Monday, May 16, 2011

If at First You Don't Succeed...Then You Know You're Writing a First Draft

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A reader asked...
I curious about your first drafts. How polished are they? Any incomplete thoughts, scenes that go nowhere, rambling, clunky dialog etc? Do you do more of a brain dump to get the whole spirit of the story out, or do you craft more at this stage?
My first drafts are fairly decent because I write in layers, but what I consider a first draft I'm willing to show people isn't the first thing that goes down on paper. I have a rough draft first, and those can be pretty darn rough.

Easiest way to explain all this is to go through my writing process.

Once I've done all my world-building a research, I do a rough synopsis to get all the basic plot points down. I have little idea about details at this point, I just know that X needs to happen in chapter four and Y needs to happen in chapter 12. Protagonist needs to learn A here and B there. These are all my set pieces and major revelations.

Next, I take this synopsis and do a chapter by chapter outline, making sure all those set pieces and major turning points are spread throughout the book. Each chapter gets its own paragraph, and it covers the basic plot points of that chapter. They'll look something like this (this is a totally made up story by the way):
Bob is still totally freaked out from losing Sally to the zombies, but he knows they only have six hours to find the antidote before Jane is also lost to him forever. He battles a few loose zombies to find gas, gets banged up a little, and gets the generator working so he can check the computer. He finds the lab the antidote is in, but it's in the middle of the zombie queen's chamber.
This chapter starts off with Bob's emotional state (playing off the end of the previous chapter where I'm guessing Sally died) and gives him a goal for the chapter. He has to find the antidote for Jane before she's a zombie for good. (This is the larger story goal to provide the narrative arc and keep the story moving, even though Bob is going to go off on some side problems before he solves that puzzle). 

The piece of the puzzle he needs now is to get the computer working. I throw in some obstacles, and then hit him with the reveal: what he needs is in a very bad place and he has to risk a lot to win. This sets up the next chapter by providing a shocker to keep the reader reading, and a goal for Bob to propel him forward story wise. If I happen to think up anything more specific for any given chapter, I'll add that too. Sometimes even a good line or bit of dialog.

When I sit down to write this chapter, I read over my outline paragraph to remind myself what I wanted to do. Then I re-read the previous chapter to get into the flow, and finally I start writing.

Those first words are a brain dump. I just run with it and write whatever pours out of my head. It's ugly, choppy, and badly written, though some gems do pop out from time to time. I'll write "he said angrily" knowing I'll make him look angry on the next pass. Of course, if I know how this character acts when he is angry, I'll write it that way the first time. I just don't let those kinds of details stop me on the rough draft run.

My goal at this stage is to get the chapter on paper so I know how it plays out. I don't worry much about word count at this point since I know I'm going to chop it up and rewrite a lot of it, but I do aim for about 2000 words for a skeleton chapter. My chapters run around 2500 words (give or take 500 in either direction) and I know 2000 is enough of a rough draft to work with. By the time I go back and smooth it over, it'll be where it needs to be. 

I'm very heavy on dialogue and stage direction on a first pass. I want to know where people are, how they move and what they say. Internalization, description and emotional stuff is almost nonexistent.

When that's done, I take a short break. It might be until the next day, it might be a run down to the fridge for a snack. It all depends on the day. But I like some time away from it so I can think about what I just wrote and let it gel in my mind. Do I like it? Does it do what I wanted? What do I have to do with it next?

Then I go back and start tweaking. I'm not looking for polish at this point, but I want to add in setting, internalization, motivations, all the meat on my plot skeleton. If the protagonist uses something at the end of the chapter, I make sure they spotted it at the start of the chapter so the reader knows it's there. I describe what needs describing. I make sure the motivations for character actions are in place. I check my tags and cut out all the boring adverbs and make them something better. They may not be right yet, but they aren't going to scare small children.

At this point, I consider it a first draft, even though I might have gone over it several times. It's at a stage that still needs polish and a lot of tweaking, but all the pieces are in place for the chapter to work. I read the next outline paragraph and move on to the next chapter.

Now, sometimes the story goes off outline (who am I kidding? It often goes off outline). When that happens, I let it go and see where it takes me. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad, but I never know until I do it. Other times, what I think will take one chapter actually takes two because a cool twist came up in the middle as I was writing. Since I don't plan every detail, this happens a lot. I just write it, then adjust my outline after so it reflects all the new changes. (This is so I have something in case I need a synopsis later. It's MUCH easier to write a synopsis if you have all the major points down per chapter).

Quite often, I'll be halfway through a chapter and some little thing will come up that requires me to tweak something I've already done. So I just go back and tweak it so I don't forget. Or I'll make a highlighted or bracketed [note] where it needs to go if it's something that's going to take more thought than just a tweak here and there. Those I'll usually fix when I'm done with a chapter and I'm in the break phase.

By the time I'm done with the first draft of the full story, I've actually written everything at least twice, and a lot of chapters have been tweaked a third or fourth time because I had a cool idea and needed to go back and lay the groundwork for it. The draft starts out ugly, but ends up fairly decent as first drafts go.

But here's the thing to remember...

It's totally okay to write a crappy first draft. My rough drafts are really rough. I'll even write something like "describe room here" because I don't know what it looks like yet. Trying to get the words and the text perfect the first time you put them down is almost impossible (and those who can do it, we hate you. In a good, envious, wish we could do it too kinda way). 

Polished writing is for later drafts. Until you get the story right, all the polish in the world isn't going to help you sell that novel. 

So write as badly as you want until the story is how you want it. Then work on making it pretty. There's way too much stress to do it the other way around.

It's also good to remember that even though many writers say "write the crappy first draft," first drafts don't always suck. You can aim for and write a solid first draft that needs less editing.

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series (and Amazon bestseller), Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, the Amazon bestseller, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  
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  1. I just posted on first draft sucktitude on Friday. It's neat to hear how you work, and I love the idea of keeping track of the major points from every chapter to use in the synopsis. Anything that makes writing a synopsis easier is a very good thing :)

  2. Thanks Janice. I totally need to hear that it's "okay to write a crappy first draft". I get so hung up on detail I never get started. Everything needs to be in place before the first word hits the page. Extremely counter-productive. So it's good to hear it from someone who has more experience that it's okay to just start writing.

    Actually, it's funny because I pretty much did what you do for this one project I was working on. For some reason for that one thing it came intuitively. I think it was because it was a side project and I didn't have much invested in it that I was able to just let go and start writing. Before I knew it I had around 15 chapters, each with their own paragraph outlining what happens. Then I just had to go back and fill in the details. Very cool experience and I should definitely do it more often.

  3. Thanks for sharing your process with us!

    I was laughing as I read this because I just finished writing a large dialogue scene. I let the words flow and didn't worry about the tags. I have a lot of places where I just noted **show anger or **show excitement. I go back later and flesh out the rest of the scene with a clear head.

    I am going to steal your idea of writing out a concise outline of my chapters. I know roughly where I want everything to go, but I think that the chapter outline will help me hit all the key points along the way.

    Thanks again for sharing!

  4. Glad I could help :) My way isn't the only way, and it's not perfect, but it works for me. And if any bit of it can help someone else, that's great!

  5. Thanks Janice so much. That little blurb really helps me picture a realistic writing process. I've always wanted to ask a published writer how "rough" their drafts really are! I don't feel so worried now that my first pass is clunky. Thanks again!

  6. I love first drafts! They are like sneezing. Just let it all out. However, I do not share my germs with others. I don't let anyone read my work until at least draft five!

  7. I'm at the other end of the spectrum. About all I know when I start is who the first character on the page is going to be. I blather for about 3 chapters, re-reading each at night, then tweaking the next morning. As I move forward, I decide what sorts of scenes I'll need, and plan the day's scene. Then I write it. But if you asked me, "what's going to happen in chapter 8?" I'd be totally lost. I won't know that until I finish chapter 7.

    I use a tracking system rather than a plotting system. (shared on my website)

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  8. It sounds like we have similar methods. I always use chapter outlines to guide my rough drafts. Mine can be a few paragraphs long for each chapter, as I like to show scene breaks if possible. But who knows how things will evolve during the writing process? Usually as I write the teen chapters, I find a few extra chapters pop into existence as some unforeseen twists and turns emerge in the plot.

  9. I have to thank you for this post. I've agonized over my first drafts for far too long. I love your idea behind outlining the chapters. I'm used to outlining the overarching acts and wondering why I get bogged down so easily.

  10. Stephanie: Oh I love that analogy! Sneezing, LOL. It's so perfect.

    Terry: You pantsers seems so strange to me :) I imagine there's something exciting about never knowing how things will unfold though. I like my structure, but I can see the appeal of just diving in and seeing what happens. I think I'd just be lost if I tried it, hehe. A tracking system sounds kinda cool. I'll have to check that out. Thanks!

    Beth: Yep, that does sound like me. I often say I always know where I'm going, but rarely how I'll get there. Keeps things interesting.

    TF: You are most welcome. I've found a light outline to provide direction helps keep me focused, but I leave the details up to whatever falls out of my head that day. If I try to plot out everything in advance I get bogged down, too.