Advice That Has Done Me No Good Whatsoever


I just finished writing my new middle grade novel. For the fourth (or possibly fifth) time. This book gave me more trouble than anything I’ve ever written–hard to conceive, even harder to birth, a terrible, difficult child from the very beginning. Now that it has, at long last, arrived, I love it with crazy, unreasonable fierceness. Amnesia is already setting in, though it’ll be a while yet till I forget the many nights it woke me from a sound sleep and set me scrawling bedside notes illegible the next morning. My husband remembers how, more than once, I threw myself onto the nearest flat plane and croaked, “It is killing me.”  The shelf behind my desk has a pile of folders, each about half a foot thick, stuffed with notes and old drafts, folders that could be labeled “Completely Wrong Roads to Go Down”.

If there was any justice in this world, I’d never have to go through all that again. But I’m not optimistic. My process seems doomed to be messy and excruciating, no matter how often I go through it. Even now, as I think about my next book, it’s hard not to plunge right in, ignoring my rational side as it waves red flags and hollers, Not yet! Wait and plan some more, you fool!

Still, I really don’t want the next book to take such a toll. And so I’ve been trying to think what I learned this time. What advice I could give myself, and maybe even others, should anyone be interested. Mostly what I’ve come up with, though, is well-meant stuff that didn’t work for me.

Stuff like:

Challenge yourself to try something new!  Okay! And so I tried to write a mystery. Who doesn’t love a mystery? While I was working on the early drafts, I’d tell kids I was writing a who-done-it set on an island, and I’d feel the excitement ripple through the crowd. I wrote two full drafts—one with a crime so obvious a five year old could solve it, and one with a crime so far-fetched it was ridiculous—before I remembered: plot is hard for me. Much, much harder than character or setting. I suppose it was all well and good to challenge myself to write a book whose success hinged on my greatest weakness, but what it taught me, in the end, was that I couldn’t do it. Yes, the finished book centers on a great mystery. But it’s a mystery of the heart. The kind of mystery that, I slowly, painfully came to realize, means the most to me.

Your characters will lead you places you never meant to go! I still believe this, in part. The problem with where my characters took me in those early drafts was that I didn’t know them well enough. I was traipsing along with acquaintances, people I’d met  only superficially. They had some interesting problems and opinions and were fun to be with (most of the time), but they never let me deep inside them. Or, the truth was, I didn’t work hard enough to understand who they were—what they wanted and needed more than anything and, even more important, why. By draft four, I had this crucial information. I was ready to follow Flor and Cecilia and Jasper, but only because I’d done all the hard work to fully create them.

Just get the story down–don’t worry if the writing stinks!  I can’t do it. I tried and tried, but in the future I won’t. I have to revise as I go. For me, each scene (I hate to say it because it makes me sound like a total prig, but maybe even each sentence) builds on the last one, and till I have it in place, there’s no going forward. If I ever manage to write an outline, so that the middle is not a muddle, maybe I’ll find it possible to skim along from start to finish, then go back and fine tool. But as my mother used to say when we begged for something we saw on TV, Don’t hold your breath.

So, how about you? Any advice that’s helped or confounded?

Tricia’s new middle grade novel, “Moonpenny Island”, will publish with HarperCollins in winter, 2015. 


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Tricia Springstubb
Tricia is the author of many books for middle grade, most recently "Every Single Second" (HarperCollins) and the third book in the Cody series, "Cody and the Rules of Life" (Candlewick Press). A frequent speaker at schools, libraries, and conferences, she lives in Cleveland OH. You can find out more about her and her work at
  1. I have also been working on a MG for quite a few years. Each time I think I’m finished with it, I re-edit it and make it better. Even though the first version of it wasn’t what it should be, I didn’t give up on it. I kept at it until it is where it is today – almost finished, I’m doing what I think will be my last edit of it. I also have a tendency to edit as I write.

  2. I’ve been on a similar journey, Tricia. It took me two years, a half dozen drafts, and critiques filling my desktop to realize something: I had created a trio of endearing characters, but the plot stunk.

    Instead of throwing everything away, I started again, kept the characters and wrote a story with a much more believable and heartwarming plot, and one with plenty of humor and action. And most important, by this time I was in each of those characters heads, I knew them as if I was them.

    While polishing up the story I wondered if it was always going to be this way for every story I wrote. The answer thankfully was no. I had an idea for another story with a new cast of characters. I knew the beginning and sort of where It would go and it just flowed. Don’t know why, except maybe the plot was more solid than my previous disaster and the characters had a chance to shine from the start.

    I think we learn about ourselves as writers by going through these tougher times– finding out what works for us as an individual, and not expecting every piece of writing advice to meet our needs. Thanks for the wonderful post.

  3. Oh my goodness!! It’s totally cliche, but I feel like this post was written just for me. Plot is also my greatest weakness. I also *have* to revise as I go. Even, yes, at the sentence level. For me there’s no such thing as a “first draft” due to excessive rewriting instead of *writing.* I have a MG novel I have written (and written and written and written) the first half of without ever being able to write the second half. And until I figure a lot of other things out–about the characters (I love the idea of characters only being acquaintances until you do the hard work to get to know them!), about what’s *really* going on with them–I think I won’t know how to write the second half. I have several computer folders of material for this book FULL of “wrong roads to go down.” But now I know I am not alone. Thank goodness! 🙂
    It reminds me of the end of the Wendell Berry poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” (an awesome poem and poet I highly recommend): “Be like the fox / who makes more tracks than necessary, / some in the wrong direction. / Practice resurrection.” Maybe there is hope for the resurrection of my trying-to-be-novel. It’s so good to hear about the excruciating but ultimately successful birth of your novel, Tricia!

  4. Danielle–aargh, yes. I’m still so susceptible to doubt and, I confess, envy. Working on that!

  5. “Read widely”

    I read YA and middle-grade novels anyway, but when I’m writing the worst possible thing I can do is read something that’s for the same readership as I’m writing to. Or something that has vaguely similar theme/setting. Or a book that just won a heap of awards and everyone is talking about it.

    Because it’s always hard to remind myself that a finished book has been edited, and scrutinised and gone over with a fine-toothed comb by many, many people and what I’m writing is a draft. It’s easy to compare and find yourself wanting against a perfectly finished book while you’re still slugging through the wilds of your first draft.

  6. T.P., I also find it helpful to ask myself the eternal question: what does my character really want?

  7. Yes, Michele–there have been far too many walks this winter when my only thought was, “Can’t wait to get inside!”

  8. Linda, I second everything you say–especially about the voice. Until that’s working for me, the story is nothing. And for anyone who doesn’t know Linda’s blog, it’s a wonderful, generous font of wisdom on the writing process:

  9. Tricia,
    Like you, I’ve never managed to become a “just get the story down” kind of guy. Most of the time, I can’t write a single sentence without rereading it at least three times, most likely making at least one or two revisions in the process. However, when I feel that my molasses-slow writing process is really getting in the way, I’ve found that pulling myself away from my computer and brainstorming ideas in my writing journal can help. For some reason, the pencil-paper approach gives me more freedom to jot and scribble as I try to make sense of my plot (or lack thereof).

    Thanks for the great post! 🙂

  10. Love reading all these comments! I could fill a drawer with drafts that didn’t work. Oh, wait, I have. I am a writer who believes that time away from the computer is often my best writing time — when I’m thinking about the story. And walking is the best! Not in ten feet of snow though 🙁

  11. That last one — the one about just getting it down? That does not work for me. I find a poorly written rough draft so depressing as to be almost insurmountable. If I don’t have the voice and some decent prose to work with, I might as well give up. That doesn’t mean everything has to be pretty or right the first time. I’m a reviser, no question. But truly ugly and hard to read is worse than nothing at all for me.

  12. You know, Jenny, I have those un-writing days, too. Sometimes I do research, or just re-read what I’ve already got and take notes. A good long walk often helps, too.

  13. Laurie, that is very reassuring! Thank you.

  14. Sounds kind of odd but the old “write every day” doesn’t always work for me. My brain needs to percolate, I need time to process the last scene and envision exactly where the next one is going to go. When I sit down every day and end up just staring at the computer or at the legal pad in my lap I end up feeling like I’ve wasted time. But if I skip a physical-writing day and instead allow all those rambling thoughts to come while I clean the floor or bake a loaf of bread then the next time I actually sit down to write-write I have SO much more to go on. The words just kind of tumble out on their own and it feels like such a relief.

  15. I’m looking forward to reading your mystery of the heart, Tricia. A clever plot may be entertaining but in the end it’s the characters that count.