In 2013, I wrote the first draft of my first novel. The story began as all of my stories do: a story with no clear idea of how long it would be. Between March and September it grew to a 95,000 word story, and so I had myself the first draft of a novel. I finished the draft on September 14, 2013 and then set it aside. I spent the rest of the year writing short stories, and gathering some distance from the long story I’d just finished. Between December 2013 and January 2014, I re-read the draft of the novel and took lots of notes, more than 13,000 words worth of them.
Beginning in April, I began work on the second draft of the novel. I’ve restarted the second draft 18 times, writing roughly 80,000 words. Ultimately these words didn’t really go anywhere. Recently, as part of the Clarion Write-a-Thon charity fundraiser, I’ve been hard at work trying to beat the novel draft into shape. But my approach has changed based on what I’ve learned over the last several months.
My usual process
I don’t have a usual process for writing a novel because until last summer, I’d never written one. What I have been doing is writing the novel using the same process I use for writing stories. That process looks something like this:
I write a first draft that is only intended for me. I don’t plot out the story. I think of an ending and then work toward it and see what happens. In this respect, the first draft is me telling myself the story. No one but me ever sees the first draft.
My first drafts have lots of placeholders. Sometimes they are placeholders for names that I haven’t thought of yet and look something like this:
I use these placeholders for research as well. I avoid research at all costs in the first draft because it becomes an excuse to avoid writing. So I’ll just make stuff up in the story and then add a note that I need to do some additional research later.
My second drafts are complete rewrites. Between the first and second draft, I read what I wrote, note the parts that don’t work in the story so that I can cut them or rework them, and also list out the placeholders that need to be filled in. I try to fill in all these placeholders, including the ones related to research before starting the second draft. This is so that I don’t have to pause in the middle of the story to do research.
For me, second drafts are where I tell the story to an audience. Having written the first draft, I know the story, and now I try to make it something that a reader would want to read.
Up until this point, no one but me has seen the story. For me it a waste of time to proofread something that only I am going to see. I don’t proofread first drafts. If I did, I’d have to do it all over again in the second draft, since that is a complete rewrite. But once the second draft is done, the story is ready for others to look at. This is where I do my proofreading. This also gives me a chance to read the story in its new form, and I often read it aloud at this point to get a feeling of the rhythm of the words. I might make some notes about rough places, but I don’t change anything yet.
I’ll find a few beta-readers, usually two, never more than three, willing to read the story and provide feedback. I’ve got a good batch of beta-readers, all of whom are professional writers in the genre, and they give me honest, helpful feedback on the story, what works, and what doesn’t.
With short stories, I work the beta-readers’ feedback into a final submission draft. I do this draft in Scrivener instead of Google Docs, where I do all my other drafts, because it makes it easy to compile the manuscript for submission.
Problems with the novel draft
Over the last few months, what I’ve realized is that this process doesn’t quite work for me for novels. While I’m not 100% certain I’ve isolated the reason, I think it is because a novel is so big, and that there are so many interrelated threads, that I have trouble keeping up with all of the moving parts in the second draft.
Many of the restarts have been to try to jumpstart things at the beginning of the draft. Many more have been to back away from putting too much out there too quickly. All of these are signs that I don’t have a good grip on the story that I am trying to tell, or that it is too big for me to handle in the way that I handle short stories.
But, I think I’ve finally hit on a solution.
My revised process for novels
I had no problems with the first draft of the novel because it was my telling myself the story. I believe there is a good story there, but no in the form that it appears in the first draft. It needs to be altered significantly, and that is what I have been trying to do in the second draft. However, instead of trying to follow a hard-to-read list of 13,000 words worth of notes taken from the first draft, I have altered my approach in the second draft. It now includes creating an outline.
I used to create outlines, long ago, and then found that they hindered my ability to tell a story. I still think that is true for short fiction, and for the first draft of novels. But in the second draft, I think I need them.
The story is not yet broken into chapters, just scenes. The first draft totaled something like 119 scenes, numbered incrementally from 1 to 119. What I have been doing over the last week or so, is to spend some time each day outlining a scene in the novel. I work off the notes for the first draft, as well as the first draft itself, knowing where I want things to go and how I should tell the story. Each scene in the outline is describes in roughly 500 words. Sometimes less, and occasionally, for scenes which have a lot going on, more. I estimate that the actual scenes will be 2,000 – 3,000 words each, so my 500 words is a true summary by comparison.
I had thought that when I had enough scenes outlined, I’d get started with the actual writing of the second draft, but my gut told me not to do that. One reason is continuity. The summaries include spoilers for things that will happen later, to make sure that I have those things in mind when I write the scenes. Another is plain efficiency. I want to have the whole thing outlined when I restart the second draft (for the 19th time). I tend to break my writing sessions into scenes, not matter how long or short they are, so long as I am working from an outline. With all of the scenes outlined, my output on the second draft should jump to two or three times what it has been. I get a boost from the continuity, not having to stop and rework things, or pause to research something, all of which is already done.
It is possible that the second draft will deviate from what I outline, but part of learning to be a professional is being able to control those deviations, and not get carried away. I’ve struggled enough, and I think that I have a solution that will finally work.
Clarion Write-A-Thon progress
I’ve still written every day. I consider my outlining writing, especially because in some instances, the outline of the scenes contain some important dialog or description that needs to be included in that scene. It is there so that I don’t have to recreate it from scratch and it helps to jump start the writing.
My goal for the Write-A-Thon was to have 60,000 words of the draft written by the time it was over. We are almost at the halfway mark. I suspect I have another week or so out outlining every night before I get started on the second draft again. If you count the outlining and what I get written for the second draft, I still think I’ll have at least 60,000 words written, they just won’t all be toward the second draft. Some of them will have gone to working out a strong outline from the first draft.
This is how I work
I know that there are books and techniques for structuring novels, and drafts, but I try to avoid them. I’ve found that I work better when I figure out how to do it myself. I learn more about the craft that way, and I learn more about myself. I don’t know if this new process for novels will ultimately be successful, but I’ll never know until I try it. I do feel like it is a step in the right direction. I don’t have these struggles with short stories and I have a feeling the problems I’ve been having have to do with all of the moving parts, as opposed to some more fundamental issue like writer’s block.
In any case, I feel good about the outline, and I’ll let you know when I restart the second draft working off the outline.