Hey everybody! I’m not dead!
Sorry I haven’t posted here in two weeks or so, but I’ve been finishing the rough draft of Book #4 in The Saga of the Redeemed. And guess what? I finished! The currently-titled THE FAR FAR BETTER THING is weighing in at about 123,000 words and does, in fact, tell a mostly coherent story. I wrote it in just under 3 months, start to finish. Go me.
But it is by no means really good, yet. I can’t be – it’s a rough draft.
When you start writing and reading writing guides and hearing writers talk, most of them (possibly all of them) say some variation of the same thing:
The real work – the real writing – happens in revision.
When you’re just starting out, this sounds…unlikely. I mean, do you have any idea how much work goes into writing that rough draft? These writers – these so-called professionals – they must just use a different method, right? They must be writing slapdash crappy drafts. My draft will be perfect. My draft will only need a few minor buffs here, a couple little tweaks here. Like Michelangelo, I am merely revealing the work, fully realized, from the block of uncut marble.
To which I say bullshit.
Look, there are always exceptions, I guess. Sometimes a writer does get that hole-in-one, needs very little revision, and it goes off to be an overnight hit. Most of the time? Like, as in 98-99% of the time? Nope. Not how it works.
The fact that many newer writers have a hard time accepting this is, I feel, one of the various pitfalls that can quickly make completing that draft nearly impossible, or at least vastly more difficult. This is because, if you’re expecting your draft to be perfection in one swing, then every time you make a mistake or see an error or realize that you need to go back and change things, you are suddenly paralyzed.
Sayeth the writer: “What? Go back and change it? Well, I have to do that now, otherwise the rest of the draft will make no sense! Egads, I have to start all over!”
This is how many writers end up writing and re-writing and re-re-writing the first chapter of their novel umpteen billion times and never actually finish the damned book. They’re trapped by a never ending cycle of sanding away at what they think will become the statue’s perfect toe. At that rate, Michelangeo wouldn’t have managed to carve squat, let alone David.
To this conundrum, let me give you a mantra – a mantra that I used as recently as yesterday that allowed me to go from zero to complete 123k word draft in about 80 days:
I CAN FIX THAT IN POST!
Say it with me, now:
I CAN FIX THAT IN POST!
As in post-production, as in revision, as in draft number two. Because, if you’re actually going for your best work and/or you actually want to publish this thing, one draft is not gonna cut it. My last book took seven – seven whole drafts. It happens.
Now, yeah, you ought to proceed with some kind of plan and hopefully you don’t need more than two or three drafts of the book before it is in working shape, but you can’t go through that rough draft rewriting every damned chapter and expect to finish it in any kind of timely fashion (not that it’s a race, but still). Mistakes happen, things you overlooked come up, and, yeah, a lot of times you get a better idea halfway through and wish you had incorporated that earlier. When such problems arise, laugh, repeat your mantra, and keep writing.
The wonderful thing about drafts is that nobody else has to read them. They don’t actually need to make sense to anybody other than yourself! Make notes in the margin! Insert little brackets with things like [rename this character later] or [insert flashy chase scene here]. Forgive yourself for writing crappy passages and move on.
Don’t worry – you are going to go back and fix it all, I promise – but for now, the most important thing you need to remember is that you can’t actually fix the book until you have a book. One chapter? Six? 35K of a Nanowrimo entry? Not a book. You need a complete story (or nearly so), no matter how flawed, before you can fashion a good story.
Finish the book first. Make it a good book later.
I’m in the midst of a rough draft of a novel and it isn’t going well. It hasn’t gone well from day one, actually – writing this thing has been like pulling teeth. I know where I want the story to go, but getting it to go there has been very awkward work. I’ll be honest: the book, right now, is a shambles.
But that’s okay, right? Rough drafts are supposed to be terrible. They are you, the author, dragging together a great steaming morass of garbage into one place that, later on, will be mercilessly revised and edited into something awesome. This is tried and true authorial practice – ask anybody. As Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”
You can take that to the bank, friends.
Let us pursue this question one step further, though: assuming we know that the first draft is going to suck and assuming we are aware that it’s purpose is to collect raw material for future drafts, then how much of the first draft do you need to complete before you abandon it and start over?
Let me give you a strictly hypothetical and in no way actual or currently relevant example. Say I’ve got, I dunno, 50,000 words of a rough draft done. Now, going off what my (hypothetical) loose outline dictates, I’m only a third of the way through (which means the book is shaping up to be too long, but that’s not important right now). However, the first third of a novel really needs to be solid in order to support that last two thirds. I mean, if you screw up getting Luke off Tatooine, how much of a story do you have for the later parts? The worse the beginning is, the less likely anything you set up in the end is going to be useful, anyway.
Now, granted, the remaining 70-80K of novel (well, 100K) will probably have its gems, but they’ll be gems buried in a twisted pile of tubular steel – not exactly useful. If I know what’s wrong with the story now (and I needed that 50,000 words to help me figure that out), why not ditch it and circle back? Strong foundations make for strong middle acts, right?
In saying this, I realize I’m flying in the face of a lot of conventional story-writing wisdom. “Finish what you write,” quoth Heinlein. I know, I know – and it is good advice, too. The thing is, though, the purpose behind Heinlein’s second rule is that, until you’ve written the thing through, you supposedly can’t see what needs fixing. But what if you can? Like, I get it, okay? I see where I made the wrong turn and now I’ve gone down this whole other path that leads to pretty much nothing but tea parties and navel-gazing and I needed to go down this other path, where I’d be more likely to find zombie ninjas and fire-breathing unicorns.
For me, writing a novel is a lot like trying to solve a maze. If you make a wrong turn, do you really draw your line to the end of the bad path? I know this one’s a dead end, folks.
If this were a short story, maybe that would be different – how long does it take to write to the end of a short story, anyway? But a novel? That’s another month or two of my life, slogging through the pages to a conclusion that will probably have to change entirely for the book to work. What an incredible waste of time!
Hypothetically speaking, of course.