Saturday, January 27, 2007

Technical Topic - Drafts

EDITED TO ADD: I've gone back to this post several times, refining it and adding to it and looking at my actual process . . . (As opposed to what I think the process is.)

Ahem ...

The first thing about drafting is . . .
you're doing it right.

It doesn't matter how you do it ... whatever way you organize yourself is the right way
for you.

-- Some folks make outlines and sketch out scenes and make lists and generally develop a strong overall sense of the manuscript before they sit down to write.

-- Some folks put their butt in the chair and start writing at the beginning and see where the story takes them, approaching it linearly, but without preconceptions.

-- Some folks write the scenes they 'see' clearly, then move them about and stitch them together to tell the final tale.

-- Some folks sketch and move on, and then return to tweak, and then return to polish, and then return ...

-- Some folks don't leave a scene until it's perfect.

Every single one of these approaches is right.

Now you know everything useful I can say about drafting.

Do you want to know what I do?
In painful detail?
(ummm ... why ....?)

What I do --
I go through six drafting stages.

Story Notes
First Rough Draft
Second Rough Draft
Plotting Draft
First Polishing Draft
Submission Manuscript Draft

1) Story Notes.

This is what happens before I start writing. I generally have some core that the story's going to coalesce around. This is when I first see the characters and some of their action and the scenery. I get some 'scenes' in completeness.

The scenes that come through at this stage are often my favorite scenes. It was at this stage that I 'saw' Sebastian and Jess in the back garden with him reciting poetry. I 'saw' Jess confront Lazarus before I had any idea what the rest of the story would be.

I wouldn't call the notes I make in this early stage a 'draft', exactly. But some lovely words emerge here. What gets written out is so strongly visualized that I hate to waste it. The 'rabbit scene' from Maggie is an example of a 'story notes' scene and the 'knife throwing' scene that got cut from MLAS .

This 'story notes' period is a good time for trying out really stupid ideas.

2) The First Rough Draft which includes the Outline

I do this linearly. I sit down and close my eyes and visualize the story, scene by scene, in the order it happens.

Loose and sloppy and fast, I spill everything out on the page. Fast fast fast. It's a real mess. It's without punctuation or spelling or caps or sentences. I repeat myself. I write the same scene out three or four times.
I do not go back and fix anything. If I have a better idea, I write it out and add it.

At the end, I have a bloated nonsense monster. Nobody else could make head nor tail of this word carnage.

Much of what I throw down on the screen at this stage will make it all the way to the final submitted manuscript in some form or other.
A lot won't.

OK. In terms of how-I-actually-do-it organization --

Each of these 'proto-scenes' I write in its very own document. I name the doc something that tells me what the scene is about. 'Doyle and Maggie in the Stable' is an example. See how I don't use numbers or anything?

When the scene is visualized and tied down in words, I move the whole set words into my Master Document'.
The Master Document always named 'Working Copy of [name of ms]'.

The Outline.

Parallel to writing all these scenes, I'm creating an outline of the story.
This is a separate document, named 'Working Outline of [name of ms]'.

Again, scenes are not numbered or anything. They're named. And I work by scenes, not by chapters.
So Teh Outline looks something like:

-- Adrian leaves the House in the Marais

He goes over the wall, following his own, and Lazarus' agenda. He's excited to be going into action and not thinking too far ahead.

-- Doyle talks to Carruthers

They're in the parlor, front of house, second floor. Carruthers suggests killing Adrian.

When I make the Outline, this is me plotting.
I also plot with handwritten post-it notes, moving them around, worrying over them.
I also plot with action lines on long papers and doodles and Venn diagrams and me just laying my head in my hands and suffering.

But this is the archival, written-down part of plotting.

I make notes on the Outline to remind myself about plot points.
I do it in color. Green fwiw.

The outline with notes looks something like:

-- Adrian leaves the House in the Marais

He goes over the wall, following his own, and Lazarus' agenda. Remember to add scene earlier to define Lazarus' orders. He's excited to be going into action and not thinking too far ahead. This happens at the same time Maggie is talking to Guichet.

-- Doyle talks to Carruthers

They're in the parlor, front of house, second floor. Carruthers suggests killing Adrian. Why do they let him go?

I agonize over plotting decisions right up to the day I send out the submission manuscript. I change things. But when the First Rough Draft is finished, the backbone of the plot is in place. Theoretically, everything makes some kinda sense even if I haven't added all the sense to the ms.

Now ... IMO ... this is where brainstorming and writing friends can do the most good. This is where I ask about plausibility and motivation. Mostly I don't change anything because of these comments, but I listen to what folks say and think about it.

3) The Second Rough Draft

The Second Rough Draft is transforming a misspelled, repeat-repeat-repeat bunch of crap into coherent scenes full of clumsy, rough, ugly words that someone else could read and understand.

In terms of working technique:

(a)I copy a scene out of my 'Working Copy of [ms name]'. I'm copying the First Rough Draft (FRD) words. I do this in linear order, working my way through the ms.

(b) I paste the FRD scene, whole, into a new document which I name for the action of the scene. 'Doyle and Adrian across from the Conciergerie'. 'Maggie and Doyle Make Love'.

(c) When I'm through messing with that scene, I drop my new, exciting, improved words into the 'Working Copy of Maggie' and take out the old unimproved words and throw them away.

In this way the First Rough Draft slowly becomes the Second Rough Draft, scene by scene.

Incidentally, I change the typefont of what's been improved into SRD so I know what I'm looking at in that huge document. I use Arial 16 for the FRD old stuff and TNR 11 for the SRD new stuff.

Do not throw any words away really.

I can discard those old words from my document without fear because I have been saving a complete copy of 'Working Copy of Maggie' every few days. These old copies live in a totally different folder, far away from my working folder. I call the old copies 'Maggie 030309' and 'Maggie 030709' (for March 7 2009) and so on. All the stages of creation exist in fossilized form in case I ever need them.

I also send the entire 'Working Copy of Maggie' to my gmail account when I stop working for the day.

OK. Moving along to what the Second Rough draft actually is.

Second Rough Draft draft contains lots of brackets like:

[find a better word] or,
[did they do this in 1793? -- check] or,
[fight scene] or ,
[they go upstairs and make love] or,
my own personal favorite,

Second Rough Draft still contains all the alternative ways to get through a sentence. I put in the three or five different word choices and don't try to pick the perfect one,

Why leave all these alternatives in place?
IN SRD stage I might agonize for ten minutes over a phrase
and then end up discarding it altogether in the next draft
because I used words too much like this four chapters onward.
And then I go back to eliminate one of the echoes and there I've lost all those useful alternates I started out with.

That's why the SRD has the choices intact.
We get:

Maggie [waved her hand, made a gesture, flicked her wrist, turned her hand over] and went to,

This SRD turns out to be the lion's share of the writing process. Maybe 95% of the final submission manuscript words are here in the SRD.
The plot should be pretty bullet-proof at the end of the SRD.
(Though it seldom is, alas.)

None of writing is easy. But this SRD is the hard part.

4) The Plotting Draft and the Research MS

In the Plotting Draft I have to finally get serious and make decisions as to what scenes to include
and what to leave out
and why folks do what I just had them do
and how I'm going to show that in the ms
and is the pacing right
and are the H&H apart for long periods of time
and has my subplot taken over
and what am I going to do about that?

How do I improve the plotting?

Well . . . I follow each character through the story all on his own, looking at continuity and motivation and character development and generally evidence that the character's story is being told.

I try, desperately, to find errors of logic in the plot. Do all the pieces of the story fit together? Have I explained everything to the reader somewhere or other?

This is another good time to talk to other folks about my plotting. 'Does this work?' sometimes gets a 'no' answer.

I go back to pacing. Does it drag? Do I need a period of consolidation after a lot of noise and excitement? Do my high points and resolutions fit the story?

I also generate a Research Manuscript.

I copy the Second Rough Draft in full as a new document named 'Research Draft of [name of story]'.

Look. Every story is going to have lots of bits and peaces of little research.

The best place to store all this information is directly IN the manuscript. Then you always know where to find everything. And when your excellent copyeditor comes back and says -- 'huh?' you know exactly where you found that historical tidbit.
But you don't want this cluttering up your working doc, so you create an evil twin.

The Research Manuscript contains long, interpolated notes in red.

This is where I say to myself --
"I've checked the history of this word in Google books and it's contemporary ok." -or
"they served oats to horses in French inns according to this ref -"Three Normandy Inns, 1803,"

Best of all is when I add an actual URL or page reference. This is so I don't have to go back and repeat the research when I forget whether I've looked something up.

5) The First Polishing Draft

I guess you could call this the end of writing and the start of editing.

This is where I fiddle with the words.

Now I'm doing this all along, every time I read a page of the manuscript. But now I make a concerted straight-through-the-whole-thing effort.

I look at dialog in isolation from all other narration and action and so on. Is it responsive? Does it make sense? Is it well tagged? Are all pronouns obviously referenced?

I look at cadence and the beauty of language. I go back and nudge this word here and that word there and make decision on all the words I was waffling about. I look for echoes. I scrape out cliches.

All this stuff I'm writing about in the 100 Best of the Worst posts -- this is when I look at that stuff.

I change the font on the screen.
I print it out in hard copy and look at it.
I read it aloud.

This is the niggling draft, the agonize-over-a-word draft, the let's-change-the-minor-character's-name-from-Kilroy-to-Kilburton draft.

99% of the final words are in place when this draft is completed.

Lots of folks do this niggling, effort-ful precision editing as they go along. I don't like to waste all this work, so I save it till I'm sure I'm not spending it on some scene that I'll kick out of the story.

This is an example of 'Everyone's Process Is Right'. This is my process.
Yours is just as good.

6) Submission MS Draft

This is all Housekeeping.

Spell check, doublecheck historical facts, follow continuity of the character's actions, look up the dates of words and the usage of any words I might think I know and don't.

Check comma placement and the extra spaces that might have crept in and the number of dots in the ellipses and double periods at the end of sentences and ,. at the end of sentences. Re-check the stupid little stuff in the Chicago Manual of Style about hyphens and commas.

Put the ms Times New Roman 12.

This is where I send the ms out to beta readers.

When I get it back from them, it's ready to submit.

That's what I do.
It doesn't mean that's what you should do.


  1. Jo,

    Are you visual or auditory? I've been asked this question myself, and it seemed like an important one for a writer to understand.

    I hear the dialogue. I "see" some scenes, but not with the clarity that I "hear" them. Some authors seem to be strong in both these areas, with the scene playing out like a motion picture, complete with all the sound effects. Some authors seem to be strictly auditory, hearing only dialogue--it running in their heads like a radio left on.

    After learning that a certain author is auditory, and yet another is strictly visual, what amazed me the most is that the final product doesn't give the author's strenght or weakness away. Some authors simply write so well, learning to describe a scene--thereby overcoming the visual handicap--that I cannot tell that they didn't "see" it. And others write perfectly good dialogue that they never "heard."

    Just wondering if you hear the story, see it, or both...


  2. Weeelllll ....

    I definitely 'hear' the characters' voices, and dialog is the base of a scene, for me.

    So I'd probably put myself down as one of those auditory writers.

    I have to consciously go back and 'visualize' the scene and add color and shape to the final draft.