Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Literal, Tedious Novel Draft

A former student wrote to me saying she's bogged down in an early novel draft, can't seem to get past the middle, goes back to read what she's written and it feels clunky and awkward. The more she tries to push ahead, the weaker the writing gets. So I started thinking about drafts, and wondering if perhaps she was trying to judge hers by the same standards she'd apply to a finished work. Which doesn't seem fair somehow.
In early drafts I find that I am often literal and tedious. I usually begin with a character or two--or more. But it takes living with a story for a while before I can find my way to figuring out:

1. What the story is--plot
2. What voice to use--voice, tone
3. What slice of the story to tell--timeline
4. What viewpoint to tell it in--POV
5. How to open, how to end--scene or summary, and how to balance them throughout
6. When to zoom close and when to pull away--psychic distance
7. Who the characters really are--desires, flaws, driving beliefs.

Unless you're one of those rigorous outliners who has to nail it all down before starting to write, it's clear that this is only going to happen over a few to several drafts, with some good reflecting, note-taking, organizing, reworking time in between.
And then too, in among the literal and tedious material, there will be a few gems that remain, leaving their traces in the story. Drafts need to be--well, drafty. With some large holes to let the cold critical breezes in that will show me how to reshape the work.


  1. Hear, hear. And I'd only add that those of us who are assiduous outliners still face many of the same issues as you enumerate when revision time comes around.

  2. Sure, plus outlines come in many shapes and sizes, right? Nice to hear from you, Micol.

  3. Thanks! I've worked with different types of outlines on different projects (across many different genres), but with possible exception of the Bradford series, which we plot to the most minute detail beforehand, it is VERY rare that a finished draft is completely faithful to the original outline. And as an editor, I often found that requiring a series ghostwriter to submit an outline could sometimes become a liability, in that if something wasn't working in the finished draft, there was a lot of, "but you APPROVED the OUTLINE," to contend with...Where the point, as you say, is that no matter how much forethought is applied, we can't always know what direction a story will take or how successful the execution will be.

  4. Part of the delight of writing is having characters veer off in unexpected directions. You just have to hang on for dear life and trust they're taking you where the story needs to go.

  5. I love the idea that drafts should be drafty!

    I look at my initial drafts as exploratory drafts. It is a safer term and a better description of my process.

    I never go back and read what I've written when I'm drafting a story, even if it is a novel.

    I find that when I know characters (#7)-- plot (#1) and voice (#2) fall into place. Of course all the items you list are areas I'm still figuring out how to execute.
    And PBs--they need all you list, but drafting them feels different. Your list is helpful when revising them.

  6. Thanks, Sarah. I try not to stop at the end of a chapter or scene, but instead write a few notes to myself on what happens next. Helps me move on without being as tempted to tinker with what I've written the day before.

    I agree that drafting picture books is different. Not only can you look at the whole story every time you return to it, you pretty much have to.

  7. I love the idea of ending the day's writing with a few notes of what's to come next. I tend to draft by moving ahead a chapter or two, then backing up a few days later to revise those chapters, then moving ahead to new material. Leaving a few notes about what's next would help on the moving on days.

  8. I like the drafty draft image, Uma. It speaks to me, and I can soo relate to the difficulty of writing that first draft of a novel. PBs first drafts just seem to flow out of me, but the novel... Now, here is a challenge.

  9. 3 and 5 are my biggest stumbling blocks. When I first started writing, I made all the typical beginner's errors of meandering, changing POVs, etc. Going back to edit, I was almost paralyzed by wondering where I should start the story and where I should finish it. And I could always picture different outcomes, different slices of the story I should be telling.

    I really do sympathize with your friend!

  10. I still meander--the uninentional POV switch, not so much!