“As many as you need,” the wise published author says.
Very true. Nooooot very helpful though. Let me break it down ScribbleNinja style.
First, is what you have worthy of a novel? What do you have now? A scene? A premise? A world waiting for a story? A protagonist waiting for a push? A need to seem witty or important (or drunk in a café talking about your theme)? Let’s just assume you have a worthy idea, but you haven’t yet committed. After all, we’re talking about 9-12 months of your precious waking mind.
This is what you do: Draft Zero.
I call it an Outline, but if that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, then call it Draft Zero. The Outline will quickly tell you what you have, and save you scads of time and frustration. You got half a page of outline? That means Short Story. Couple ‘o pages? Novella. More than ten pages? Novel. Twenty pages. Epic Fantasy. More than twenty? Stop masturbating on the page, and write the damn story already.
By the way, you can absolutely drink during Draft Zero (or smoke wacky tobaccy in rolled up 1862 Confederate scrip, if that’s your thing). Murdering your darlings in Draft Zero can wipe out whole characters, entire plot arcs, or even transform the snarky minor character into the Great Anti-Hero Champion of the Metaverse Guy (or Girl). You get the picture.
See my other essays for more outline-a-palooza.
Draft One has only one ironclad rule: don’t get it right, get it written.
Can you write shitty? Show us. Use caricatures, clichés, poor grammar; anything to put ink on the page. The next day, read what came before to pick up the thread, edit if you must, but don’t “polish.” Have fun with your strengths and ignore your weaknesses. Don’t agonize. Progress now, perfection later. “But, but,” you stammer. “I’m writing literary dingleberries and all my writer buds are dripping sonatas out of their butts without trying.” Hush there, suffering scribe. You are learning about your characters, and fleshing out your world, and discovering new plot wrinkles—so how dare you polish an unfinished thing. Michelangelo did not start by polishing his block of stone. He carved first. And crudely. That’s Draft One.
[One of my own weaknesses is grammar, particularly commas and the devil’s mark, the semi-colon. If in any post, you notice grammar errors, please comment immediately, which will make my penis shrink. I will notice this and correct said offending post.]
Where were we? Ahh, yes; poor besotted Draft One. Listen close. Some people fizzle out at about 50 pages. At page one, you can only go forward, but at page 50, you have enough in place that you could go sideways, flashback, skip forward, and basically get lost. Is this you? No? I bet you used an outline.
At the 50 page mark, give or take a chapter, and only if you feel comfortable, analyze what’s before you. If the thought makes you woozy, then read these next few items, but wait until you’re done with Draft One to implement them.
You, my lovely writer, want to achieve Balance of seemingly opposing things.
- You want characters that are larger than life, but flawed.
- Their goals must be clear and their progress to climax (!) must drive the story.
- The villain’s goals should also be clear, and their progress to anti-climax, drives the hero nuts.
- The stakes must also be larger than life, but still relatable. If the stakes are beyond normal ken, then the character themselves better be relatable (i.e. she’s trying to save the world from utter zombie annihilation, but she’s also trying to impress a boy she likes).
- Finally, are the characters innovative and two twists from normal, or simply paint-by-number heroes?
Some other items that need attention in either Draft One or Draft Two are the following. I list them separately because if you can manage them in Draft One without slowing your momentum, then do it. Otherwise, they’ll wait until Draft Two.
- The tempo of the story must Balance delivering information about the characters, their goals, and the world without stopping the action. I love 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but Verne wrote that 140 years ago when it was fine to describe fish for five whole pages. I don’t want to read a buffet of maritime wonders, I want Nemo to disembowel authority figures. Do not infodump on your reader unless you can make words slide down like caramel butter. Sadly, I have not achieved that beyond a few lines.
- Even in the most ape-shit, everyone’s-a-flying-alien-wizard story, there are rules. Superman has Kryptonite and a code of honor (otherwise we would all be his bitches). Your plot must flow organically based on the character’s bobbing and weaving around the obstacles that the villain/unholy fate places in front of her. The best obstacles are surprising and obvious, and reveal the character’s best and worst features.
- So, Balance the fresh take with the known archetypes. Balance the larger-than-life setting, hero, and problem with small, gristly bits that make them human. Superman also gets coffee spilled on his shirt and has people take the last pumpkin donut after he stood in line for ten minutes.
So, you’re done with Draft One. Yea! Drinks all ‘round! Did rereading Draft One put a smile on your face a few times? A moist eye? A tingling in your nethers? Good. Tighten your helmet cords, punchy, ’cause you’re going back into battle. Time to move on to bulldozing your lovelies. (If you didn’t finish the items above then your Draft Two list just got bigger. Suck it up, java-monkey!)
Draft Two: separating the professionals from the palookas.
You thought writing “The End” in Draft One was satisfying, didn’t you? Liar, liar,
pantaloons on fire. You should have wrote “The Beginning.” Of Pain. Oh, did you
place two chapters from the villain’s point of view back to back? (Thanx, Brenda). Space them out. Did your minor characters take over? Did you skip Draft Zero? Do you want to start over? No? Perhaps, you can move some dialogue to the protag’s mouth. Nothing is unfixable. Find the inconsistencies, plug the plot holes.
Identify the characters who only seem to exist to be a foil to your protag. Give those minor characters their own goals, make them real. Better yet, make their goals contrast with the protag’s. Force multipliers, baby! You can move chapters, and add or delete sections. You are the beautiful, cruel god. Get to work.
On one page (8 pt font, if you must), I like to write a one sentence synopsis of each chapter and designate the point-of-view character. Now you can see a flow, a tempo, and adjust whole chapters as necessary. If your sentence reads like this: “stuff happens,” then you need to sling some outrageous arrows at that sumbitch.
Let me mention a pet peeve: after a hundred pages, if your protag is still at home, YOU HAVE FAILED!
Sorry. Let’s continue. All those times you wrote: add scene here (who would do that?!) – now you have to scribe that scene. Maybe there was a reason you skipped it. Was it relevant? It better be. Are your existing subplots still relevant? How’s the pacing? Are you getting bored by your own writing? My god, throw some giant fighting robots in there or something (Thanx, Liz). Is it epic fantasy? Draw a map. Every scene should be a step forward for your hero, or your villain, or should be revealing character. Mix the high drama and the fights with the lighter moments. Mix the stirring emotional inner monologue with—crap, I hate inner monologues. I also hate protagonists who whine. If your character has a beef, do it in dialogue. Be funny if at all possible.
Now that you have the ending and the beginning in front of you, you can line them up like the snake eating its tail. Do they feel simpatico? If you paid for them, show us those MFA skills. Have you read your scenes aloud? It’ll help you find the rhythm. At this point, your tale should have shape. Hey, Mike, your marble masterwork looks like a big naked dude holding a beach towel.
Do you need specifics? Hearken:
- Can you tell who’s talking? Ignore your high school English teacher, and use “said” 97% of the time for your dialogue tags.
- Make the slow parts faster, or funnier.
- Fix all the weasely word choices you allowed the first time. Find the right word, but don’t agonize. Not yet. All the bones and muscles must work before we focus on the skin.
- No passive voice. It is better “to kiss” then “to have been kissed.” (Thanx, Gemma)
- No pointless scenes. Really. Don’t spend time on something your reader is going to skim.
Draft Three: Flavor … and Agony.
All the big holes are filled. Now we must smooth over the rough spots, no matter how small. Do it now, or there will be a Draft Four. Do you want that?! So, agonize. Sweat the small stuff. Punch up the word choice and description. And I don’t mean describing your villain’s eye color, unless they are Cockroach Brown because that hits me sweetly.
Each character should have a different voice, a different way to say “damn the man,” or “come in for a drink?” Each scene must have someone not getting what they want, or getting it after all, but it was not what they thought. Each transition must flow, and make your dear reader avoid sleep and laundry. You must be the merciless killer of clichés. Slap putty on your weaknesses. Find your poet. What would Bill Shakespeare do? Billy it up!
The first sentence, paragraph, and scene should be pristine and jaw-dropping in some way. If you describe the weather, I will slap you with a rainbow trout.
Yes, you’re completing Draft Three but the-book-which-eats-your-life is hateful now. It is the barrier to the next cool project, and perhaps seeing your loved ones, or bathing. The only thing that keeps the ScribbleNinja on task is the future dream that one day – One Day! – I will only have to write three drafts. If I keep practicing that word-after-a-word-after-a-word-thing, and use my outline.
You’re breathing hard now, I know. You enjoyed using the big brush of the outline in Draft Zero, but it still did not save you from getting bogged down in the Swamp on page 150 of Draft One. Still, you persevered, gave your romantic interest a goal of her own, and you were back in business. This is a marathon and you lost your big toenail when you cut out the slow scene with the best sentence you ever wrote in Draft Two. You threw some Gatorade on your head and kept stumbling forward. Finding another way to say world-ending, ab-rippling, soul-kiss almost severed your will to live, but you did it.
You did it! Draft Three is in the tank. Are you done? Welllll, it depends. Anything after Draft Three enters the …
Valley of Diminishing Returns
One can only polish so much. Draft One put the thing that was in your head on the page, but unless you’re the neurotic type, only about 50% of it was worthy. Draft Two got you to 75%, but that’s for pikers and Vice-Presidents. You want the brass ring, dammit. Draft Three got you to 87%. That’s good enough for most. Anything else depends on your life situation and your inner judge. Draft Four will get you to 93%. That’s stellar. That’s award-winning. Stop. Do not do a Draft Five. At best, you’ll get the manuscript to 97%. Not worth it. Submit that eager puppy. Let someone else pencil-whip it.
There you have it. Use an Outline, and you’re in and out with 3 drafts. Spare the Outline, and you’re looking at 4+ drafts in my humble opinion.
Sincerely, the ScribbleNinja.