Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Method to the Madness

I don’t normally issue status reports on my work because I figure, being an unknown, who cares? And I don’t intend to beleaguer you much today either. At the point where I’m finishing up another round of revision and in the middle of holding threads, scene tatters, and parts needing surgery, I’ve had ample time to think about method.

There’s the initial birthing stage. Ah hah! I have a great idea! So I write it down in summary or in a quick first draft that hits all the points and scenes simmering in my brain. This stage is wild, uninhibited, and anything goes. No one else is going to ever see it.

Sometimes I’m a pantser, sometimes I’m an outliner. It really depends on the story and how it came to me. Either way, I usually know the beginning to the end before I write.

So then what?

The three manuscripts I’ve juggled for the past few years in the vortex of revision and development are making me wake up. I’ve dabbled in one suggested method or another, trying them out, seeing what works for me. It’s a necessary path to self-discovery for a writer. I think my path took a little longer. I haven’t been in a rush. I’m more concerned with doing it right than in getting it before an audience. And only now, when the end is in sight for one of those stories, I can reflect back on what I tried, what worked, what failed, and what made me get lost.

What does this mean? I can streamline the process now for the other two, and for future manuscripts. That equates to not only faster product output but higher quality output.

The first thing I’ve learned: the second draft should be the longest and slowest. It’s not the time to worry about voice, choice of words, or word count. The second draft is all about plot holes, characterization, back story, and major world-building development. If that isn’t the focus, it’s easy to become side-tracked and discouraged. The second draft is also not meant for other eyes.

While the rough draft/first draft was all about getting ideas down, it’s time to switch from hare to tortoise mode when facing the second draft. What I love about this draft is getting “in the zone” for each scene you work on, digging deep and discovering what makes the story tick, lots of research, finding out that the first draft isn’t carved in stone and is about to drastically change.

If you take the time to slow down and thoroughly develop the story in the second draft, there is less likelihood of being ten or more drafts to follow. Oh how I wish I’d know this before! Well, learning from the past, that’s what this blog is about anyway.

The third draft is where voice, syntax, and such come into play. Line edits. Also not a fast hare-sprint-to-the-finish-line type of draft. This is where you worry about word count.

So then we’re done, right? Um, no.

Now the manuscript is ready for other eyes to see. Beta readers/critique partners, line ‘em up. Give a few a go at the manuscript. Choose other writers over relatives and friends. If possible, get someone with expertise in your research fields to double check that you got your facts straight. Then take the feedback and learn from those fresh pairs of eyes. They will catch things you didn’t. Both in second draft material and third draft material.

The fourth draft is incorporating what they’ve helped you learn or consider. Sometimes this means large rewrites or several small tweaks. The point of the fourth draft is clarity and continuity.

Done now?

Nope. Another round of beta readers. Different ones from before. Bonus points if you can find writers who are also your target audience. Gather their feedback and tweak. You should be at tweaking rather than overhaul status at this point. One more round of line edits.

Now, it’s time to send the manuscript out into the world and see if the professionals want it.

Five drafts, approximately. A far cry better than the ten drafts I’ve put the current MS through. Developing a sensible method—I know better now. Prioritizing and having a set goal for each draft stage makes a huge difference, especially that second draft.

The journey of a writer is fraught with frustration and mistakes. I love it when I wise-up and then things fall into place.

Have you jumped the gun and sprinted when you should have strolled instead?


  1. I think I sprinted in that first draft phase. I didn't do an outline or even flesh out the story. I got characters, situation, stakes, and outcome, and then began to actually write, what you'd call the second draft, which was my first. I strolled through it at great leisure, letting it develop as I wrote, following ideas and characters as they came. It was fun, exciting, and took WAY too long. I hit a wall when I had a number of characters in trouble who had to come together for the climax. It took--I won't even go into how many seasons of gardening to let it cook and coalesce. And then I had a MS of 177K. Yikes! So my third draft was to get out the scalpel and carve away what wasn't essential to serving the story. Oh, did I lose some favorite parts! But I got it down to 134K. Then another carving with a beta, determined to get it down below 100K. Amazing how, when you think you're down to the bones, you find so much flab left behind. Then a couple more beta-aided runs through, now for voice, the every-sentence look, etc. All-in-all, it took 7 revisions, maybe 8. Now I know, had I spent more time on that first draft instead of thinking that the ghost in my head was enough, that second draft might have taken much less time, involved less meandering, and avoided that wall and months of frustration.
    I hope I've wised up to that. Thanks for the focus.

    1. Rick, I'm in awe! To cut so many words from a manuscript - wow. And isn't it funny how in hindsight we can see where we strayed. Always good to know before making the climb up the mountain again with a new story.

  2. I certainly rushed my first ms due to lack of expertise. Now I know it lacked conflict, pacing, and adherence to plot. It could have used some of those steps you outlined above.

    Like you said, everyone has a different method of attack. I still don't use near as many redrafts as you mention. I tend to take a really long time on the first draft which eliminates a lot of the plot holes. I also like to use one or two beta readers as I write because it keeps me motivated, though reserving more beta readers for the finished product. I don't wait for a finished first draft, but go back and edit while I'm still writing.

    1. I know a couple of people who meld the 1st and 2nd draft stages together. Now I know three. =)

      I've done the use beta readers as I've written or re-drafted before and found they tend to feel gyped because I end up making so many changes. I think beta reader weariness comes into play too. Unless its a devoted critique partner who is inclined to work every step of the way with the writer (which I've yet to find), I try to avoid letting people read unfinished drafts now.

      I think it's great if you can have one or two crit partners. People like that are very generous with their time, unselfish by not constantly steering things back to "their" novel, and who actually love your story enough to read it again and again.

  3. One technique I've found unbelievably helpful is to reserve a complete read-through dedicated to my non-pov characters. For every scene, I'll read-through multiple times, while immersing myself one-by-one in each participating character's personality. It's a great way to find plot holes and forced reactions, and often results in revisions that create new layers of conflict and meaning that I missed while 'Mary-Sue'ing with my MC to the finish.