A Truant Disposition

"I must be idle."

On the Process of Draft and Revision

Written By: Ainy Rainwater - Jun• 28•17

My process changed when I started using NaNoWriMo to do first drafts. There are very good things about this, but it did create problems with the process of rewriting that I’ve become aware of recently. Perhaps it’s just a problem with this draft, but it’s potentially a problem with any “fast draft”. Let me start with how I used to write, the old slow method, then I’ll show you the “good news/bad news” about fast drafting.

Prior to doing NaNo my books took years to be completed and I can’t tell you how many drafts I did because rewriting was part of the original writing process. I’d start writing a book, and as I inched my way forward, scene by scene, I’d continually (often daily) rewrite material that had come before. This made forward progress slow and it took years to finish a book from beginning to end — and I still had to do rewrites on the whole thing after that. As cumbersome as this method was, it worked for me because I’m basically a discovery writer. I know a number of things about the story and the characters (especially the characters!) before I begin, but I discover a lot of things along the way that connect up aspects of the book and build theme. I enjoy the little ah-ha moments when I realize how what I’m writing fits in with other things. The story is built up gradually and, as I figure things out, I rewrite even as I’m moving the story forward, so continuity is managed easily. I do brainstorm story ideas extensively prior to sitting down to write a book and a lot of the “discovery” process takes place before I write the first sentence. I need a certain basic understanding of characters and the situation before I can explore it. This is still true. If anything, my discovery brainstorming sessions take place over a longer period of time and are more and more extensive with each book. But they sort of have to be because of the way I’m starting books now.

Which brings me to NaNoWriMo. I’ve completed it successfully every year I’ve done it (so far). There are some very good things about NaNo if you can make it work for you. One is that it affords you the opportunity to play with a story idea, thoroughly explore it, and decide whether or not it’s going to work out well. I’ve had some “good” ideas that I’ve discovered just don’t work very well and I’ve wasted years struggling to write a book that had such fundamental problems there was no way I could turn that mess into a good book. With NaNoWriMo I’ve only invested a month in the project. If, at the end of it, nothing hangs together and there are horrible problems with the draft I can set it aside and do something else, maybe come back to it with fresh eyes some time much later and see if it can be reworked to make a good book, or bury it in my files never to be seen again. At the end of the month I have a very good idea of what I’m dealing with, so I’ve developed a story with very little investment of time if it doesn’t work out. All first drafts need rewrites anyway; the difference with NaNo is that I don’t do much in the way of rewrites as I go. I may go back and mark stuff and add notes as the story develops so that I know specific things early in the draft that will need to be changed for continuity, but no extensive rewriting because, afterall, I only have a month to finish it.

And I do try to finish the book. The first couple of times I did NaNo I was working on stories that I didn’t finish. I knew the ending, but I just didn’t get there during that month. I wrote over 50K words, but the drafts weren’t complete. I’m still working on those books off and on, inching my way toward the ending and rewriting as I go just like I had before. The last two times I did NaNo I not only did the 50K, but I had another goal which was to finish the draft. So my drafts for the books were very thin. Instead of writing expansively and then cutting and rewriting, I wrote some scenes fully, but other scenes very lightly. I hit all the plot points and completed the story from beginning to end. Sometimes I was very much aware of material that was being left out because my goal was not just to hit my personal word count goal, but to get to the end of the story before the end of the month. I would drop in a note or a placeholder scene which described a scene I was passing over in general terms.

Unfortunately, the draft I’m working on now has a number of scenes that suffered from the “fast draft” method. For the second draft I went through and plugged the plot holes and continuity issues, filled in the missing scenes. So far, so good; I’d done that with the previous book and the method seemed to work well, but this book is more complicated and I’m plagued with “data dump” scenes in which nothing happens but I spewed (or had my characters spew) all the plot points that needed to be hit, and though I had filled in the placeholder scenes in the previous draft, now in the third draft I’m realizing that I have a number of scenes in which I just lightly skated over things that should have been developed more and better…they were essentially placeholder scenes, but not marked as such…and I didn’t realize that these scenes were a problem because everything is there. The book is complete, all the scenes are there. Everything that’s supposed to happen happens. But I’ve had to cut big scenes because they are dead weight and I’m still discovering small scenes that should be expanded because important things happen. Weight is really a good way of looking at the problem. Not every scene has the same weight in the book. Some scenes are necessarily small because they are transitional scenes, they bridge some pieces of the narrative, or they are useful for pacing and time passage. They are not substantial; they’re more like a prelude to something substantial, because the book can’t have nothing but intense exploding revelatory scenes. It’s a matter of pacing. If every single scene is cataclysmic the book is going to read like it was written by a highly caffeinated five-year-old. So there are big scenes and little scenes that lead to big scenes. But when I’m drafting during NaNoWriMo I don’t always weight scenes correctly; some days I just don’t feel like working out a very long difficult scene, so I hit the high points and move on the the next scene. I may not know yet quite how I want to handle certain things, so basically I write what I can day to day and I suppose that’s what I always do, but the pace of NaNoWriMo doesn’t allow me the luxury to step back, take time off, and just think about things. I have to move forward at a certain pace both to make the word count goal for the month and to reach the end of the story by the end of the month. So some scenes which aren’t very important are very fully written and some scenes which should be fully written aren’t.

Naturally, I felt like there was something wrong with the book, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it after I’d finished the second draft. I’d fixed continuity issues, back-filled all the missing scenes, and sent it out to beta-readers who found nothing major wrong with it. But it didn’t feel like the book I’d set out to write. It was all there. Everything was covered, scene by scene. It all made sense. I couldn’t find anything wrong in what I’d written (aside from the continual hunt for typos and an odd sentence here or there). I’ve only just now realized that I’d thinly written some scenes which, if properly written and given the proper weight in the overall book, would give the book that feel and balance that are missing.

NaNoWriMo sometimes can be good to get a manuscript off to a fast start, or to do a fast first draft to see if any idea will fly, but in terms of getting a book finished, rewritten, and polished, it seems like it isn’t saving any time for me from idea to book completion, at least not most of the time. I’ve got three books which started as NaNo projects that I’m still working on, including the book I started the first time I did NaNo. So far I’ve only gotten one draft that started as a NaNo project finished and published. All the others are taking a long time to finish and requiring extensive rewriting. I actually kind of enjoy doing NaNoWriMo —- I like the intensity and immersion in story — but rewriting takes way too much time, because the first draft is so very rough and uneven. I’m not saying I won’t do NaNo again — I probably will — but I need to do a better job of picking my projects for NaNo. Discovery writing a complex idea (even having brainstormed it beforehand) is not a good fit for the “fast draft” method. Of course complexity is in the eye of the beholder…I thought the book I’m rewriting now would be “easy”. [insert rueful laughter] I’m my own worst enemy; how much I love an idea has no bearing on how easy it will be to write. I tell myself all my books will be easy because I want to write them!

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