Posts Tagged ‘writing rough draft’

Starting Over

Monday, January 18th, 2010

Writing can be burdensome, especially when you find yourself halfway through penning a novel with meandering subplots and indistinguishable secondary characters or a piece of non-fiction that has lost all direction. The text seems to have gotten away from you, and you suspect that your work might be deeply and irremediably flawed. Working day after day on a writing project whose very essence feels unstable can be both unproductive and disheartening.

Writers whose work has become oppressive and unmanageable have two options. As I discussed in an earlier post, the first option is to plow ahead valiantly, writing what I call the “terrible rough draft–a manuscript notable mostly for its completeness but, perhaps, harboring several kernels of pure genius. The second option is almost exactly the opposite–to set the partial first draft aside and to start over. The second option, drastic though it may seem, can be remarkably liberating an can often prompt a burst of productivity.

Starting over doesn’t necessarily mean taking a match to an unwieldy first draft. Instead, it means slowly following the trajectory of that partial draft to find the moments when it goes astray–and the moments that actually work. The beauty of this starting-over process is that it allows you to begin with a somewhat clean slate but gives you the reassurance of a “safety net”–your partial first draft.

Most people now write their novels on computers, but a hard copy of your imperfect first draft is very useful in the starting-over process. Not only does a hard copy allow for efficient side-by-side comparisons of your first and subsequent drafts, but it can also give you great psychological comfort. Thumbing through the pages of an imperfect first draft and crossing out mediocre passages can feel very productive and satisfying. Working from a hard copy also reminds you that your original first draft still exists. Knowing that you could always return to the original draft might make you feel more uninhibited about making drastic changes to it. (Of course, you can always refer to the electronic version of your first draft when starting over on it. Flipping back and forth between electronic versions of a manuscript can have its own emotional rewards.)

The starting-over process is straightforward. The opening of the manuscript is often fairly adequate and can usually remain unchanged. (The perceived problems usually start later in the piece.) You can feel fairly confident of the first sentence. Leave it in place, and continue through the opening paragraphs. Because you have written part of the manuscript already, you will have a good idea of the overall trajectory. In the starting-over phase, you can make sure that the opening paragraph truly moves the piece in the direction you want it to go. You can often head off many of the problems that manifest themselves in the first draft by reconsidering the opening of the piece.

As you proceed through the early parts of the manuscript, take none of your writing for granted. Just because a character or subplot exists in the first draft, it need not remain in any subsequent versions. Similarly, internal divisions and sub-arguments in a non-fiction piece need not remain in a new draft. Consider all aspects of your manuscript expendable, and honestly determine whether they contribute to the overall effect you hope to achieve.

You will often find a clear moment when your piece diverges from the ideal and begins to lose momentum or direction. At that point, you might very clearly see the “fork in the road” that pulls your work away from its true trajectory. Feel free to excise those directional missteps.

You will sometimes encounter first-draft passages that you like but that you suspect might create problems later in the manuscript. Bracket those portions of the manuscript (either electronically or in hard copy), and leave them out of your starting-over draft. You might later find that they fit perfectly into another part of the piece or that they lead in a profitable new direction that the original first draft might not have elucidated. The starting-over process provides your first draft with the “breathing room” that allows for these kinds of textual reconfigurations.

Starting over on a manuscript will often give you the satisfying feeling of cobbling together only the best parts of your first draft while simultaneously allowing you to clarify and rethink your original ideas. The process is the complete opposite of forging ahead until you write a terrible first draft, but it’s a refreshing option if you feel that your writing has begun to stagnate. Starting over can reinvigorate your writing and help you rediscover your authorly purpose.

At Beaumont Hardy, I’m happy to help any author with a terrible rough draft, a starting-over draft or any other piece of writing.

Learning from the Rough Draft, Part 2

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

My last two postings have focused on the value of a complete first draft—one that records the writer’s every fleeting thought during the writing process. The first-draft-writing period is not the time for whittling away text and paring down ideas. That winnowing process will happen later, during an edit. The first draft should be filled with glorious excess—all possible characters, descriptions and ideas—because some of these will be good enough to survive until the final draft.

The following is an unedited description from a rough draft. Its author wrote a longer Regency romance, from which I extracted this paragraph. Below the description is the same passage with bracketed, italicized and underlined editorial comments to indicate the author’s thought process in a later edit of the rough draft.

Something about the room—maybe its scent—made Drusilla think of wealth. She had known wealth like that before, back when she was secretary to the Viscount. At that time/in those days she had perched on a velvet chair in front of a carved, inlaid walnut desk, her plume poised over the thick parchment as she waited for the words to flow from the Viscount’s honeyed lips. She would smell the thick, perfumed air exhaled by the hothouse peonies on the exquisite Turkish side tables. The Viscount’s footsteps thudded dully/sounded thick and soft on the hand-tied/hand-knotted wool rugs that ran the full length of the room. His letter opener gleamed in the sunlight that spilled creamily over his wooden desk. The Viscount paced like a sleek panther among his solid objects/in his expensive jungle/in his wood-paneled jungle.

Drusilla Now, Drusilla looked around the chamber in which she found herself./Now, Drusilla found herself in the chamber of the Duke of Ashton. Filled with French furniture and marble appointments, it exuded the air of wealth she had first noticed. However, the chamber lacked the sense of danger—albeit, mother-of-pearl-inlaid danger—she had known in the Viscount’s quarters.

The following is the same passage with the author’s bracketed thoughts.

Something about the room—maybe its scent—made Drusilla think of wealth. [Change this sentence to “The fragrant room made Drusilla think of wealth.”] She had known wealth like that before, [Change to “She had known that kind of wealth.”] back when she was secretary to the Viscount. [Cut the word “back” before “when she was secretary.”] At that time/in those days [Keep “In those days.”] she had perched on a velvet chair [Change “chair” to “stool.”] in front of a carved, inlaid [Cut “inlaid.”] walnut desk, her plume poised over the thick parchment as she waited for the words to flow from the Viscount’s honeyed lips [Change “words to flow from the Viscount’s honeyed lips” to “the Viscount’s dictation”]. She would smell the thick, perfumed air exhaled by the hothouse peonies on the exquisite Turkish side tables. [Change this sentence from passive to active: “As the Viscount spoke, the peonies on the Turkish side tables exhaled their hothouse perfume.” ] The Viscount’s footsteps thudded dully/sounded thick and soft [Would the adjectives “thick” and “soft” ever apply to the dashing Viscount? Change this description to “footsteps thudded heavily.”]on the hand-tied/hand-knotted [“hand knotted”] wool rugs [“carpets,” not “rugs”] that ran the full length of the room. His letter opener gleamed in [What about “seemed to slice through?”] the sunlight that spilled creamily over his wooden desk. The Viscount paced like a sleek panther among his solid objects/in his expensive jungle/in his wood-paneled jungle [“in his wood-paneled jungle”].

Drusilla Now, Drusilla looked around the chamber in which she found herself./ Now, Drusilla found herself in the chamber of the Duke of Ashton. [Change to “Now, Drusilla found herself in the Baron’s private office.” The Viscount should have the higher peerage rank.] Filled with French furniture and marble appointments, it exuded the air of wealth she had first noticed [Change to “an air of wealth that had, at first, reminded her of the Viscount”]. However, [Change “However” to “She realized now that.”] the chamber lacked the sense of danger—albeit, [Cut the comma.]mother-of-pearl-inlaid danger—she had known in the Viscount’s quarters.

After this first edit, the draft reads something like the following. (The story will go through more edits before its final draft.)

The fragrant room made Drusilla think of wealth. She had known that kind of wealth when she was secretary to the Viscount. In those days, she had perched on a velvet stool in front of a carved walnut desk, her plume poised over the thick parchment as she waited for the Viscount’s dictation. As the Viscount spoke, the peonies on the Turkish side tables exhaled their hothouse perfume. The Viscount’s footsteps thudded heavily on the hand-knotted wool carpets that ran the full length of the room. His letter opener seemed to slice through the sunlight that spilled creamily over his wooden desk. The Viscount paced like a sleek panther in his wood-paneled jungle.

Now, Drusilla found herself in the Baron’s private study. Filled with French furniture and marble appointments, it exuded an air of wealth that had, at first, reminded her of the Viscount. She realized now that the room lacked the sense of danger—albeit mother-of-pearl-inlaid danger—she had known in the Viscount’s quarters.

Please send me your thoughts and comments about this rough draft. I would love to hear from you.

The Beauty of a Terrible Rough Draft

Monday, August 31st, 2009

Many aspiring writers know that they have something meaningful to say and an original way to say it. Their problem isn’t ability or talent or interest. Their problem is getting started—putting something on the blank paper in front of them. What keeps the paper blank is often the daunting prospect of a poor first draft. Writers worry that a terrible draft will set them off in the wrong direction, or, conversely, they believe that only a perfect rough draft will ensure writing success. I argue that writers shouldn’t fear creating a terrible rough draft. In fact, a terrible rough draft can be a source of many interesting ideas.

Paradoxically, the most helpful part of the writing process isn’t writing at all; it’s editing a rough draft. During this early edit, a story begins to take shape and the argument to fully manifest itself. Characters reveal their three dimensions, and their true motivations become clear. A writer can sense the full sweep of a piece and analyze its details.

A rough draft, then, contains within it many of the good ideas that a writer will develop into a final piece. It also contains the bad ideas that a writer will remove. A sprawling, meandering rough draft—one in which the plot abruptly changes halfway through or characters appear and disappear inexplicably—can provide a writer with the most ideas to develop and with the best sense of what works and what doesn’t. A rough draft that goes in several directions at once and seems to have no overarching trajectory can often contain more hidden literary gems that a pristine, tightly controlled first draft. Thus, the goal of the aspiring writer should be to create a rough draft—any rough draft, terrible though it may be.

Of course, the frustrated writer who has yet to scribble down a single sentence might find infuriating the suggestion that he or she somehow leap from a blank page to a complete manuscript. Asking a writer to fill not just one blank page, but many, can seem ridiculous. However, I argue that a rough draft is about sheer page number, and not about quality. The rough-draft writer should set a goal length and start writing.

Writing for length only forces the writer to include every idea that comes to mind—even the most seemingly ridiculous. Ideas that seem foolish during the rough-draft stage often prove to be brilliant. In the best case, a writer might have a general idea of plot or topic—the story of a girl who learns to sail, a tale of sibling rivalry or an article about mushrooms. However, a writer with no topic or no idea will usually find that a topic or idea emerges in the writing. The main idea is just to keep writing until reaching the desired length.

A few guidelines can help the rough-draft writer.

  1. Writing about the writing process can sometimes generate good ideas. For example, a sentence like, “I want to write about a boy who invents a machine that allows him to experience life as a strawberry.” might lead to a real storyline and plot. Or “I’m trying to explain how I felt when I won the marathon but lost my job.” might help a theme coalesce.
  2. However, writers should refrain from writing too much about how badly the writing process is going. Limit the number of sentences that read something like, “I can’t write. This is awful. Nobody will ever read this.” Write more about the writing than the writer.
  3. Try not to fall into the trap of The Shining, where the novel Jack Nicholson’s character has written turns out to be one endlessly repeated sentence with varying margins and line spacing. Repeating, “This is a rough draft.” will not lead to a productive rough draft, terrible or otherwise.
  4. Do not edit before the first draft is complete. No matter how badly the writing is going, refrain from going back to rework the text. Editing a partial draft is a pitfall for many writers who refine the partial so much that they never finish the draft. If you become aware of some problem before you have finished the rough draft, make a note to yourself. This note will be valuable during the revision. (Write something like, “Brenda should actually learn about the accident after she meets Noah, not before.” or “Should this story take place in the Bahamas, not in New York City?”) Remember that the unlikeliest of ideas might later be the most fruitful. Keep them all in the rough draft, because you never know what might prove to be good, upon the first edit.
  5. Try to write without rereading what you have written until you finish the rough draft. Although you might feel as though you’re writing in the dark and you might forget some of what you wrote earlier, you will be unencumbered by earlier infelicities and missteps. On your most creative days, you can write freely, without brooding about problems at the beginning of your manuscript. Every writing session will feel like a new day.
  6. Praise yourself for each addition you make to the length of your manuscript. The longer it gets, the closer you are to having a first draft to edit.
  7. Try to write your first draft in the most bare-bones way possible. Forget about outlines, writing courses, colored pens, lucky writing charms, prompts and all other writing aids. Just write.
  8. Do not give up, even if the plot stops making sense or the argument begins to drag. The point is to reach a specific word or page limit. As you write, think about patching up problems “on the fly,” without going back to edit. Make notes to yourself if you think of something you will want to rework during the edit. (See #3.) Don’t worry if the story changes significantly as you write (the nurse main character suddenly works better as a wrestler, the unmarried main character has actually been married all along). Make the change—however dramatic—and reconcile the differences in the editing process, after you finish the first draft.

Once you have a rough draft to consider, you have something to do—a piece of writing to shape and rework and perfect. The missteps that make a first draft terrible are actually paths to its potential greatness.

[Check out my next three blog postings for examples of terrible rough drafts with great potential.]