The Barbie Jeep Method of First Drafts

My kiddo loves to zoom around the yard in this Barbie Jeep.

My 4-year-old is obsessed with a hand-me-down Barbie Jeep that actually runs. She floors it and races across our back yard, then drops her foot off the pedal at the last possible moment.

By last possible moment, I mean she stops within inches of crashing into the flowerbeds, the play structure or the sandbox. (Or, occasionally, a supervising adult.)

When she’s stuck, she hits reverse and backs up, sometimes just a little, other times halfway across the yard. Then she floors it again and gets herself stuck. Again.

I keep suggesting the benefits of the slower gear for maneuvering out of tight spots, but my daughter likes moving forward. Fast. And backward. Fast. There’s a great sense of motion and accomplishment that, apparently, is missing when she tries a slower, more methodical approach.

It has occurred to me today that this is exactly how I’ve been moving through the third section of my historical novel, LOST NOTES. I’m ready to get to the ending! Some writing sessions feel like my brain is saying, “Are we there yet?” while my outline says I’m only a third of the way through this section. Lots of pieces have to come together still.

In any case, I grab ahold of an idea, think YES! and race through the scene, just like my daughter driving her Barbie Jeep. When I get stuck, I reverse, reread earlier pieces of the text, figure out where I made a wrong turn, and then try to correct my angle. I know going fast means a lot of it is scaffolding, but right now I’m trying to get the story down. It has been a successful method, if you’re talking word count, but it’s also a bit risky.

I just ran into a totally unexpected obstacle–one that I might have caught earlier had I been working more methodically, and had I not opted to change my outline mid-flow. My protagonist got married, but he’s supposed to get drafted eight months later. Problem is, the Civil War draft targeted unmarried men between 20 and 40. Not married men–unless they ran out of unmarrieds, and since I’m using an actual town with a draft register, I can’t cheat. He can’t get married before July 1863.

That detail about the draft is probably why when writing the original outline, I opted to keep Henri unmarried. But this being historical fiction, and an epic spanning more than two decades, I lost track of that fact and figured the stakes would be greater if he were married.

Until this revelation. Now I have to reverse and rethink a lot of the plot. But it’s a good thing, too. My word count was getting out of control, and I haven’t even introduced a major antagonist yet. I’m now spinning my wheels, going neither forward nor backward, running through dates and details and plot points, trying to figure out a) how to condense the story before it turns into a whole new novel and b) how far back I made that wrong turn.

Have you run into first-draft dead ends? If so, how have you gotten yourself out of the situation? Reversing your course and doing a lot of rewriting? Changing the circumstances? Or plowing ahead anyway, knowing you’ll revise?

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
This entry was posted in Fiction, Plot, Revision, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to The Barbie Jeep Method of First Drafts

  1. Don’t you just hate those dead ends? I’ve come across many, and most of them have kept me up at night tossing and turning thinking about those dead ends and how to fix them. Most of the time, they’re easily fixable. Well, I say easy. It should be easy, shouldn’t it? During the first draft is mostly horrific. 😉 Anyway, I tend to go back and fix a part, and then in the revision, I make sure it all flows well when I make the changes.

  2. Barbie Jeep method, definitely. Since I mostly post as I write, I need to solve problems as the come up. I can’t just say, “I’ll fix it in the mix.” (I do like the mental self-inage of me careening around through the story in a small toy jeep making edits, by the way.)

    • Very true, Anthony! The way you work necessitates a clear vision, and hammering out any problems before you go any farther.

      I do love the idea of racing around manuscript pages in a toy jeep! How fun! Maybe we could have races in the margins.

  3. tamarapaulin says:

    I usually have only the barest of outlines, and as I get closer to the ending, I get more and more anxious that I won’t be able to figure it out/pull it off. I haven’t yet run into any dead ends (knock wood), but my stories are more character-driven than plot-driven, so in a way, anything goes.

    I don’t worry about the first draft too much, because I’m a heavy reviser. Very little of the original draft is intact by the end. (Think: Barbie Jeep movie with CGI special effects.)

    • Wow, amazing that you haven’t run into dead ends yet, Tamara! That must have something to do with the strength of your original outline, I’d think, and having enough figured out to propel you forward. When following an outline, even a sparse one, it seems like there are fewer stuck spots. I blame this particular reversal on deciding to push Henri into marriage, which wasn’t in the original plan.

  4. Heidi Craig says:

    Oh I am the opposite of Barbie Jeep method and my dismal word count proves this. Every word I write I feel is precious. I am too methodical and could use a little more barbie jeep method to get the ideas and words flowing onto the page faster! I revise my first drafts too much as well. I’ll write a chapter and when I open up the document again the next day, what do you know but I’m re-reading that chapter and revising as I go. I can’t stop myself. Its like piking scabs.

    • Oh but Heidi, your first drafts must read like gems! I have a friend in one of my writing groups who polishes everything carefully as he writes, and granted he rewrites as he goes, reworking chapters and what happens, but when he finishes a chapter it’s to a degree of perfection that the rest of us can only dream of! He told us this week that–if I remember correctly–in his first published novel, the editor only had him change two sentences and add a paragraph. So there are definite pluses to writing with your method!

      That being said, I do confess to having a little of that streak myself. Especially when I’m going to bring pages into a group. I polish, rework and tinker with those pages until they gleam, and as such, when I talk about 2/3 of my first draft being in the hands of my critique group right now, I revised as I wrote, and I took a few long sweeps through the whole thing, before submitting the manuscript. Perhaps this is a combination of Barbie Jeep and your method–zooming ahead in the story, then circling back to rework in small, tight circles.

  5. Jo Eberhardt says:

    I love the Barbie Jeep metaphor. Very visual. And very me.

  6. emmaburcart says:

    Wow! That is such a good metaphor, and so true! I feel like sometimes I drive all over the flower beds and don’t realize it until someone at critique group points it out. I want to try and find the balance between too much speed and not enough. I want a Barbie Jeep with a GPS in the dashboard!

  7. Keri Mathews says:

    Love this post! It’s a wonderful comparison and so true. This is exactly how I write (and why most of my novels have been abandoned, unfinished, in some stage of a first draft) and, haha, how my daughter rides *her* barbie four-wheeler.

    I need to find a happy medium between writing the way the you described, and writing in such a disciplined, paced manner that it takes the fun and creativity out of the process. I’ll keep working on it.

    • Thanks, Keri! Yeah, there’s definitely a trick to getting the story out but then slowing down and crawling through it again and again to actually get to the finish line. Hmm. Maybe there’s a turtle and the hare theme in here somewhere–i.e. both methods are useful, but it’s the turtle who (eventually) finishes the race. I loved doing the slow revisions with my last novel for the past few years, but now I’m enjoying zooming around the page in this first draft, leaving some debris (and squashed flowers) in my wake. Not that I’ve perfected any sort of middle ground, but I do like both methods!

      So you have a speed demon daughter too? So fun!

  8. Laura,

    Love the analogy 🙂

    I’ve definitely hit dead ends. One tactic I’ve used before, and recently used again with a short story, was to write a scene from a different character’s point of view. A character whom I thought was just playing in the background, but who suddenly (in the course of that exercise) made it known that he plays a bit part in the story. That was a fun experience, getting that energy back in an unexpected way.

    Another trick I’ve tried is what Andre Debus called vertical writing: sitting down with a character and writing out their thoughts and whatnot from the minute they wake up in their morning to the minute they go to sleep. That helped me figure out a little more about the character, which in turn added to the story.

    • Love your suggestions, Christi! I imagine writing from another character’s POV would bring certain details or nuances into focus in a way that writing within the story boundaries might not allow.

      The vertical method sounds really useful, too. My writing group talks about going vertical, i.e. into somebody’s head, but I haven’t ever tried writing a character’s whole day like that. Such an exercise seems like it would certainly lead to more clarity about what that character is feeling.

  9. Faith says:

    Yikes, I hate when that happens. In historical fiction, especially (for me), because you find yourself hitting your own head, thinking, “But…I can’t change history! But–the story would be so much better this way!!” Good luck!

    • Or do it the Tarantino way: change history, in a really big and audacious way, relying on your own storytelling skill to carry it off.

      • Would that be more like speculative historical fiction?

        • True, but it (and I’m talking about Ingourious Basterds, BTW) didn’t come labeled that way, since that isn’t a recognized genre in movies. In books, yes, but in movies it was just a “World War II movie,” and so the people who saw it early in didn’t know about the speculative part.

          This is one of the problems with genre classifications, BTW — they take a lot of the surprise out of things. If something is labeled a “murder mystery,” well, you know it will have a murder and a mystery. Ditto “vampire novels,” and “paranormal romances,” etc. One of the things I did enjoy about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was that it turned out to be a fairly trad “closed-list” mystery story (a person vanishes, on an island where the only bridge was blocked for a long time, there’s a restricted list of suspects, etc.). None of the things I had read about it had told me it was a mystery story at all, so it was a particular pleasure. For another example, I like reading books where I don’t know in advance if there are going to be paranormal elements or not.

          • I haven’t seen that movie, but it makes sense that movie genres are different than the recognized fiction ones. This weekend, at Wordstock, I heard someone posit that online bookselling was breaking down some genre walls, because in brick-and-mortar stores, a murder mystery would be housed only in mystery, whereas if it were literary enough, or speculative, or something else unusual, it could be sold in two or more categories online. Good point about “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” being a mystery–and I think too of Scott Sparling’s “Wire to Wire” being billed as a crime novel. It is, but it’s also a literary novel and in some aspects a coming of age story, told from after the events happen, reflecting on them.

            • Very good point about genre divisions possibly breaking down. I hadn’t thought of that, but it makes perfect sense. Look how many tags and categories you can have on a single blog post.

              Interesting that the other two Millennium books were not mysteries (they were thrillers). It’s not often that you take a set of characters and an overall plot from one genre to another.

            • Nice point about different tags on blog posts and such. Each thing we write, whether a novel or a post or a poem, has several different identities. And I hadn’t processed that the other two Stieg Larsson books were thrillers, not mysteries. I’d venture that the first was part thriller, in terms of revelations and pacing, but primarily a mystery.

    • Yes, exactly, Faith! The limitations of working within a specific historical context can be freeing, in some ways, but sometimes there are “oh no! now what?” moments. Like this one. But I’m working through it. And I’ll post an update, likely on Wednesday, about how I’ve changed direction! Thanks for stopping by.

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  12. Cat says:

    I have trouble reverse-engineering things. So with my first (and only book) with each of the three drafts – I started over always using the previous draft as building blocks, keeping what was useful and discarding the rest.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Cat! I am always amazed by writers like you, who discard such huge amounts of your work in the refining and revising process. While I try not to get caught up in keeping my beloved sentences when I’m trying to flesh out a theme, for instance, I don’t discard easily. And everything I do end up cutting gets placed in a “cuts” file just in case I need it later.

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