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Rethinking the Rough Draft

Do you hate first drafts? Ready to shake up your process? Come with me; we have lots to discuss.

· Writing Tips,Writers Life

I've been away from the blog for awhile, busy working on a new young adult project. That means research, brainstorming, outlining, finding models for each character on Google Images...you get the idea. It also means tackling a brand new first draft.

Ugh. I hate first drafts.

I hate them with a passion almost as intense as my adoration for Googling inspiration pics of my novel's handsome-yet-sensitive love interest. (Where did those three hours go?) So when I recently had an "aha" moment about the nature of first drafts, I really thought I was onto something. This is big! I thought. Why isn't everyone writing their first drafts this way? Why haven't I heard about this?

Did I just invent something??

Ha. Fast forward to the annual Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold (always my most-anticipated conference), where I got whole hard drives worth of great advice and inspiration. And, lo and behold, I heard at least three authors describe their super-efficient, super-amazing methods for pounding out a quick rough draft. Funny how you hear exactly the right advice just when you need it. I was ready to try something new, perhaps even change my writing process for the better, and the universe decided to provide.

So no, I didn't invent this. But just in case you're like me, and you're a little late to the party, I'll share my not-so-secret discovery with you right here.

The Dreaded White Space

Here's what I hate about first drafts: with every new chapter, there's that darned white page again. The page might be empty, but it sure can exert some pressure. Immediately, I start overthinking. What's supposed to happen in this scene? What's the perfect sentence to open it? Did I handle my transition right? Do I even have a transition? Actually, maybe I should go back to my outline and stare at it for a while...

Part of my problem is that I'm a linear writer. When I write a first draft, I must start with chapter one and keep plodding along until I reach the end of the story. I know some writers can get an idea for a scene and just start writing--even if that scene takes place halfway through the story, and she hasn't even written the beginning yet. That must be beautiful. Every writer knows that the beginning of the story is probably going to be the hardest part, so its clearly advantageous to wait until you actually know your characters, themes, and voice before you have to tackle it. (Maybe this is why some of you love the first draft process? Are you non-linear writers? I'm curious. And a little jealous.)

Sadly, that is not me. Linear-brained writer that I am, I have to write my initial draft from start to finish. Only then can I enter that state of bliss called "revision," when I can work on any part of the manuscript that I desire, chapter numbers be damned. (And I know somebody out there is thinking, What are you talking about? I despise revision! First drafts are the best! Are you one of those magical, infuriating non-linear writers again? Just stop reading. I can't even look at you.)

But while tweaking my outline yet again, I realized something. When I'm in outline mode, I'm way out in non-linear land. The climactic scenes might come to me one moment, then the main character's deepest fears, and then suddenly I'm jotting down ideas for my first plot point. The creativity--the flow--happens instantaneously. Dreaming up this story and getting to know these characters becomes a helluva good time. Why couldn't the actual first draft writing be like this?

I started to wonder: could I just make my outline reeeeeally long? Long enough that it could kind of, almost, count as a draft?

Huh. Could my first draft not really be a "draft" at all?

A Better First Draft

It all starts with pre-writing. This is easiest with an outline; go with whatever format appeals to you, whether you worship Blake Snyder's Save the Cat, or you have a more relaxed approach to story structure. But don't panic! You don't have to have a complete plot outline just yet. If you at least have your opening, your inciting incident, the basic premise of your story, and (maybe) the first big turning point, that's plenty to get rolling. Your outline might be ten pages, or it might only be one page. That's okay.

When you're done with your basic structure, start giving your skeletal outline a little flesh and blood. Brainstorm your characters and their backstories; start imagining your setting. Spend some time on your world building and knocking out research tasks. Pour all that stuff out of your brain and start plugging it into your outline or notes. No doubt you'll think of new plot elements too, so add those as well. Nothing too revolutionary here yet, folks. We're talking the usual pre-writing calisthenics.

Now, here's where it gets interesting.

As you flesh out your outline, act like you're writing a synopsis of your book. Do not (I repeat, do not) try to come up with the "right words." You know what I mean; those perfect, thesaurus-approved words that can take half an hour to unearth from the far-reaches of your brain. Instead, use the most banal words possible. Such as: In the next chapter, Susan goes to the grocery store and she sees her ex-boyfriend. They have an awkward yet stimulating conversation. Some good one-liners (to be determined). But that night, while she's warming up a TV dinner at home, Susan feels like everything is seriously crap with her life. Nothing wrong with these individual words per se, but clearly it's not an actual page in any decent novel. But that's okay. Keep on adding. After awhile, your outline will stop looking like an outline and will seem more like...well, a really long, really detailed synopsis. Let's call it a condensed draft.

When complete, your condensed draft will be in the range of 75-150 pages, double-spaced, depending on how big a story you're writing. The process might take a week (if you have tons of time and you're fast), or it might take several months. But I guarantee it will happen a lot faster than the traditional process of writing a first draft.

Save Your Darlings

The great thing about the condensed draft is that it allows you to see your novel from the bird's eye view much faster. An outline will also give you the big picture, but it's lacking in nuance. Your plot might sound great in a 10 page outline, but when it's expanded to 100 pages, you can see where it needs adjustment (or perhaps overhaul).

All that saved time translates into fewer wasted words. I've cut so many beloved scenes because the story's all wrong, or the pacing is off. It's brutal. It's also unavoidable to some extent, of course. I know the story in my condensed draft will need tweaking as well (that's why it's called revision, folks). But the fewer darlings I have to slay, the better.

At the condensed draft stage, there is no pressure. Nobody will read it except for you. I find that liberating. And if you do come up with some snazzy, A+ words? That's fantastic. Write them down. In fact, the more you get into the flow of your story, the more your brain will start inventing dialogue and visualizing entire scenes. Put it all in your condensed draft. But if the "right" words aren't coming, that is okay. Don't let it slow you down. This is the magic of the condensed draft. Take whatever crappy words you have lying around and forge ahead with those.

You're like an artist doing studies in charcoal before a bit of color hits the canvas. Once you have your condensed draft in place and you begin writing "for real", the perfect words will probably come a lot easier, anyway. Revision, here I come.

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