And so it came to pass, this past Thanksgiving Day, that reader Turenn asked, “How about a post explaining what you do between your first draft of a story and your last? I would find it helpful, and I think a lot of other writers would, too.”
How about two posts, then? Because (A) I have a feeling this is going to run a tad long, and (B) I’m in a cluster of deadlines at the moment.
So, half now, half in a few days. And first, we begin with a disclaimer…
Why Word Processing Makes The Concept Of Drafts Arbitrary
To be honest, I’m not sure what a draft means anymore. For me, at least, when it comes to what constitutes a draft, the lines got blurry the day that I unboxed that shiny new Mac Classic (2MB memory! 40MB hard drive!) and installed Microsoft Works.
Before then, my earliest works were done on typewriter. Actually, no, they were done in longhand, until I trained myself to start composing directly at the keys. Either way, the concept of draft was more clear-cut then: one complete pass through a story or novel, with minimal tinkering along the way. After which I’d go back to the beginning and run through it all over again.
Drafts, back then, were circular things, like running laps on a track.
Now, though, a passage that used to stand as-is until I circled back around to it might get a dozen reworkings before I get to the end of the whole. Because something about it irks me and doesn’t feel right and I can’t turn loose of it. Or because I tweak it every time I reread it to get back into the mood of the section. Or because I’m in the shower and a new and better way abruptly occurs to me.
Meanwhile, another passage might come out right the first time, and I know to leave well enough alone.
How does twelve drafts of one and a single draft of the other tally up? As long as the seams don’t show, I don’t really care.
The First Draft: The Gut Dump
Informed wisdom says the best way to approach your initial draft is to stampede through it and get the thing down in its entirety, warts and all. Whatever comes to mind, throw it in there and move along. It’s like an argument with someone you love, when you end up dumping everything on them that’s been bugging you.
Despite my sub-draft tendencies mentioned above, I do strive to follow that. Sometimes I prevail. Other times my perfectionist anal-retentive doppelganger takes over and rebels against going ahead to Point E when Points C and D seem so wretchedly warty. We fight a lot.
At any rate, this is a time for not sweating the small stuff. Of not idling at a green light, trying to think of the perfect zingy metaphor or just the right name for a new character entering the picture. Details may be omitted because they rely on research still to be done, or retrieving research that’s already been catalogued. Thus, I leave a lot of holes, and create a lot of placeholders (a simple XXX, usually). Better this than breaking the flow.
Microsoft Word makes it easy to work this way. The highlighter and insert-comment tools are quickly accessible, and help me return to problem areas, and keep track of my in-the-moment thoughts of what will need to be done later.
I may also, in longer works, write stuff out of order. I frequently did this in my crime novel Mad Dogs, which had a lot of intercutting between parallel storylines. Because I tend to write differently from different character viewpoints, it was easier to follow one viewpoint through multiple scenes; then, when I’d exhausted that viewpoint, move to another, rather than continually shift gears.
Triage: Stopping The Hemorrhages Before They Get Worse
It’s done. Somehow. The first draft.
You ever see a movie called Galaxy Quest? It’s a great spoof on the whole Star Trek fan geek culture that follows the cast of a cheesy TV show as they’re forced into genuine interplanetary adventure. There’s a scene where they’re trying to get the hang of operating a teleportation device and, before using it to zap their commander out of danger, test it on a creature that looks kind of like a bulbous, two-legged hippo. Which, on arrival, gets turned inside-out. It’s formless, it’s quivering, it’s squealing, it’s spewing green goo and waving God-knows-what in the air.
That image has always reminded me of my first drafts.
At this point, the next draft consists mostly of broad-stroke items, much of it structural:
(1) Reordering. If sections have been written out of order, now’s the time to chop up those singular-viewpoint marathon stretches and put them in the proper sequence.
(2) Smoothing the joints. As a consequence of this reshuffling, I may need to smooth out the transitions at the new sectional junctures. While the parts may have flowed together well before, their lead-ins and lead-outs now have a new context, so I may need to tweak the feel of them.
(3) Bust-ups, breakdowns, and liposuction. I may also need to break up things I hadn’t intended to earlier. A chapter may have gone on too long, and feel lopsided compared to the others. If it has an internal cliffhanger or other natural cut-point, or the potential for one, then that’s where I bring down the cleaver. If it doesn’t, then I may start looking at ways of extracting some of the content and relocating it elsewhere, like a plastic surgeon siphoning off fat from someone’s rump and injecting it in the (upper) cheeks.
(4) Plugging the holes. If I’ve left holes for research or other details that weren’t handy at the time, this is the point I’ll start plugging them. While first writing, there’s no good reason to jam on the breaks to track down, say, the distance on the Ohio River between Louisville, KY, and the point it meets the Mississippi (378 miles). Yep, that came up this week.
(5) Fact-checking. Sometimes I’ll spout off with some fact or other that I think I remember correctly, but wouldn’t bet my life on it. Good thing, too. If I did make that bet, I’d’ve been dead years ago. This primarily cosmetic breather between hardcore drafts is a good time to go back and use Google and my reference and research texts to avoid unnecessarily embarrassing myself.
Now The Real Work Begins
So now the tale has form. It doesn’t squeal or quiver as much. The green goo has been mopped up and the waving is starting to look friendly.
None of which means it’s anywhere close to being ready for the eyes of the world.
Back in a few days, when we’ll finish the journey from raw potential to vibrant life.
[Top photo by CLMinc]
Awesome people share.
You are awesome, aren’t you…?