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Friday, 7 September 2012

Questions and Answers: How to write a novel - Drafting

Advice: How to write a novel - Drafting

A while back, I wrote a post about how to write a novel. This was in response to queries I had received from a few individuals who were thinking about writing but just couldn't quite work out how or where to begin. You can see the original post here: How to write a novel

Back then, I promised a follow up post on how to use drafts. That's what this post is about.
Drafting is described well in Stephen King's On Writing. He provides an honest and transparent view of some real-world examples and describes how he uses drafting to produce great story after great story.

Drafting is a general term which describes how a book can be built up in layers. Think of it this way, if you were to write a perfect book from start to finish, wouldn't it take a long time? What if you got half way through and realised that the whole first chapter was wrong or didn't make sense. You'd have to start again. To avoid such mistakes you would have to plan every tiny detail so well it would be a lot of hard work and not much fun to write. 

Some writers do write from start to finish and skip back to repair parts as they go along, but it requires a certain type of skill to achieve in sensible timescales without driving yourself crazy. 

A simpler approach, and a more flexible way of writing, is to use drafts. Drafts are like phases in a project. Think of it like building a house. You wouldn't start painting the walls while at the same time sanding the ceiling and fitting all the wiring and trying to put pipes under floor. That would be way too much going on at once, and each activity would get in the way of all the others. A lot of time would be wasted and the end result would be a badly finished mess. When building a house, the foundations are laid first. The stonework is built up next, walls rising up from solid foundations. Then carpenters put up a wooden framework to support the roof. Tiles go on to make the house waterproof. Window frames go in and door frames are installed so that the building can be sealed from the elements. Only then will plumbers and electricians and kitchen designers and so on start filling in their parts. Everything has to be done in the right order, each skill being applied on top of the previous work. The end result is a fine house, strong, weatherproof and full of the comforts for modern day living.

Drafts work in the same way to produce a good, well-rounded book. There can be any number of drafts, but each draft should have a clearly defined purpose (not generic fiddling about). Each author can use as many or as few drafts as they please. It depends on the writer's style, and their own strengths and weaknesses. The following is an example of the way I use drafting when I write.

Draft 0: (A pre-draft outline)

This is an outline. For me, I work best when I iron out the plot thoroughly before I begin. This is not the same for everyone. Others may prefer to weave the plot as they go. I generally start by listing scenes, like in a film, from start to finish. Each scene is just a sentence or two to say what happens, where it happens, and who is there. The words in the outline will not be used in the actual book so it does not matter whether they are beautiful or phrased perfectly. The outline is just scaffolding to support the first draft that is to follow. 

An outline might look like this:

scene 1: 
Dan runs into the garage shouting that there has been an accident. George, Phil and Emma look towards him as though he has gone mad. He explains what he has seen and they follow him outside.

scene 2: 
There is a car lying on its roof near the traffic lights. Flames are rising from the engine. A woman is caught inside, trying to get out. Dan and Phil rush over and pull her out.

scene 3:
The police arrive and tell Dan he was lucky not to have been killed. He goes home and doesn't mention it to his wife. She complains that he hasn't cut the lawn.

Once you have a lot of scenes listed, you need to think about organising them into chapters. Which scenes form a distinct unit? Where is a good place to leave the reader with questions in their mind and wanting to know more? Split the scenes in chapters like this:

chapter 1 - The accident
scene 1: (brief summary of scene here)
scene 2: (brief summary of scene here)
scene 3: (brief summary of scene here)

chapter 2 - Reunion
scene 1: (brief summary of scene here)
scene 2: (brief summary of scene here)
scene 3: (brief summary of scene here)
scene 4: (brief summary of scene here)
scene 5: (brief summary of scene here)

chapter 3 - Time to run
scene 1: (brief summary of scene here)
scene 2: (brief summary of scene here)
scene 3: (brief summary of scene here)
scene 4: (brief summary of scene here)

In this way, we can build up a very high level outline of what chapters there will be, and ensure that each chapter has a well defined subject and a clear point of view. We can see at a glance how many chapters are in the point of view of each character and how they are interspersed to ensure the book is well balanced and flows with a logical, well thought out and interesting storyline. At the outline stage we can identify problems with plot, characters and flow. We can identify parts that may be too slow paced or too fast paced, or whether we are switching around too much confusing the reader and so on. It's easier to straighten these things out at the outline stage before writing an actual word that will appear in the finished book.

Draft 1 - First Draft

The first draft is where many authors begin, but for me it comes after the outline is complete. The first draft involves writing a very rough version of the whole book, from start to finish. It's purpose is to get down on paper (or computer hard disk!) the full story, without worrying too much about how well it is phrased or whether it uses the right verbs, adjectives or nouns. It is about getting ideas down, and creating a rough foundation of the whole book that can be the starting point (not the finished product) of the entire book (not just one highly polished chapter followed by nothing). 

Once we have a completed first draft of the whole book we no longer have everything in our head. We have it all written down, in an ugly, badly thought out brain dump that we can now hold up to the light and frown upon. A first draft is for the author only. It should never go out into the real world. It is rough and unready in every respect, but it should be the complete book. It should be written in sentences, not bullet points or fragmented notes. It should be sentences, paragraphs and chapters, representing the story you want to tell from start to finish. But it should be written quickly and freely, without being chained to dictionaries or thesauruses. You should not pause to consider the wisest word in context. Jot down the first word that comes to mind. Keep the flow going. Know that each word that is written now will be re-examined later. Be free to write the story without worrying about the choice of words.

Draft 2 - Editing

Once the first draft is complete you should have the whole story in your hands. Place it somewhere quiet and leave it there for a while. Go do something else. Clear your head. Leave a week or more before you come back to pick up the first draft and read it again. When you read it you should have an expression like a bulldog chewing a wasp. You should be choking on each sentence and wondering what on earth you have written, but once in a while you should smile and think, yes that bit works well, or that has potential, or this could be something good one day.

The second draft entails taking a copy of the first draft and going through it from start to finish once again. But this time we should be looking to correct any structural problems. There may be some sections which are too brief, which need to be expanded upon to flesh them out and make them clearer.

There may be other sections which don't make any sense, or are repetitive, sections that need cutting down or rephrasing, or cutting out entirely. There may well be sections that are in the wrong place, the wrong chapter or have the wrong point of view, or a mixed, confused point of view. There maybe some parts of the story that you know, because you are the author, and you have them all in your head, but you realise later that you haven't actually written them down. You may know that character A is the ex-wife of character B but you haven't actually said that anywhere in the story, and without that information in front of them, the reader will be lost as to why these characters act the way they do towards each other. You will find many mistakes. Many things that need moving around, expanding, removing or clarifying. All these things you should straighten out in the second draft.

Does finding all these errors mean that the first draft was wrong? No. The first draft is intended to get the story down on paper. If you stop to consider all these points in the first draft you will stifle the flow of ideas and make the story tangled in detail too early. Better to let it flow freely in the first draft and then focus on the structural problems in the second draft.

Does the second draft have to be perfect? No. The second draft should focus on structure and story problems, and not get bogged down in the choice of adjective to use in sections that may yet be discarded or be completely re-written.

That's it right?

No. Once you have completed the second draft you need to once again stick your manuscript in a corner and leave it until you can empty your mind and come back to it with fresh eyes a week or more later. Again you will find errors - hopefully less than before. This time, if you think that you have the structure almost right, you can hone in on some of the finer details, like the flow from sentence to sentence, or the choice of verbs, adjectives and nouns. Look out for where you may repeatedly use the same phrase or sentence structure. Check for bland sentences that use cliches or uninteresting language. Also identify words that are not appropriate or sentences that are too pretty and not really appropriate in the context of the story. The voice and style of the story should be consistent throughout. Don't make one scene full of flowery metaphors that are not relevant or consistent with the rest of the book. The first chapter should match the last. Same style. Same author. Same voice.

How many drafts should I write?

The number of drafts you write will differ from author to author. It could be three or it could be thirty-three. When you first start to write you will make a lot of mistakes in all areas, and that may well take a lot of drafts to correct. Try to stay below ten if you can. It will take a long time, but you will learn from it, and the end product will be better because of it. 

As you gain experience, you will find that the first draft gets better with each book. That in turn means that the second draft will also take less reworking, and so the total number of drafts will become less. For me, Information Cloud took around ten drafts in total, over a period of several years. But I can already see that in my next novel that experience is paying off and the quality of earlier drafts is getting better. My next novel may require around five drafts. Maybe one day three drafts will be enough. Maybe it won't.

However many drafts it takes, don't worry about it. Don't get caught up in the numbers. Concentrate on producing the best quality finished product that you can. Once you are happy with the finished product, show it to other trusted reviewers and try not to bight their heads off when they point out one hundred mistakes that you already failed to spot several times. Take a deep breath. Accept that mistakes happen. You will never be able to see all of them yourself. Smile. Say thank you. Have a cup of tea, and start the next draft. 

Do I need a professional editor?

Ideally, yes. They will highlight problems that you yourself will never see, however many drafts you do. If you cannot afford to pay for an editor then be honest to yourself and double check is that really the case? Are you willing to invest in your own abilities to make yourself a better writer? Don't you deserve that much?

If you absolutely cannot afford a professional editor then make sure you have several, strong proof readers. These should be people who know English well, and who read far and wide. They should be objective, and they should not be afraid to tell you if something sucks. You need beta readers who are willing to give clear and objective feedback. You should be prepared to listen and learn from their comments, even when you don't want to hear things, and even when your pride is flat on the floor. Step over your pride. Focus on producing the best quality book that you possibly can. Take a deep breath, and start the next draft.

For further reading on editing, proofreading and rewriting amongst many other useful articles, take a look at Jami Gold's site here:

There are many other sites across the internet also. Look around. See what is the difference between editing, proof-reading and rewriting.

Good luck!

And remember, everything becomes easier with experience. What you struggle with today will become easier. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life! (to coin a phrase)

[Posted by Peter James West, author of the science fiction series 'Tales of Cinnamon City'
[Post relates to: Tales of Cinnamon City, Information Cloud, Cinnamon City, Ascension, Lord Hades, 2015, Science Fiction]
For news and updates, visit Science Fiction author Peter James West's blog