Thursday, October 24, 2013

Just how rough is a rough draft?

One of the biggest hurdles I have faced in trying to write a novel starts with the first paragraph.  Exactly how "rough" should (can) my rough draft be?

Whether you're a pantser or a planner, it doesn't matter:  all roads converge when we each sit down and begin pounding out our stories.  It's more than just the "inner editor."  It's more than just wanting to replace a word or phrase here and there.  It's the question of doubt that begins to seep in when you look at something you've written -- in draft form -- and realize you aren't quite in your character's head yet, but more like dumping information onto paper (or into computer).

After 20 or so pages of this same slop, maybe you begin to realize that your "chapters" don't look that much different than your outline.  "Wait a minute," you're thinking.  "This is all just information.  No one is going to want to read this.  How come it's not coming out like (insert your favorite book here)?"

Let me stop you right there.

It's okay that you aren't happy with it.  Rough drafts are just that -- they're horrible.  They are a way to clear your head of all that stored up information so that when you go back to edit, you actually have something to edit.

Let me put it another way.  I'm going to grab a book from my bookshelf and completely butcher it for a second.

The first book I came across that wasn't a short story anthology or a small novella happened to be Stephen King's The Wind Through the Keyhole.  Hopefully SK won't mind my un-brilliant rendition of his most recent Dark Tower book.

Let's just start on page one.  The story begins,

       "During the days after they left the Green Palace that wasn't Oz after all--but which was now the tomb of the unpleasant fellow Roland's ka-tet had known as the Tick-Tock Man--the boy Jake began to range farther and farther ahead of Roland, Eddie, and Susannah."

Nice opening line, right?  Now let's imagine for a second this is in draft form.  Maybe if this was your book, you'd have started like this:

Roland, Eddie, Susannah, and Jake left the Green Palace, and Jake began straying farther ahead of the rest of the group.

What the hell is that crap?

Self, meet draft.  Yes, it's crap, but it's okay.  You got your point across.  You know now that everyone left the spot where the Tick-Tock Man was finally killed.  You know they left together.  You know that Jake is starting to get a little more independent.  Maybe you attribute it to his growing up.  Straying away from the group would be typical, adolescent behavior.

King's final product is much more pleasant to read, but it didn't start out that way.

Let's see what the next paragraph says, in King's words.

      "Don't you worry about him?"  Susannah asked Roland.  "Out there on his own?"
      "He's got Oy with him," Eddie said, referring to the billy-bumbler who had adopted Jake as his special friend.  "Mr. Oy gets along with nice folks alright, but he's got a mouthful of sharp teeth for those who aren't so nice.  As that guy Gasher found out to his sorrow."

Okay.  Not too shabby, Mr. King.  But let's imagine how it started for a second.

Susannah is worried that Jake is straying farther ahead.  She asks Roland what he thinks.  Eddie throws in his two cents and reminds Susannah that Oy is with Jake.

Do you see now?  It's okay if you're writing like the above "draft" examples.  The important part is that you're writing.  When your draft is complete, you can go back and doctor it up as much as you'd like.  You can work on a scene at a time.  No one expects your first draft to be pretty.

Didn't include any dialogue?  Don't sweat it - it can be added in as you revise.  Too much backstory before any action?  That's fine - you can take all the time you need to revise the order of the story once it is complete.  Yes, you may find that parts of what began as a structured timeline from point A to point B may have to be rewritten into dialogue.  Chapters and pieces may be shuffled around.  It's okay - this is what is supposed to happen.

Sometimes I think we just need to compare what we're doing to what everyone else is doing, and I don't know a whole lot of writers that are willing to share their drafts.  I've never seen a published novel with its companion draft sitting on the shelf next to it.  As a writer, it can be incredibly humbling to want to do something (write) with all your heart and soul but feel like you stink at it.

Everyone stinks at it.

Language has limitations.  A view of a sunset is always going to be better than a picture of a sunset, which is going to be better than someone describing a sunset.  That's life.  But if, as a writer, you don't even take the time to describe the sunset, there is no sunset, and isn't a description better than nothing at all?

Keep banging out those crappy first drafts.  Promise yourself (and that nagging voice inside your head) that no one but you is ever going to read your drafts, so who cares.  If you think your draft sucks, think how much better it is going to be once you have completed your novel and can actually sit down and revise.

Comments?  Questions?  Breakfast?  Click on the comment box below and drop me a line.  Bonus points if you want to share one of your crappiest draft sentences.   :-O

Edit:  If you're a fan of the Dark Tower books and have not yet picked up The Wind Through the Keyhole, I highly recommend it.  You can purchase a copy via Amazon here.