Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Draft

Bloody hell. Is it Thursday again already?

Whose idea was this ranty blog, anyway...?

Anyway, what I wanted to toss out this week was a rough outline of how I generally go about things. I've given lots of general suggestions, but I thought it might be cool to actually show a step by step, solid example of how I take a project from a rough idea to something I'll show friends to something I consider worth showing to publishers/ producers/ contest readers/ and so on.

Plus it's an easy one to write up and I've got to do one more article and a sidebar before the weekend.

As always, before going into this, I want to remind everyone of the golden rule. Just because this works for me doesn't mean it will work for you. There's a better than average chance it won't, in fact. But maybe it will spark a few thoughts or make you look at things in a new way

1st Draft-- For me, this is just the "get it done" stage. I don't worry much about catching typos or crafting every subtle moment in the plot. I just want to finish this draft with a beginning, an end, and the majority of points in between.

I tend to skip around a lot in the first draft, which means I could start with almost anything. I'll scribble down random beats or dialogue exchanges that occurred to me while the idea was fermenting in my head and drop them more or less where I think they'd go. I talked a little bit last week how I got started on Ex-Heroes.

At this early stage, if I get stuck on something (an awkward conversation or complex action scene), I'll just skip it for now. I know I can work out exactly how Yakko convinced Wakko to give him a pistol later, so I'd rather keep moving than stay on this point too long and risk getting blocked on the whole thing (too long being a completely subjective, case-by-case term). Again, for me, the most important thing is to get it done. It's a lot easier to think about the little things when the big things aren't looming over you.

I also don't hold back here at all. I let dialogue, descriptions, and action scenes go on forever. I know I'll be cutting eventually, so there's no reason to worry about length now. I mean, if you wanted to find a pound of gold, you wouldn't dig up 1.1 pounds of soil, hope for the best, and just call it a day.

No one sees this draft but me.

2nd Draft-- Now it's time to smooth it out. All those little bits I skipped I need to go back and fill in. All those awkward knots need to be worked out. A lot of the time I'll find that, because I can now see a lot of these elements in relation to the whole story, the answers to these problems are more apparent.

The goal now is to have a readable manuscript. No more little notes to myself or trailing paragraphs that need to get connected somehow. Someone should be able to pick this up and read it start to finish without thinking they lost a few pages or only got my notes on a chapter.

Keep in mind this doesn't mean I do show it to people. It just means I should be able to. Really, the only person who might see this is my lady-love, and not even her always. Sometimes she has to wait.

A few people have argued with me these two drafts really just amount to me doing a first draft in two stages. That may be true, but they're not writing the ranty blog, are they?

Okay then, so... now I step away for a couple of days. Maybe a week. Don't look at it, try not to think too much about it. And then...

3rd Draft--Stephen King says to start cutting on draft two, but as I said, my draft two is what some people may call a solid first draft. As such, I usually wait until draft three to start slashing. This is where I hunt down adverbs, adjectives, pointless dialogue descriptors, and so on. Two fun rules I've mentioned before--

2nd draft = 1st draft - 10%

one adverb per page, four adjectives

One thing I really go after here is the padding phrases I tend to drop in (sort of, somewhat, kind of, more or less) that don't really do anything. As I've mentioned before, one of my regular editors at work has dubbed this awful habit of mine Somewhat Syndrome. Feel free to pass that one along.

By this time I've gone over the whole manuscript at least twice, so some bigger cuts should be visible. That rant Wakko gives about socialized medicine. Dot's flashback to the first time she got drunk in college. That long, meticulous description of Yakko loading his pistol. That's some beautiful writing there, but is it actually doing anything?

This is also when I can usually spot structure issues. In larger stories, it's not uncommon to have "floating" events that are important, but aren't tied to a solid point in the script. This one may be here right now, but having all of the story in my head lets me realize it would work better there, and it would be a more solid fit.

If I haven't already, this is when I let the lady love have a look. She's my first set of eyes to let me know I screwed up something and I'm too close to see it.

All things considered, this is usually two or three weeks of full-time work for me.

4th Draft--This is the first big polish. I go through sentence by sentence, looking for words that come up too often or stilted dialogue. I also make sure all the cuts and swaps from the last draft haven't messed anything up. Are the character arcs still smooth? Logic chains are still complete? Are the transitions still good? Are the parallels parallel? Did this character turn into a man for a few minutes in the middle of the chapter? Did Yakko just pull a gun out of nowhere?

When the fourth draft is all shiny, this is the one I show folks for comments. I generally send it out to five people. They're a carefully selected bunch, all of whom have some level of literary background, and I don't think there's one among them I've known for less than five years. One's actually been reading and critiquing my work for over two decades now, and she still doesn't cut me any slack. The key thing is they're all people who will give honest, useful criticism. There won't be huge, unexplained X's across the page, meaningless feedback, or cartoons in the margins.

Well, not often, anyway.

This goes off into the world and it may be a month or two before I look at it again. The trick here is to resist messing with it while those people are looking at it.

5th Draft-- Now I've gotten notes back from whatever folks I cajoled into reading this thing. I sit down with all the comments and go through the whole thing page by page. What did everyone think of page one? What comments were there on page two? How's page three look? As I'm doing this, I've also got my own copy of the 4th draft that I'm using as a "master document." This way I can get all the notes assembled in the relevant place and make whatever changes are required. This document is more or less the 5th draft, and it can take another two weeks or more to finish it with a full book manuscript.

I mentioned above that I try to get five people to make comments for me, and that's partly so I can get a broader sampling on each issue that comes up. If four people like something but one doesn't, odds are I'll call that good. Nobody's going to get every joke or like every chapter. If three don't and two do (and of course I do, or I wouldn't've written it), I'll sit and give it a good look. And if none of them like it, well... I'm smart enough to know when I've screwed up something doesn't work.

6th Draft-- This one's yet another smoothing, polishing draft. Now that I made those tweaks and changes from my reader's notes, I need to make sure everything works again. So, yet another line by line reading, tweaking and adjusting as I go.

And honestly, at this point... this is when I give up. There is only so much a given writer--in this case, me-- can do with a given story. There comes a point when further work accomplishes nothing and, as the Brits so eloquently put it, you're just wanking. If it's not ready to show to a publisher by now, it probably means I screwed up something right at the start on a very basic level. Perhaps when I first thought I could adapt Pilgrim's Progress into a hardcore gothic romance.

There's also a danger that if you keep trying to come up with reasons to do another draft, you'll keep finding them. I'm sure we all know someone who's just been working on the same manuscript for years and years and years because they've got another one or two drafts to put it through. After a while of that, your story stops looking like a coherent tale and a bit more like the Winchester Mystery House.

This pattern may not work for you. Everyone's going to handle things a little differently. I got to talk to Kevin Smith a while back and he said that he wrote screenplays on a scene-by-scene basis. He'd write a few pages, read, revise, read, smoke a bit, revise again, read, polish it, and move on to the next few pages. So by the time his script was completed, he's reached what I'm calling the end of draft four.

Y'see, Timmy, the important thing, as always, is not how you do it but that you do it. It's annoying as hell, and all-too-often used as an excuse, but there is something to that old chestnut "writing is re-writing." You can't expect something to be publication-ready the moment it leaves your fingertips. Doing this professionally means going over a piece again and again rather than mailing off your first draft while you move on to your next glorious and epic-worthy idea. If you're not willing to put the extra effort into your writing, it's always going to end up in that large pile on the left.

Next week, Booboo, I want to discuss those picnic baskets the campers have. Sort of.

Until then, go write.

Or rewrite.


M.W. Schock said...

I used to have massive, bloated first drafts that were over 130 pages, and then I would have the impossible task of trying to cut it all down. I still have a project that I am still in love with that for the life of me I can't get below 130 pages.
But then on my last two scripts, things went the complete opposite way and it went much better for me. The first drafts were a simple, skeletal 90 pages or less that focused almost entirely on plot. Each recessive draft GREW by 5-10% as characters began to grow and action began to complicate. Its like for every pound of fat I lost, I gained a pound and a half of muscle.

Thom Brannan said...


You gonna mention anything about that THING?

(psst. I mean CU2.)

Rakie said...

out of interest, when you say one adverb / four adjectives per page, roughly how long would you say a page is? I really like my adverbs, see. :)

Virtual Stranger said...

M.W., muscle is good, but too much muscle is when people start looking... well, creepy. I think that kind of hearkens back to the "killing your babies" post I made a few weeks ago. I used to have the same problem, where characters would expand and drafts would grow. Except then I realized this character growth still didn't change what my story needed to be.

I think I'm going to jot down some notes and maybe talk about that in a week or three...

Thom, I shilled. Happy? ;)

Rakie m'dear, good question...

By the third draft everything should be solid enough that it's more or less formatted. Which means a page is... well, a page. Usually around 250 words, top to bottom. Yeah, you'll always end up with oddities at then end of chapters--one paragraph on a page or so-- but I think it's a gut thing.

In the end, it is just a rule of thumb. But it's a rule of thumb I got from a longtime editor/ publisher, which should give it a little more weight.


Rakie said...

extremely helpful, thanks!!