Recently on the Golden Crown Literary Society's list, novelist Sandra Barret asked if anybody knew the secret magic potion for better first drafts. Much discussion ensued regarding planning a manuscript, outlining, experimenting, and working at craft and technical details.
Ever since then, I've continued to puzzle over the topic, and the more I think about it, the more I believe that there's no secret magic potion. Better early drafts, it turns out, are created from a special ingredient that my mother always called "elbow grease." Yes, that's right: Work. And lots of it.
The Crooked Road We Travel
Many writers do considerable advance work long before they ever put pen to page or fingers to keyboard. They do extensive character dossiers, figure out the plot from A to Z, and write detailed outlines, even going so far as to break it all down into chapter and/or scene-by-scene analysis. Only then do they begin writing. I call writers who travel this path Outliners.
At the other end of the spectrum are those who start with a blank page. They may have done a lot of thinking about character, plot, and scenework, but little or nothing is committed to paper. With an idea, an inspiration, perhaps only a wing and a prayer, these people plunge in and fly by the seat of their pants. These are called Organic Writers.
I am - so far - an Organic Writer. I've never yet been able to use an outline, though sometimes I sorely wish I could! I've completed six (almost seven) novels now, and I haven't used the exact same methodology for constructing any of them. My method is to be captivated by a character or two in a situation that's interesting to me, and then to start writing scenes about that character. I gradually discover the shape and tone of the story. The general theme I start with usually tends to morph into something very different as I go along, and the characters and their plot situations reveal themselves in irritatingly gradual ways. My first draft is often a great big sprawling mess.
However . . .
Some of my best friends are Outliners. Many of my students are as well. They've given me a lot of information about the benefits of planning ahead vs. plunging in. Whether you're an Outliner or an Organic Writer - or somewhere in between - the tactics I'm going to share should help you reduce the number of drafts you have to do at the rewrite stage.
Rules for the Road
I've been teaching writing classes and workshops for over five years now, and in that time, I've learned that there are no set rules for how fiction is successfully created. Every class I teach has a few people in it who are adamant about the need to outline and a few who couldn't outline to save their souls. Outline v. Organic is often the debate: Which is better? Which produces the best first manuscripts? Which is quicker? Which is more successful?
I actually think that whether you outline in advance or do the organic process, you're actually doing the same thing, but one is exterior, concrete, and somewhat orderly while the other is interior, abstract, and often more experimental. In either case, you have to go through the process (at some point) of defining themes, plot, and character, and also determining the structure and perspective through which you'll tell the story. Whether you do that in advance (planning and coordinating like an architect) or do it as you go along (experimenting like Thomas Edison), ultimately you have to create a finished draft that constitutes a Whole.
You'd think an author's quality of writing would improve with each new book, just like a driver's skill improves as she learns to steer a variety of new courses.
But that comparison isn't necessarily true.
Unless you're writing completely formulaic books with stock characters and no surprises (which no one wants to do!), every book you work on will be a brand new journey of discovery. The writer has to be open to the path, to the journey, and to the unexpected. The plot may be more complicated than you think you can handle. The structure may drive you insane. Characters might require more work than usual, and perhaps you get stuck doing research you never expected.
All of that happened to me with Snow Moon Rising. With that novel, I think I created the rock bottom, poorest first draft I've ever written. I've felt intensely ashamed and upset about this book's process. Wasn't I supposed to be improving? Didn't all the work I'd done before teach me anything? And why the hell did it take so long to write the book?
What I've come to understand is that some books are easier to write than others. When you fall in love with a story that's going to demand a lot of you, your first draft may not be as clean, tidy, and easy to work with as your past books' drafts have been. You could beat yourself up for that (as I have), but I can tell you from experience that it only saps your strength and resolve. Instead, consider it an opportunity to learn something. In my case, I learned a lot about pruning and condensing, which I wouldn't have learned in a different, simpler story. I also learned how to research more effectively, to outline AFTER the fact, and to do a bang-up job creating timelines and charts of character arcs. These are tricks I can share that will help you write better early drafts and reduce the amount of time and the number of drafts you end up doing.
So that we're all talking about the same thing, let me define terms. I believe that there is a general flow from initial draft to the finished, publishable version, and those stages look something like this:
1. First Draft - Also sometimes called Zero Draft or Shitty First Draft, this is the first version you put on the page, complete with every error, misjudgment, and omission as well as with the occasionally fantastic metaphors, images, allusions, and unexpected use of beautiful language.My emphasis in this article is on creating solid - and fewer - early drafts by doing the most effective rewriting job possible the first time around.
Regardless of how you enter into the fictional world that will drive you through your first draft, the important thing is that you do ENTER! As Ellen Hart says, "The writer who gets published is the one who finishes the book." If you don't actually write it, there's nothing to rewrite or revise, much less edit. Many published authors have told me repeatedly that the worst thing you write is better than the best thing you didn't actually get onto the page.
You must be free to write a first draft and not be overly concerned about how "bad" it is. No one says it better than Anne Lamott:
"For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts." ~Anne Lamott, from Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and LifePlease do not try to write a perfect first draft. I've had students come to my classes who have been working on their first chapter for ages, perfecting it with great intensity, but never moving on. This is like limiting your car driving to tooling around and around the block to get your left turn perfected. In a world of starts and stops, high speeds, five- and ten-lane freeways, and inclement weather, focusing on the left turn is madness. MOVE ON.
A perfect first draft is not possible. It just doesn't happen. The important thing is to write your novel or short story or script, and get it out somehow so you have your beginning, middle, and end: a completed manuscript. Once you've done that, you've got something to work with.
As the incredibly prolific Michael Crichton once said: "Books aren't written - they're rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn't quite done it."
Second Draft - The Rewrite
Once you have your draft - whether you outlined in advance to develop it or not - there are a number of things you can do to limit how many new drafts you'll ultimately have to do. If you had a choice between doing some organizational work on your draft that will allow you to do one, or perhaps two, rewrites vs. rewriting five or six times, wouldn't you choose to do the organizational pieces?
If You Outlined in Advance . . .
Set your outline next to your computer screen (or the printout of your manuscript) and compare.
Spend some time augmenting and updating your original outline. You will need it for the next steps. While the Outliners are doing that, I've got advice for the Organic Writers who did not outline.
If You Did Not Outline in Advance . . .
Do your outline now.
Yes, that's right. You have to stop being so organic, and get analytical. The best way I've found to do this step is to make a computer copy of my entire manuscript and call it "Outline." Then start with Chapter One and reduce it right there in your computer file so that it looks something like this:
Page #/Chapter #You may have a number of scenes in a chapter, and all should be detailed.
Here is a real, live example from my novel, Snow Moon Rising:
Page 42 - Chapter FiveIt's a lot of work to reduce each scene to a short summary of what happens, but it's necessary. Feel free to include what happens, what the conflict brought about, and/or how characters grow.
Each piece of information above will help you understand your story and characters, and you will very quickly begin to see if plotting and structural issues arise.
You will also discover if:
Okay, We ALL Have an Outline . . . Now What?
Already, just in reviewing or writing your outline, you can't help noticing those errors, misjudgments, and omissions I mentioned earlier.
Write them down!
Start making lists of ideas, questions, and instructions to yourself. All of these observations and discoveries will form the basis of your rewrite. You will also want to consider the next questions as you plan the rewrite.
What did your storyline end up being? Whether it's what you originally intended or not, what is it NOW? Are you happy with it? Do you need to make any specific changes to the events or conflicts in order to change or preserve the storyline? Do you need to go back and add anything you accidentally omitted?
What is the main plot? Is there a secondary plot - or multiple subplots? What are they? Are they necessary? Can any subplots be cut? Should any subplots be added, or if they are only hinted at, do they need to be augmented?
Who is your main character? Is it who you originally thought it would be? Do you need to do some rewriting because another character is equally (or more) important? Is the main character "likeable"? Do you need to soften her? Toughen him up? Add sympathetic details?
If there is more than one lead character, does s/he get adequate screen time? Do you need to add scenes - or switch around scenes - so that he or she makes a big enough impact?
Have secondary characters hijacked any scenes? Are there places where important things happen and significant conflict occurs without the lead(s) being central? If so, are you letting the minor/secondary characters take over when they should not? Do you need to rewrite so that your lead(s) get to make the discoveries, take the action, deal with the conflict, rather than allowing the secondaries to hog it up?
Do you have a cast of a thousand cluttering up your story? How many secondary characters could be combined to serve the functions you need them for?
What or who is the villain or antagonist? (In other words, what stands in the way of the main characters' achieving their desires - a person? An ideal? Somebody evil? Bad weather?) Is the antagonist or villain sufficiently oppositional, or is it too easy for the heroes and/or heroines to reach their goals? If there are multiple antagonists standing in the way, do they all come off as realistic?
Do all significant characters have a style of speech and mannerisms specific to them? Is each lead character individual enough? Which characters seem clichéd or too much of a stereotype, and how can you add detail that will spice them up? Are you overusing any dialect? Does the dialogue sound natural (read it out loud to see!)?
Does something happen in each and every scene? Does each scene advance the plot by offering conflict, change, and struggle? Can you cut whole scenes because nothing happens?
Is there a beginning, middle, and end to each scene - or, if necessary, does the end of the scene flow adequately into subsequent scenes? What questions are left unanswered at the end of each scene, and do you know when and where they are resolved? Are there questions left hanging for a reason (because this is a series for instance)?
Are there issues or details brought up in the scene that you now realize aren't necessary? What excess "crap" is there that must be flushed out?
Are there issues or details in the scene that shouldn't be revealed until later, or should have been included earlier?
Does the end of each scene set things up to call for subsequent action and conflict in new scenes?
Are you seeing specific metaphors or images that recur? What are they and are they appropriate? Do they need to be varied? Enhanced? Cut?
Are there places where further description (of characters, place, action, etc.) is needed? Do you see draggy parts that need to be pruned?
Is the story overloaded with meaningless activity: nodding, grinning, smiling, shrugging, turning, throat clearing, eye rolling, frowning, head shaking, and the like?
Do you use sensory details in all areas including sights, smells, hearing, touch/tactile, taste, and more? If you are heavily focused on one (typically this is visual), where can you insert other sensory detail for variety?
Is the Place where the story occurs important? Have you given it the attention it needs, or do you need to do further world-building? Is there too much emphasis on weather and surroundings - or not enough? If you intend for Setting to be a sort of character, have you included sufficient detail that accomplishes that?
My Eyes Are Bleary, But I've Reviewed it All . . . Now what?
At this point, you ought to have quite a list of issues and problems to look at more deeply, not just within individual scenes, but for the manuscript as a whole.
It may have seemed like a lot of busy work, but once you are ready to start the rewrite, you'll actually have much more than just a glimmer of an idea about what to address. You'll be better able to:
Above all, you should find it much easier to rewrite and smooth out the manuscript in the second draft. If you've analyzed your manuscript thoroughly, you ought to be able to cut at least two - perhaps more - drafts out of the rewrite process.
I don't know about you, but I'm totally up for anything that saves me from multiple drafts!
At the end of the day - or the end of a draft - there isn't any secret magic potion that makes rewriting easy. I hope I've convinced you that good old-fashioned elbow grease mixed with perseverance and ingenuity are what create better early drafts.
But there's always something new to learn, which is why writing is such a wonderful challenge. It never gets old! The Road of Writing Craft is an ever-changing process where we must continue to try new things. Just when you think you have the process down, that you've developed the perfect system and you're ready to initiate cruise control, the Story Goddess is apt to send you something that tries your soul.
I believe that writing is a journey where you never reach your destination. But it's a hell of an interesting trip!
Stay tuned for the second article on this topic, Revisions and Editing: Part Two - Creating Better Finished Drafts by Culling, Augmenting, and Using Global Searches, which will appear in this column in February's issue of Just About Write.
© Lori L. Lake, 2006
From her untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author.
Lori can be reached at Lori@LoriLLake.com and welcomes questions and comments.
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