that you struggle just the same as everyone else. It’s wonderful when you get past the sticky parts that give you issues and the story flows better. This past year I’ve discovered that editing can be almost as fun as writing. Who knew?

  13. Michelle Avatar

    340 for me….very sorry, Beverly! I really hope he starts feeling better soon. 🙁

  14. Beverly Avatar

    So much for writing. Hubby is doctor’s office sick. He’s now feeling better and not death warmed over anymore. Now just to find out what made him sick and how to fix it.

  15. Gabby Avatar

    I’ve been away on vacation for a week. My sister just had her baby so I ran myself ragged helping out. I actually thought (although I’m laughing now) that I would have a couple of hours each day to get away and write but it didn’t happen. My new niece is the sweetest little baby. (It was love at first sight) :))

    Anyway, I got maybe 10 words all week. Yesterday I got 192. And today… drumroll please… 2404 and I broke 30K!!

    I finally finished one scene and started the next. It’s a transition scene to the next biggie one but my muse didn’t fail me. Some neat stuff happened that I didn’t expect. I love the scene now. It defiintely gives some more hints about backstory and the way the different cultures interact. Lots of fun. I got wonderful chills writing it. Hopefully it won’t be all trashed when I reread it with more distance next time.

    1. Holly Avatar

      Congrats on the niece, and on the words. Welcome back.

      1. Gabby Avatar

        Thank you! It’s really good to be back. When I’m struggling, I read this blog again and it gets me inspired to get just a few more words on the page. My scene started really awkward but I just kept saying “something is better then nothing.” I thought I understood your advice but now I understand it so much better. It truly is better to get anything down and fix it later. Thanks so much for your help. I’m so grateful to be finally, actively pursuing this dream!

  16. Don Avatar

    Was sent home from work this morning because of a nagging cough (I work for the VA and everyone is paranoid about swine flu). I feel fine I have a nagging upper resp issue that rears it’s head every fall and winter. So I wrote for most of the day got 2220 words today it was a banner day, back on track and looking good. Sorry about the thumb!

    1. Holly Avatar

      Damn. Most Impressive!

  17. Julian Adorney Avatar
    Julian Adorney

    It did, actually. Polished up a short story I’ve been working on for a few months. This involved cutting out about 2,000 cherished words, but the end result is tighter and faster-paced.
    I also finished rereading Part 1 of my novel. Editing starts tomorrow.

  18. Dena C. Avatar
    Dena C.

    I haven’t checked in for a couple of days. I was off from the day job on Monday and took my daughter to the dentist. I had planned to do some writing Monday night, but my daughter had a fall and broke her collar bone, so we spent our evening at the hospital. So no words on Monday. I did 319 words on Tuesday and today was a much better day with 2067 words.

  19. Lori Avatar

    I haven’t added any actual words to my story in a week, though I’ve scribbled some viable ideas. The problem is that I’m at the place where everything changes for my protagonist. I’m so uneasy about the importance of this scene that the pen in my hand isn’t getting the job done. I may have to write a few words at a time and be patient until I can break through.

    1. The Pencil Neck Avatar
      The Pencil Neck

      You may want to try just writing “bad” versions of the scene. In other words, go ahead and write the whole scene with the intention of throwing everything away. You could try setting a “bad version” limit. For example, tell yourself that your going to write the same scene 5-6 different ways and try as much as possible to make each one completely different with different descriptions and different images and different dialogue. Then read over them and see if there’s anything you like or that you can use.

      You might even end up getting a version you really like.

      I haven’t tried doing this yet but I got the idea from Nancy Kress’ Beginnings, Middles, & Ends book.

    2. Jessica Avatar

      I just got through a bout of that myself. Just remember, it’s a first draft, it’s not about being perfect the first time.

    3. Holly Avatar

      Adding to the above: Write something. Allow yourself to suck. This is first draft, and once you get something, you free up your mind to get something better next time.

      The only thing you can’t fix is the thing you didn’t write.

  20. Lisa Avatar

    765 words, and almost through with the climax scene. Quite a few things happened that I didn’t expect, and I kept determinedly closing my ears to the “tinkling of broken scenes shattering to the floor” (thanks for the imagery, Holly!) as this scene made other scenes wrong or obsolete. But I’ll press on fearlessly, and wait with bated breath for the HTRYN course, in the hopes it will help me build something out of this shattered mess!

  21. Jewel/Pink Ink Avatar

    I feel your pain Holly.

    523 words yesterday and today for me.

  22. Erin Kendall Avatar

    I’m not sure how many new words I got last night, but it’s turning into a rehash of the same scene. 🙁 Trying to tweak it, make it better, but all I’m doing is spinning my wheels. Going to move on tonight.

    And, good luck with your story.

    Erin K.

  23. May Avatar

    I haven’t updated in a while (mostly because my internet is down; I’m at Caribou right now) so I’m not exactly sure how many words I’ve written since last time.
    Well, the beginning was a total bust, so I threw it out and started from a later scene. Now that the story is slowly playing out, I can envision my beginning more clearly. Beginnings tend to be hard for me.
    My characters are aboard the Titanic, and the killer seeking my MC out is on board with them. I didn’t even see that coming, but it makes the story more of a murder mystery/suspense, which I really like 🙂
    Otherwise, my words have been coming very, very slowly (as they do until I hit the middle) and they still need some work, but I am determined to get through the first draft before I revise, or I’ll never finish this story.
    Hope everyone is at least doing better than me…

  24. Patricia Avatar

    Best of luck on your project Holly, I know it’s really hard for me to reel in my inner editor and wait till it’s done before touching anything. I can only imagine how tempting it must be for you. I’m happy to say that willpower is winning out so far on my end, and it’s good to see how you tackle the difficulties you face as you write. Thank you. 😀

    I got 934 words last night, and Ryan’s peaceful dream turns sour. He wakes up cold, lonely, and the fire has gone out. Somehow he’s hanging in there, though, and he continues onward. At least the monsters haven’t caught up with him yet, and they probably think he’s been killed by a dragon or some other natural cause. The Savannah is a harsh place to live, and he has to be constantly on the lookout, because the smallest mistake can mean death in any survival situation.

  25. June Avatar

    Tuesday I wrote probably about 300 words of the Esteval scene, and deleted them all. They just were not right.

    This morning I realized that I need to insert a Ciqueo scene before the Esteval one and this was why I couldn’t get a good beginning to the Esteval scene. So, off to write that today.


  26. Peggy Avatar

    Only about 150 yesterday (Tuesday). We’ve had major winds the last couple of days, which translates to lots of dust in the air, which translates to me having allergies and sinus attacks that are absolutely no fun and not at all conducive to doing more than thinking about the next scenes coming up.

    Here’s hoping for better luck today.

  27. Minze Avatar

    977 words today, and my male lead has identified the corpse and is off to seek help. That’ll land him in a trap. Originally I’d planned this trap for my heroine, and she was to be saved by the hero. Looks like she’s going to save him instead.

    My scenes often turn different from the way I’ve planned them. I started to update my plot cards. High time I did that. I usually have about twenty minutes per day in which to write, and that includes the time it takes me to find my timer, get coffee, backup my writing and print it out. Right now, I’ve got over 35.000 words written (hooray), and I’m at the point where I can’t see the wood for the trees. Today I looked at my story and had the nagging suspicion that some events that happen at the start of the story might be better off happening at the end. I’m still debating whether to re-arrange the whole story or sing a happy song and pretend nothing happened.

    1. Cat (from HtTS) Avatar

      Congrats on your progress!

      My advise: First finish the story and then worry about moving the scenes. When you did during revision, you can print out the two versions and compare them. It’s always easier to decide what’s better if you can compare.

  28. SCBrazil Avatar

    I’m just past the 15k mark but this got me worried nevertheless. The only hammer I own is of the sledge variety. Eight pounds of pig iron.
    300 words done and dusted this morning, I’m going to use my afternoon buying one of those dinky little hammers glass fitters use.

  29. HannaBelle Avatar

    Thanks for this list, Holly. Perfect timing. I am about to read the 10 or so chapters I have written, and was not sure how to approach it without fear. I am going to apply this list as I read.

    I am going on vacation for 6 days, so I am not sure how much I will write or post. I feel the absence of putting words on the page, since I have missed a few writing days. My plan is to at least take what i have done, so I can read and plan when I get down time.

  30. Mark Avatar

    I think I might try this plan. I’ll also have to mention it at my Writer’s Group tomorrow night (can’t wait!).

    Tonight I doggedly wrote a scene until it collapsed in a heap of poor internal logic, however when I return to this scene I know exactly how to approach it. I feel confident about it now. Sometimes you just have to write a scene the wrong way to write it the right way.

    So zero words from me, or at least none that count.

    1. Holly Avatar

      Sometimes you just have to write a scene the wrong way to write it the right way.

      Amen, brother.

  31. Cat (from HtTS) Avatar

    878 words in my WIP. The fight is going well but my MC is quite feeble from loss of blood. I need to let her recover a bit before she goes of trying to rescue the man she loves. I’ll finish part to on Friday, just in time for my vacation (the kids will be on holiday again and I promised to go riding with them 🙁 ).

    Also another 1704 words on my translation. I should finish it really soon after I return. I am very pleased. It only took 3 months (Translating “Ann Angel’s Freedom” took me more than a year).

    1. Holly Avatar

      You’re flying. Cheers!

  32. Jessica Avatar

    641 although I split it over a 2 sessions.
    First session was just a quick “over the next 2 days” crap. The second session started with a great inspiration from Conan O’Brien. Normally I block out external sounds but I just happened to catch one fragment: “it’s getting you to an emotional place”. That just sent everything tumbling and FMC had a wonderful ‘waiting for Godot’ type dream of two dead characters.

  33. Debora Avatar

    450 words on WIP, plus a 531-word post to the Gettysburg discussion group about Lee’s mindset on day 3 of the battle.

    My best bet is just to keep going. No looking back. Don’t care how much I wander, so long as I keep the end in sight.

    Plus I cleaned out our garage yesterday! (A major undertaking, long overdue. Where did I get all those pots? And empty boxes? And what’s this. . . ? I have no idea!)

  34. Khena Avatar

    Sorry you are having troubles, Holly, but like Pencil Neck, I’m strangely happy about it as well… Well, happy isn’t probably the right word, but I have 5 mins to post before I have to get out the door so it will have to do.

    I am having trouble, though not to the same scale. I feel like I am nearing the end, even though I have quite a ways to go yet, and it’s bogging me down. The scene I finished up last night was hard, very hard for me to write. Nathalan decides to kill the assassin while he is sleeping and sends the others away since they don’t agree with him. But the assassin was only pretending to sleep, and Nathalan barely managed to kill him, getting horribly wounded in the process and the scene ended with him bleeding in the dirt, unconscious. My plan was to move ahead in time a few weeks to skip some of their travel time, but since he’s half dead, I might have to add a few scenes. Have to think on that today. I could just stick it in as lingering concern in the scene I had planned as well, adn it might have the same feel.

    Anyway, 700 odd words for me wrapping up the scene, pushing me over the 80k mark =) Yay me!

    1. Holly Avatar

      Part of the value of me posting my process is that writers who don’t do this for a living realize two things:

      • All writers, including writers who have been doing this for a living for a whole lotta years, screw up.
      • If writers who have been doing this for a whole lotta years screw up on our books, then screwing up must not be fatal to the book.

      Even the worst screw-ups can be fixed if you know how and are willing to put in the elbow grease.

      So I won’t mind at all that you’re strangely happy. When I was beating my head against a brick wall back when I was getting started, I would have been THRILLED to know that pros did not, in fact, have perfect novels fall out of their asses—that they had to work at them to get them right, just like me.

  35. Larkk Avatar

    I’m sitting in front of the computer, my music is playing, and I am ready to write. What to write today?
    860 words in my journal about what I did and didn’t like about my first draft.
    941 words, writing back story for the next one, making notes about what I might want to research. I love this part of writing, just making it up, trying to see things better in my imagination, finding the characters and the story. The writing is super loose, something I picked up at “Write or Die.” It seems to work well for me, coming up with ideas this way.
    Oh, and made some back up copies of the final version of my first draft!

  36. Marina Avatar

    Eeek! Sounds painful, Holly.

    I’ve been procrastinating a LOT for the last couple of days, even though I’ve had perfect writing conditions. I’m close to the end and finding it hard to tie up all the nifty little Muse bombs into a coherent finale.

    So today I snuck up on my story by ignoring it completely and sitting down with my sweet spot map, thinking about possibilities for a new short story. The break did me good, and I got a respectable 833 words of progress on the novel in the end.

  37. Greg Avatar

    D&D: 516, and everything looks lost for the community that’s been invaded.
    OFL: 1084, and conflict at a house party.
    RFW: 1001, and a massacre that doesn’t go to plan.

  38. Leah Avatar

    624 hard-fought words. Not easy to come by when one is drowsy from a short night and a day of rain, rain, rain. But I got them.

    And I’m going through the same feelings, Holly. And I’m trying to stick to my guns and not go back and edit, edit, edit either. There are days I’d like to just chuck my whole novel, computer and all, across the office and say “Screw you!” But, for all your disappointments, I do appreciate the advice you have given to me and other authors over the years with regards to the Editor within us: Wait! Wait! Wait! Until it’s over!

    1. Debora Avatar

      Ditto for me. Wait! Wait! Wait! Until it’s over!

  39. The Pencil Neck Avatar
    The Pencil Neck

    732 words – Development.

    Well, I’m sorry. I really am… but… it is good to hear that you have those sorts of problems, too. I’ve got to admit that I’m surprised you’re not already using PHYSICAL cards. I assumed you would be. I’m using virtual cards and I always have since I read about them in your plot courses. But I’ve thought about using physical cards and even bought the cards. Just never wanted to take the time to write up 80-90 cards that weren’t going to be legible to anyone. Ever.

    Tonight, I worked on The Queen. I got to know her better while looking for conflicts related to her and what’s really striking me is how very similar The Queen and The Princess are. They’ve got the same goal but they’re starting from vastly different places with vastly different experience. The Queen is just a little more of a pragmatist, more Machiavellian in terms of using people while The Princess is more gifted in military strategy and tactics. It’s like Machiavelli vs. Sun Tzu.

    1. Jessica Avatar

      Sounds like fun!

  40. Treelight Avatar

    Jheyrien is chasing after Cathrine, and I decided he is not a very good rider. So far he manages to cling to the reins and keep in the saddle, but his mount is running rather faster than he can controll it – which it has to, for they are chased by dangerous creatures, and of course need to catch up with the kidnapper.
    This is fun to write, but I’m not sure what will happen next. I might just let him make the final stage till he can stop running and has to start searching for Cathrine. I can always add more trouble in the revision.
    Anyway, I got 492 words.

  41. Teri Avatar

    Good luck with getting your story together. Doesn’t sound fun at all.

    For me, I got another 446 words today, and though Taskh was beginning to wonder if Heidol’s army was really here, he did finally find it just as the sun was setting. Now he’s heading in to deliver his report to the commander.

  42. Ieva Avatar

    Oh wow. Good luck–this sounds highly alchemical to me even though I just finished the HtTS course. (I just had to brag, didn’t I?)

    1000+ words yesterday. I began with 500+, then had the day fall on my head and in the very evening, torn between going to sleep early (I wasn’t able to speak a coherent sentence by then) and writing, sat down to write for 15 minutes or so, just to prove that I can’t.
    It turned out I can. (I will have to rework the scene massively but the bad guy said what he needed to say, and that’s all that matters for now.)

  43. Clare K. R. Miller Avatar

    Yeesh. Good luck

    523 words for me tonight. Cricket has nostalgia, then freaks out because the people they’re meeting (or some of them) are from a country she’s been taught is evil.

  44. Adam Avatar

    That doesn’t sound like fun, but at least you have a plan of attack for it. That is better than having to scrap everything. 🙂

    i moved my story forward, got a preliminary conversation done, and can get ready for Kraz to speak to all of them before they climb down the long shaft into the pit to storm the necromancer’s lair.

    i also did some editing of my printout, and i’m starting to see some common themes in things i’m doing poorly on the draft. i also outlined a short story that i’m going to work on the next time i need a break from this project (or get stuck). This is going to be a short story that i convert into a 3D animation project. It introduces the MC, highlights his first job for a boss in the city, and will introduce a couple other characters in this story.

    800 words tonight.

    1. Treelight Avatar

      You are actually able to create a 3D-version of your characters and story? Will you share this with us?

      1. Adam Avatar

        as to the animation side, yes, i have all the tools that i need in order to transfer my project into an animation. what i don’t have right now is the time and modeling skills for the characters. i’d have to start with concept art, from the concept art you then build the models. after that, you set up the scenes and go through animating them. based on my previous experience, it would take approx 3 years for me to build and finish a 2-4 minute animation (under my current time constraints).

        i’ll let you know when i move into that aspect of the project though. 🙂

        1. Mark Avatar

          Hey, a fellow animator! It’s my day job. I write when I’m not animating. One day when I’ve finished my books, I’ll have to take my film ideas off the shelf and finish one of them, but until then I only have time for one project.

          1. Adam Avatar

            yeah, time became a problem for me working on both writing and 3d, so i had to drop 3d for now and focus on writing. maybe in a few years when my kids are more grown up i’ll have the time for both, but right now it is not realistic. i just found 3d a few years ago, but wish i’d have had more exposure to it when i was younger…

            in your shoes, i don’t know that i’d want to come home and animate after doing it as my day job. 🙂

        2. Treelight Avatar

          I’m definitely looking forward to it, even if it takes 3 years 😉
          I once took only a short look at 3D-stuff, but it was way beyond me.

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