Things I Learned While Drafting

Ladies and gentlemen, the first full draft of my novel has been completed! Woohoo!!!

Yeah, yeah, I know: so what? Many writers finish novels, what’s so special about it, huh?

Well, it’s special to me because it’s mine (thank you, Agent Obvious). It’s all my dreams and nightmares condensed, my ideas and fears displayed, my hard work and my tears, my frustrations and victories, all rolled into one. And it’s special even if no one else ever reads it, even if they read it and hate it, or worse, feel nothing but indifference and boredom. It’s still damn special because it means I was able to pull my shit together and finish a whole novel. So even if it should never make it to anything more than a red streaked draft, at the very least it creates A Precedent. I know for a fact that I have what it takes to finish big projects, and that means a lot to me.

But oh I tell ya, this terrific and awesome ride scared the bejeezus out of me. I regularly went from being super-excited about it and utterly in love with what was happening, to feeling like I was trying to smear “geeewd storaaah” across the wall with the bloody stumps of my fingers. I knew I’d mutate into a creative pendulum, but it drove me bonkers to go from “This is freakin genius! Behold my creation and weep!” to “This drivel ain’t worth two damn bits and bytes, you awful wordage expelling troll. Guhh!”

I also learned a lot of really interesting and important things during these 5 months of intensive drafting. Here’s a good few of ’em:

 

1. Don’t go to battle without a plan

If you drop on enemy ground with just your high hopes and striking pair of blue eyes, you’re gonna get battered into the ground by some of the most insidious enemies a writer can have: loss of direction and self-doubt.

Outlining the novel and working with writing goals and schedules to which I stuck with absolute stubbornness dedication, has saved me from the temptation of editing before time, fiddling with the story’s scope and parameters, postponing the hard work for the sweetness of speculation, and other such writerly misconduct. I’ve written many thousand words on this story before this draft (a rough count would come to around half a million), but none of these amounted to anything resembling a fully formed story. And that’s because going astray when starting such a big endeavor like a novel without a good plan is practically pre-programmed.

Not everyone’s as fond of detailed plans as I am, but even a broad sketch of your path will do wonders. Not all outlines need to be huge lists of plot points and scenes, just as not all roadmaps come with street view pictures and bonus points at each juncture. But going in without any idea of where you’re headed and how you want to get there, ain’t too great either. And I’m looking at all the hardboiled pantsers out there who finish first drafts and think they made it through without a plan. Reality is that practically all of those first drafts are unpublishable and basically nothing more than extensive outlines in novel form, hundreds of pages of test runs. Why not cut the process short and, you know, plan ahead. Even just a little.

 

2. Characters rule! — but without a PLOT, there’s no tangible reality to their dominion

The toughest thing for me was to find logical, naturally developing sequences of actions, and letting causality take its natural course while still keeping things fresh and surprising (I hope), so I could show the changes in my characters on a factual background.

All major changes in fictional characters must come from within, but they must be triggered by their own actions or the consequences of their actions. I strongly believe that, and work very hard for it. Eventually, y’all will be the judges if it worked as I hoped it would.

 

3. When you’re in shark-infested waters, you oughta swim like a sonuvabitch

Not just the seemingly impossible size of the project can get you down and keep you from finishing, but also the feeling that all your output is crap and you’re the only one batshit enough to actually thing it’s a story, the more or less intentional discouragement from others who have failed before you, or worse, who succeeded and were sharply disillusioned, and sometimes life itself with all its other obligations and duties—all these things can drag you down and bring your fragile momentum to a halt.

The key to escape the dangers is to either be pushed by a downright obsessive need to create, or to just learn not to give a hot damn and keep going, keep going, until you get there. That’s pretty much what I did. And there were cookies waiting on the other side.

 

I also learned that until THE END is written at the end, there’s no fooling my mind into thinking this is anything resembling a novel. And it won’t be until others say they get it, that I feel I can actually call it one in public. Know what I mean? It’s not the size. It’s not… Look, Ma, I threw 100K of stuff together, I haz novel! It’s the function. If it works, it’s a novel. If it doesn’t, it’s practice.

And no, that’s not bad, it’s awesome! Writing is one of the few occupations where you can always put your failures to good use and not be less of a writer for it.

 

Bdee, bdee, bdee, that’s all folks!

I’m more than psyched to have finally wrapped this Story I Want To Tell up in a single place, and I can barely wait to start revising, editing and improving it. It’ll be a whole new sort of challenge, and I’m gonna sweat bullets of gold-pressed latinum bringing everything up to par with the expectations of my inner critic. But I say: bring it on!

Until then, though, I will read and play video games and watch movies like there’s no tomorrow. And I will keep you entertained with blog posts on juicy topics like aliens, genre goodies and things-that-are-writing-related-but-none-of-that-cheesy-old-two-pence-advice.

Thank you all so much for being supportive and sharing your own experiences with me, and for keeping me motivated and focused. I’m truly very lucky to know you all, and to be able to share this madness with you!

 

21 Replies to “Things I Learned While Drafting”

  1. Many congrats. And good advice. I tend to be a pantser for the necessary ‘take-off’ and then – at different points each time – comes the need for considered reflection where this is going. Even then it’s a rudimentary road-map with the occasional legend ‘here lie monsters.’ I think it’s important to allow yourself to be surprised on the way. Too detailed plotting would, for me, be akin to ‘painting by numbers’. And yes, I know that particular writer is responsible for those numbers but If I know in detail where the story is going, I begin to lose interest as a writer.
    Anyway, random thoughts over. Goo luck with crafting the perfect query : )

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    1. Thanks, Mike! 🙂

      I outlined ahead and in quite detail, but every 5-10 K or so, the whole outline became warped by the characters’ actions and personalities, so I adapted the outline. Needless to say, the initial outline has NOTHING except for the first 3 chapters in common with my last outline. 😀

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  2. Congrats! 🙂

    What I hate is revising. Reading the thing for a billion times after the first draft brings me to the verge of utterly detesting the story. My eyes bleed and I puke rainbows. After each read it is getting harder and harder to fall in love with it over and over again. Thus, writing FD is my fav part.

    My story plans usually look like this:

    1) The first character* is born; I spend a few days in her head, listening to her voice. When we have a perfect synch and I’m comfortable with her innards, she starts to LIVE on her own. In a perfect synch she already comes with a story of her own. All I need is to make her goal a lot HARDER to get (I’m also that asshole inner voice in her head.) This is the stage of the inner conflict(s)/motivation.

    *The amount of MCs can vary. But this scheme is for every character — main and supporting.

    The plot outline has a form of:

    Start point, end point, inhumane butt kick to my character.

    The actual writing:
    I simply start to follow, study, documenting the flight trajectory, described by the “physics” of her world — I know what potentially can happen to her in that world (worldbuilding comes somewhat first here — the stage of external conflicts(s)), and adding whatever necessary to make that trajectory a sinus wave or something similar. But that sinusoid function has random (mwahaha!) values in its variables.

    With this simple plan I never get bored with my own story. I let it and characters surprise me — writers are sad creatures who cannot enjoy their own tales like readers do, I hate that!

    The downside — I write slowly. 😀

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    1. Thanks, Jelena!

      I understand your process too, but I’d be unable to work like that — I’m too impatient! 😀 In the case of my story, it was the characters that dictated what events I eventually told, and the whole story grew around them, but I worked out the sequence of events beforehand and ran tests in my mind and on paper to see if they would fit the character’s development.

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      1. I keep all the input stuff in my head and let it boil until a simple clear structure emerges. Then I sit and write it down already in the form of scenes/events, not a test outline.

        I remember everything clearly while writing, but forget details soon after I have written the whole story down. 😀

        About characters, I let them choose how they want to develop — people change, but not necessarily ­grow or improve. Chars can also remain relatively unchanged, but change those around them to extremes.

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  3. Congratulations! That’s an awesome achievement, and one that only a fraction of would-be novelists actually accomplish without throwing the towel in. Your contagious determination is admirable. Now the real fun begins! 🙂

    I’m with you on outlining, as I’m sure I’ve told you before, especially when it comes to novels. With shorts, I don’t mind experimenting and trying the odd story by the seat of my pants (in fact, I almost always write flash that way), but even my favorite short stories have been ones I outlined ahead of time. I think that a lot of pantsers (as I put my generalization cap on) don’t make that connection between our outlines and their first drafts. We still get that exciting feeling of discovery as the story takes shape, not only while we outline but as we expand on it.

    And a lot of people I’ve talked to who are against outlines seem to think that there is some unspoken rule that you can’t veer away from the plotted path, that a story is no longer malleable or able to grow its own legs and run off once its been outlined. As you mentioned above, that’s just not true! Stories are not sterile office buildings, and outlines are not boring blueprints. Stories are vast, unexplored caves. Outlines are the dim, stuttering flares that you toss into the cave before you head in. They light just enough of the path to keep you moving, but you still have no idea what’s around the next bend or what’s going to leap out of the shadows.

    (I’m so using that metaphor when I blog about outlines in a couple weeks. *pats self on back*)

    Anyway, congrats again. Now get on those video games! 😉

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    1. Ha ha ha!! I was just about to tell you that metaphor was… deep, man, real deep. Touched my heart, you know? Tsk. *nods with deep admiration*

      Thank you, James! That’s exactly what I feel about outlines — they only cast a dim light on the general direction, but they take nothing of the excitement and surprise of getting there. And to expand on your awesome metaphor, knowing you’re entering a rough cave with stalagmites and rocks lying around, tells you nothing about the creatures living in it or the glitter of gems encased in the walls. Those things you only get to experience once you venture in, and they are everything the trip is about.

      Speaking of holy things — damn you for getting me hooked to Mass Effect! I’ve played it like a madwoman all weekend, even dreamed about it and suffer from severe withdrawal while at work. It’s got such a rich and interesting world, and the gameplay is so well balanced between action, exploration and intrigue. It’s already on of the best games I’ve played, and I’m still barely scratching the surface of its world!

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  4. “Characters rule! — but without a PLOT, there’s no tangible reality to their dominion.”

    Well stated. I have sometimes debated “characters rule” folks, and point out that true character is ONLY revealed in crisis…and that’s what the novel is for. We don’t want to sit on the front porch with petty Scarlett O’Hara for ten chapters. Start trouble! Get Ashley married to Melanie! Start a war!

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    1. Exactly! Stories aren’t about something. They are about something happening.
      Stories that only feature characters being characters are portraitures and essays, not stories.

      Thank you very much for stopping by to comment, Jim, and for the kind retweets! I’m honored!

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  5. Now comes the fun part. I know a lot of writers that absolutely ADORE the revising process. Me, I have a love-hate dealio with it. The first two rounds, I’m pretty pumped. After that, it’s like trying to run through mud. I tend to take an extended break after the second round of revision so I don’t get sick of my own stuff and it helps reset my perspective.

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    1. I’m gonna try and only make ONE revision — and include all plot corrections, characterization corrections, theme relevant emphases, and phrasing corrections in the same run. It’s going to be a mammoth revision, but I prefer it to several runs.
      Hopefully it’ll work out well. I’ll keep you posted — also on the tricks I discover!

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  6. Way to go, Vero! I’m so excited for you. Nothing like typing “The End” on that first draft. (Although, I hear tell typing “The End” on the whole freakin’ work is pretty damn amazing – LOL!)

    I could not agree with you more on prepping with an outline. I can’t believe what a difference that makes. Another writer suggested developing your novel synopsis before writing your first draft, and I think that’s a helpful exercise too. I did that for my next (planned) ms, and at the very least, it added to my anticipation to “tell that story.”

    Do you have an idea of how long you will step away from your story before hitting it with your first edit?

    Looking forward to hearing how you own the editing process! 😀

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    1. Oh I definitely look forward to putting that END at the end of the revision process too! 😀

      I probably won’t be able to stay away from the story for more than a couple of weeks, maybe three (I have about 10 novels waiting to be read asap), and I will most definitely be posting about revisions, plot hole fillings, character arc corrections and text editing as I do it. 🙂

      Thanks a lot for your support and the confetti, Tracy! Hope you’re doing well, and that you keep doing writerly things even when you’re not officially writing.

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  7. Well HUZZAH! *Throws Confetti*

    When I decided to write a book, I spent months plotting my tale. Then I wrote it in about 7 months. The fleshing it out was terrific fun. I knew my strengths: plot, character motivations, non-sagging middle. I had a great story, everything I needed… except an ending. How to end it well – how to wrap it all up with satisfying denouement and not cheat the reader – was hard for me to try to plot. I had the climax down pat, but I just couldn’t think on how to finalize it until I got there.

    So, I sat on it for a year before the end came to me. Then when I went to revise, I was stunned by how trite some of my dialogue was. And, man-oh-man, I had ZERO depth and tons of POV issues. So I had to re-educate myself on what to revise for. The whole revision kicked my butt. I always felt like I had a good story. I always considered myself a good writer. But, writing good fiction wasn’t something I’d done before. And to get better took time, effort, and practice.

    I heard some great advice on Chuck Sambuchino’s “7 things I’ve learned” blog author interview. It was to keep all writing advice because you may not “get it” when you come across it. You may not be at the right place to appreciate the advice and how to apply it to your work. Man, that has been true for me.

    I knew I had issues, but I didn’t know what they were. Now, I have a much better idea of what *I* need to identify, locate, eradicate in my work. I can see now what needs to change in a way I just couldn’t see a year ago.

    I’m hoping this process for you is easier, but I’ll also tell you I’ve enjoyed it immensely. I’ve learned so much. And for me, that is part of living a fulfilling life — to keep learning and growing and enjoying what I spend my time on.

    All best to you, Vero! Keep us up to date as you plunge into your revisions. It really is so rewarding. 🙂

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    1. Thanks for the cheers, Courtney! 🙂

      “You may not be at the right place to appreciate the advice and how to apply it to your work.”
      Absolutely right! That’s why it’s so important to take breaks between stages, to read all sort of other fiction, to learn and try out and then return to a work with “fresh eyes”. I’ve felt as if I had a new pair of eyes (and a new brain too) each time I re-read something I’ve written a while ago, and it won’t be different with this draft.

      I’ll keep you posted on the advances and lessons learned, and there might even be some nice tricks and some butchered samples to show! 😀

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    1. Thanks, Peter!

      I don’t yet have an agent, but I’m going to try for traditional publishing. At the very least, it gets me feedback from people in the business. 🙂

      Thanks for drawing my attention to the Harper Voyager opening, but my manuscript is in no way ready to be submitted. It’s only a first draft, and despite plot coherency, there’s not enough “readable quality” to it to even go to beta readers. 🙂

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  8. Congrats on finishing your first draft of your book. I always feel like you when I can finally make it to the end of my first draft. Right now, I am experimenting on how I am plotting. My first novel I plotted everything in advance. I had outlines, story arcs, character sketches, summaries. I thought I was ready, but when I sat to write my first draft I felt my outline was too boring, too stifling. I had to write new sections and storylines to keep my plot moving. It was scary and thrilling at the same time. So, for my second novel, I had a rough idea on what I wanted to write and I just wrote it. Did my experiment work? Yes, it did. I learned I can plot on the fly but I needed not a thorough outline to guide me, but a basic idea and premise. Whatever works for you is my motto. Cheers!

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    1. Very well said, Eric! Whatever works for you, works. I outline the plot only, no character sheets because I need them organic and volatile in my mind, but even with an outline of events I had to change most everything every 5-6 chapters. So in a way I pantsed it, but I lit up the next few important steps ahead — and of course, the ending. I had to know that before hand. 🙂

      Thanks very much for the comment! I’m glad to know how similar, yet different in detail, our drafting processes are.

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  9. Congratulations!!! (more confetti…petui, spit, spit, waving hands)

    Now comes the fun part…and if you revise in one go, my hats off to you. I am sinking in the morass of tweak. Perfectionism is a death knell that is tolling nearby.
    What sounded like scintillating dialog at first run, is now sounding trite…and where, oh where, does that comma go? (looking over shoulder to see if sixth grade teacher is nearby)

    If I hear show, don’t tell one more time, I may kill something.
    The editing fun is about to begin…and if you move to formatting…well, sanity may be called into question.

    Best of luck, soldier on, grimly determined, because time flies and it’s all worth it. Looking forward to you announcing a publishing date.

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    1. Thanks so much for the wishes & confetti, Sheron! 🙂

      Oh I look forward to revising & brutal editing — it’s incredible fun for me to trim the story and punch it into shape! I’m merciless and have no darlings, and nothing’s too harsh when it comes to telling the story right, to the greatest effect. Can’t wait! 😀

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