Under Siege #14: Getting Drafty

Last week, I finished draft 3 of my next novel, Eagle (pats self on back).  The third draft is my favorite one to write.  Why?  Well, in my second blog entry (Finishing the Novel), I wrote about how producing multiple drafts makes writing easier.  Instead of worrying about plot, characters, and my prose all at once, I can focus on one thing at time.  It’s easier, faster, and in the end, produces a better product.

So on draft 1, I just work on getting the bones of the story down and finding each character’s voice.  This is a lot to do: the first draft of Siege took about a year; that of Eagle took five months.  The plot will still have some holes.  The characters will not be perfectly consistent or fully developed.  And while I try to write as well as possible, I don’t fret over every line.  The results are far from perfect.  In fact, they are often comical.  I have a tendency to subconsciously insert malapropisms into my writing, which always bring a smile to my face when I catch them later.  Two good ones from Eagle: “he knelt before the author” instead of “before the altar”; and “two-dozen writers in silver chainmail, broke from the hills” instead of “two-dozen riders.”  While the mental image provided by the second malapropism is wonderful, I like the first even better.  Obviously, I think very highly of my craft.

The first draft is a work that is still in progress.  As I write it, I make a list of all the things that I know will need to be fixed in the next draft.  These range from plot details to insert, to scenes to add, to information that I need to research, to chapters that I know will need to be deleted or condensed.  After draft 1 of Eagle, I had about fifty points in my list, ranging from “more on the Bedouin — have them save Yusuf in chapter 10” to “look up the dates of Ramadan for each year and make sure the Muslim characters don’t eat during the day.”

In draft 2, I incorporate all of these changes, and I focus on perfecting the plot and pacing.  I start by doing a reverse outline, which includes four to six word description of every chapter and scene in draft 1.  This outline is much easier to work with than the full text when it comes to making sure that scenes are in the right order or finding scenes that need to be cut.  Once I have the reverse outline down, I go through the text, cutting slow or unnecessary scenes and writing new ones where needed.  The goal is a fast moving story wherein every scene contributes to the plot, and where the details of the plot all make sense.  In a lot of ways, this draft is the most intellectually challenging and the most important.  It ensures that I avoid plot holes or dead spots in the book.  The second draft of Eagle took me three months.  It was time well spent.

As I said above, draft 3 is my favorite.  Here, the focus is on characters and themes.  I want to make sure that my characters are properly motivated, and that they behave consistently from scene to scene.  They shouldn’t be fine with their lot as a slave in one scene, only to have them plotting to escape five pages later.  (This happened in one of the early drafts of Eagle.  Oops.)  They shouldn’t make advances on the king’s wife, only to then to react with horrified indignation when she suggests they sleep together.  And, if they are shy, brave, or witty, then they should be consistently shy, brave, or witty.  Otherwise, the reasons for their personality shift need to be clearly laid out.  Each character also needs to have a clear voice, so that the reader can identify who is speaking, even when I don’t tell them.  Draft 3 is my favorite because for me, developing characters is the most satisfying part of writing.  Plot is fun, but characters are what will make your work come alive.

The fourth draft—the one I’m working on now—is where I finally start to focus on the actual writing.  I make sure that my descriptions are vibrant (i.e. “she had emerald eyes and smooth, golden skin the color of the desert sands,” not “she was beautiful”).  I make sure to show, not tell (“his jaw clinched,” not “he was angry).  I declare war on adverbs.  I avoid clichés like the plague.  And I try to delete every instance of “he said” or “she said” in dialogue.  “He said” / “she said” is a space-filler that adds no information.  The quotes already tell us that someone is speaking.  If you want to tell us more, then tell us more: “he groaned”; “she spat”; “he roared”; etc.  There is no sense doing all of this in the early drafts, because I know I will end up cutting a lot of what I write.  So I save the polishing for when I am completely satisfied with my plot and characters.

After draft 4 is done (next week!), I send the manuscript to my editor.  And then, someone else gets to tell me what parts of the book I need to fix!

Next time: Ye Olde Book Faire (in honor of the impending London Book fair, I will discuss what it’s like to attend a book fair, and whether or not young writers should)



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