What Is a First Draft Anyway?

If you talk to any writer, you’ll inevitably hear about her first draft of whatever she’s working on. When you’re starting out as a writer, the idea of a first draft seems pretty obvious: it’s the point when you have the first complete version of your story. But, as with all things in writer-land, it’s not quite that simple.

I guess you could just count the iterations and call it the “nth” draft (e.g. my 50th draft), but that would get inane after a while. I’d forget which draft I was on and simply default to calling it my draft.

No matter what approach you use, the reality is that the first version of your work is not really your first draft. Most likely, it’s in such a harried state that it could only be called your rough draft at best. It’s not from lack of trying. It’s just that your story most likely will not end up as you have originally written it.

In the Novel Writing Intensive I attended over a week ago, Robert Dugoni, one of the instructors, said that writing is re-writing. After I had finished the four-day workshop, I understood exactly what he meant. I had entered the course with what I thought was a first draft, but I came out with what is really just an extended character history that needed to wheedled down into a workable novel. Writing is re-writing, and I have a lot of that to do.

While I do outline my novels before I start, I don’t use the outline as my gospel. I write organically. I let the characters take me to where they want to go. Like real people, my characters don’t move linearly through the story. They jump around, they act irrationally, and they wreak havoc on my story structure. This means that the first cut of my novel needs some work. Okay, a lot of work.

That’s all fine and well because by the end of that first writing I have the essence of a good story on my hands. It just needs to be molded and polished so that others can enjoy it. That takes more work, more work than I just spent getting the story on paper.

Coming out of the Novel Writing Intensive, I realized that what I had been calling my first draft was not that at all. It was simply a cut of the story that needed a lot of work. A real first draft would be ready to go to the editor for a once-over that would get it ready for publisher reviews. I’m a long way away from that, but at least I know what I need to do.

Happy re-writing!

Transformative

Bob in Action NWII just returned from a four-day workshop called the Novel Writing Intensive taught by best-selling authors Robert Dugoni and Steven James. I’m not one to make egregious, hyperbolic statements, but the workshop was a transformative experience, one that I believe will take my writing to the next level and help me get over the hump of publication.

Yes, it was that good. If you’re an aspiring author, I’d highly recommend it. Getting the insight from Bob and Steve on what it takes to tell a good story is like figuring out where the last few pieces of a 10,000-piece puzzle fit and finally getting to see the picture on which you’ve worked so hard. They helped me see a few things that, although now obvious, weren’t so obvious just a few days ago.

For example: character point-of-view (POV). I didn’t realize that I had inconsistencies in the POV in my novel until Steve pointed it out when he reviewed my draft. Unless you’re writing with an omniscient narrator, which, by the way, is rarely done nowadays, your POV is of one of the primary characters. It shouldn’t shift within a given scene, and the POV should only be used for key characters. When I look at the notes on my draft, Steve repeatedly points out my shifts in POV. At first, I didn’t really understand his comments, but once he explained it in the critique session and later in a class, it made perfect sense, and I began to understand the importance of it. Now, I can go back and make my draft so much better because of his input.

Another example is author intrusion. When you’re writing in third-person, there’s a tendency to explain things or give a lot of character history, which amounts to author intrusion. How could Bobby knows how Mara feels when I’m writing from Bobby’s POV? He can’t, so if I write about Mara’s feelings when I’m in Bobby’s shoes, it’s author intrusion. This is very easy to do and overlook when writing a novel. Now, I know this, and I can be prepared to edit it out.

There were many, many lessons over the four days, too many to put in one blog post. Going into the four-day weekend, I had hit a rough patch in my writing. I was between projects. I had gotten less-than-positive feedback on some of my drafts. In short, I was frustrated and losing momentum, which is very important when you have only an hour a day to write. After attending this workshop, I feel re-energized. I feel like I know what I need to do. I have a lot of work to do, but I can see the path forward clearly. I needed this weekend. I needed this time with Bob and Steve and my classmates to look at things from a different perspective.

Writing is lonely, isolating work. I sit in my chair and pound away on the keyboard for months with no feedback or stimulus and then I open up the kimono for all to see. The whiplash effect of that process can be demotivating sometimes. I can see why people like J. D. Salinger and others have willed themselves to disappear. Sometimes, the worlds you create are much better than the reality in which you live. Sometimes, the words you type soothe you into a complacency that makes you believe everything on the page. Sometimes, you need something that throttles you awake and shows you a different perspective. The Novel Writing Intensive was just that. I needed it. You may need it, too. Check it out at the link above. You won’t be disappointed.

 

Taking a Break to Learn

If being a writer were only a matter of being prolific, then it would be easy, right? Sit, write, and repeat every day. But it’s much more than that if you want to improve and grow as a writer. Reading remains one of the best ways to expand your skills as a writer. Seeing how other talented writers deliver a story does wonders for your own approach. That’s why it’s imperative for writers to read regularly – okay a lot.

When I read articles about successful writers, it’s often interesting to hear what they did in their development phase. Most writers go through a phase where they learn the craft and develop into the writers that they’ll become. Many cite that they read everything. Others talk about writer’s groups they joined or a particular teacher or editor that helped them get better. Regardless of what method they used, every single one had to learn how to be a writer and who they were as a writer. Stephen King talks about it in his instructive memoir, On Writing. Read any article on an author in Writer’s Digest, and you’ll see the same thing.

I’ve done a variety of things to help me improve as a writer. First and foremost, I read a lot of fiction. My favorites – Wally Lamb, Khaled Hosseini, and many others – have taught me as much about writing as they’ve entertained me with their stories. I’ve attended writer’s conferences. Not only are conferences a great way to network with other writers, but they also provide rich content in the workshops and seminars they put on for attendees. I’m a regular reader of the Writer’s Digest newsletter that comes out every week. I’ve yet to have a week where the newsletter didn’t provide some useful content for me.

The one thing I haven’t done is attend a class on writing. I took writing classes in college, but since then, I’ve been on my own. I simply don’t have the time to commit to an evening college writing class now, but this week, I’m doing the next best thing – I’m attending a novel writing intensive with best-selling authors Steven James and Robert Dugoni. This promises to be an exciting experience learning about the craft, writing, and getting real-time feedback from experts in the field. I’m very excited to say the least.

The point of all of this is to grow as a writer. That growth is necessary to have any success as a writer. We all start somewhere, but where we end up is totally up to us and the effort we put into our careers.

 

Novel Planning

My process for creating a novel has evolved over the last four years. When I wrote my first novel, I simply started writing. I had a very general outline in my head, and I wrote to that outline, which, ironically, I followed very closely, but anyone who outlines novels would have questioned whether I really outlined it at all. As I’ve written each successive novel, my planning has evolved significantly, and as I’ve started my current project, I’ve taken the outlining to a whole new level. My hope is that this will help me be more efficient and effective in the creation process and help me reduce the amount of time I have to spend editing and re-writing.

Within the writing world, like many things in life, there are two sides to the outlining debate – there are outliners and “by-the-seat-of-the-pantsers.” The outliners swear by the need to outline a novel before you begin, while the pantsers will tell you that outlining squelches the creative process by putting you in a box before you begin. At any writing conference, you can find fervent adherents arguing about each approach, but I tend to agree more with the outliners because I don’t believe outlining a novel boxes you in at all. In my most recent novel, I had outlined a different story than what actually resulted. About halfway through I decided to take the story in a different direction and went off the rails, so to speak. The outline didn’t inhibit my creativity. I simply adjusted the outline as I saw fit.

No matter what approach you prefer, you need an idea of where you’re going with a story. A rambling mess is generally not what most writers want after they spend months composing a novel. I find outlining keeps me disciplined and puts a structure in place that helps me stay on point. For my current project, I’m taking outlining a step further by going down to the scene level in each chapter because I have a tendency to get long-winded, and I want to make sure my chapters are crisp and move the story forward in a way that the reader enjoys. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much I love a story if the readers can’t put it together in their heads. Outlining keeps my story focused.

There are two parts to my outline – the chapter summary and the scene list. I want to make it something that I can quickly reference during the writing process, so I don’t make the outline lengthy. For example, here’s the summary of my first chapter from Grace of God:

Miracle – A flight from Chicago to Birmingham crashes on the approach to Birmingham in the middle of a torrential rainstorm. The sole survivor is an infant named Grace who is ejected from her father’s arms during the crash and lands in the soft mud in a field near the crash site where she is rescued by one of the first people to arrive.

My scene list is nothing more than one or two key words that show me a path through each chapter. I don’t want to get fancy; I just want to stay on point. Here’s the scene list for the first chapter:

Miracle

  • Boarding
  • Crash
  • Rescue

Again, I’m don’t want a lot of superfluous verbiage in my outline. It’s a quick reference document, not a synopsis of my novel. The scene list also gives me a good overview of the novel so that I can see how it all fits together, sort of like pieces of a puzzle. If something seems off kilter, I can fix it at this point rather than waiting until I write the story and realize that something doesn’t fit.

In no way does this inhibit my creativity, despite what the pantsers may say. I can change at any time. If I get a new idea halfway through, I can revise the outline and go in a new direction. I actually find that the outlining process helps my creativity because I can write freely without worrying how my output fits into the overall story. I know where I’m going at all times, and there’s freedom in that.

That being said, outlining may not work for everyone. There’s rarely just one way to accomplish something. I have a process that works for me for the reasons stated above, but I’m sure that any number of writers could refute this approach and present their own, sans outline. Nevertheless, if this approach appeals to you or helps you write, then my sharing it is not in vain. Happy writing!

 

Book Jacket Blurb

One of the things I do before I begin writing a book is write what I call the “book jacket blurb,” which is nothing more than a rough summary of the novel idea much like what you’d read on a book jacket. Sometimes, I write these when the story idea comes to me, but regardless of when I write it, it’s always a starting point for me because I need something to anchor me on the story idea as I work through the writing process. It’s simply too easy to go off on a tangent when I’m writing, so I use this summary to bring me back to the story idea. I’ll read and re-read it many times over the course of writing the novel. On many mornings, I read it again just to get me into the mood of the story.

This doesn’t mean that the story can never change. It can, but I usually edit the blurb if I change the direction of the story so that I always have a focal point for my work. I like to think of it as a lighthouse of sorts.

Here’s the book jacket blurb for Grace of God:

Grace Garrison (nee Dobson) survives a plane crash that kills her parents and everyone else on its descent into Birmingham, Alabama. Her survival is deemed a miracle by the media and everyone else in the small Alabama town where her maternal grandmother, Wilma, resides. Wilma takes advantage of the singular occurrence and forms a breakaway ministry with Grace as its central character. As millions trek to Eden, Alabama to see “the daughter of God,” Wilma’s influence and power grows as her Grace of God Ministry gains momentum and becomes an unstoppable force. Beneath it all slithers the real Wilma Garrison, an ignorant bigot in the truest sense, she hides behind a facade of love and benevolence, but behind the scenes, she disparages those unlike her. Her close friends and associates look the other way as she befriends white supremacists seeking to create a community devoid of the “great unwashed,” but as Grace grows up she starts to see the world differently in spite of her sheltered life. When a new boy, Dylan, moves to town and attends her private high school, she learns that there are other ways to view “the world according to Wilma.” The passing of John McDermott, the man who rescued her from the plane crash, sets Grace on a collision course with Wilma’s true beliefs and dystopian view of the world.

This summary will serve as my point of reference as I move forward with the novel. Currently, I’m writing all of the character summaries and finishing the outline for the story arc and chapters I plan to write. I spend a lot of time planning a novel before I actually begin writing. I’ll share more of my process in the coming blog posts. This approach doesn’t work for every writer, but for me it’s how I manage a project, and so far it has worked well.