Beyond the First Draft

It would be easy to blame NaNoWriMo for the extent with which this blog focuses on what is essentially first-draft stuff. The lessons are chiefly targeted at getting your story written, embracing the creative process in a way that maximises your output (by stopping you from stopping), and I have no problem with that being the case.

For years it was the step I was so sorely lacking, but it’s really just the first step.

You need to take that step before you can do anything with your writing, as it’s the one that gives you the writing with which you can do something. You can’t fix something that doesn’t exist.

Once you’ve got a draft, then it’s time to work on it.

I was chatting to one of my writing friends on the weekend, and she said she hasn’t written much in a few months. While that in itself is avoidable, her main issue was that instead of writing the thing she has been, she wanted to work on something that she’d finished a draft of a while back but that she wasn’t all that happy with. While the specifics of what I said don’t matter in the context of the post, the near-enoughs of the direction I gave her are the point of this post.

Write Something That Matters

If you don’t care about what you’re writing, you aren’t going to be doing well. It’s easy to throw yourself into the mix of competitions, writing exercises and fandoms, writing as much as you can for the sake of continually generating written output, but it’s better if you’re writing something that matters to you. No, it’s not a “You should try to change the world with your writing” tip, but that you should write something that you want to see finished.

If it’s an inopportune time for one reason or another, that’s fine. You might need to give yourself space, or you feel the need to do research, or want a more in-depth plan. You have to approach writing in the way that works for you, whether that’s writing the story that you want to tell immediately, or laying the foundations for whatever story you have.

This shouldn’t be read as an excuse to idea-jump. There’s a difference between being drawn to a story that you want to see done, and having a brand new idea that feels like less work because you’ve only just thought of it. If you absolutely must jump to a new idea, be sure to leave yourself enough breadcrumbs to find a way through the old idea, because guaranteed, you will not remember what you had planned.

The flow-on from writing something that matters, is that you will want to revisit it after it’s done. Writing exercises and high wordcounts are great for a feeling of accomplishment. Having a story you want read is better.

If you won’t read it, why should anyone else?

Let’s say we have a first draft. “We have a first draft.”

Before you even think about editing, you need to learn what your novel is about.

I know, I know. It’s a first draft. It’s terrible. You wouldn’t force it on your worst enemy. You only begrudgingly send it to the people that have begged you for the chance to read it on the off-chance they’ll find something salvageable inside that horribly torturous text and you won’t have to ceremoniously burn copies of the story in a sorrow-infused pyre of woe. Every time you look at it, you cringe. Your stomach turns at the muck your muse has wrought, and the inept fumbling of words that don’t belong together, and all-in-all, you know that any change will improve it for the better.

Permission denied.

Before you consider changing a word, you need to read what you’ve sown. You have to read the whole thing through, from the innocuous opening line all the way to mysterious abrupt ending that you’re sure was longer when you wrote it. You need to read how the main character leaves Paris to head for Rome, somehow arrives in Chicago, just a day’s drive from Hawaii. You must experience her losing her gun, shooting somebody, and then buying the same gun, all in that chronological order.

While I was a bit easier on my friend, you should also do it twice.

You need to hate those mistakes with the same passion that your antagonist doesn’t have, and know exactly what’s supposed to happen more explicitly the way your readers wouldn’t because you somehow lost an entire chapter that explained that part of the setting.

On the first read, you should just experience it. Let yourself be taken by the story to all those places you were trying to go. Second run? This is when you get to make notes. Not to edit. You’re still not allowed to edit, but you’re allowed to keep a record by your side. Write down the events that happen, put down details about the characters, as to build up a set of facts about them. Then, we’re ready.

Assemble the Skeleton

You think you have a live, breathing story but you don’t. You think you have the shape of the story, the whole precise thing, all worked out. Nope, not at all. You’ve done well, no doubt about that. You’ve got what is a reasonable facsimile of a novel, but it hasn’t yet had the right amount of attention given to it.

A story is a beast. A novel is a particular type of said-beast, which is terrible and big and inspires awe. I may be a little influenced by the fact I watched Jurassic Park yesterday, but here’s the truth – your novel is a dinosaur.

Pictured: Your Story
Pictured: Your Story

You can try to create a novel outright, identify the gaps and plug in the one-size-fits-all frog DNA/Hero’s Journey and dazzle a bit with an ooh, ahh. But then there’s running and screaming and inconsistent characterisation. Instead, treat the first draft more like a dig site. The bones of the novel are in there somewhere, and it’s up to you to pull them out and make sure they’re all in the right place. There could be bones that don’t belong that just happened to end up in the same draft, and what you’re really trying to do is get a thorough overview of what happens in the novel.

This means looking at the causality of your story. Is the inciting-incident bone connected to the point-of-no-return bone? Is there a superfluous limb that doesn’t really fit with the rest of the skeleton? In story terms, do things happen in a way that adds to what comes next?

We’re not looking at the exact execution of the ideas. The writing style, the precise characterisations, the imagery used – none of these are parts of the skeleton, though that’s what comprises the meat, muscles and other vital organs. The skeleton shows you how things fit together, and where those various body parts belong.

Breaking things down to the skeleton lets us see if things are put together right. We can tell what works, by seeing if the progression feels natural or not. The gaps in the story are more obvious when there’s only bare details present, and this uncluttered view can give us an idea of whether it looks right or not.

Be Consistent

Details. It’s all about the details. That means following what a character acts like, looks like, talks like. It means ensuring the places you have measure up to reality, by ensuring they have appropriate weather and structures, keeping to similar technology throughout unless there’s reason for it not to, and otherwise just making sure there’s no errors in chronology due to details that conflict with what’s been set out previously.

All That’s Implied

This other step is what’s normally thought of as editing. Look at what’s written. Is it written well, or at least, well-enough? Then leave it. Does it fumble with the language, or otherwise not express things in a clear way? Does the style present detract from what’s being told, or is the execution in some way not to your own liking (because you have to be true to your own personal style, but still pass the I-would-personally-read-this test). Then change the words – rewrite that portion.

Like people that potentially wash their until the heat death of the universe, repeat all this as necessary.

And Soon…

I get to do all this myself 😉







4 thoughts on “Beyond the First Draft

  1. Great post. I should be writing my first draft right now actually. I very much need to have an entire document in place – as horrible as it may be – in order to actually start taking a look and making a story. I edit much better when the first round of words are already there. You have some great tips here and I’ll be sure to remember them. 🙂

    1. Thank you – I really hope they help – and by that I mean I hope that they help you but also me! I’m race-reading through a book at the moment, but once that’s done, going to start following what I’ve got written here.

      Might even get some new wisdom out of it 🙂

  2. I’m glad you were easier on me, but I’ll still be reading my first draft twice :p

    Great post Nick. I always find your input and opinion valuable. It just makes me want to get my butt into gear every time (even when its in gear).

    1. It probably needs a second readthrough, but trying to make notes on what you’ll change/move mid-stream is difficult. For me it needs to be a much more organic process than I realised 😀

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