Writer’s Craft #8: How Much to Craft the Draft?

Writer Kristin Janz (http://www.kristinjanz.com/) wonders whether it’s better to write a first draft as quickly as possible, without thinking about revision until you’ve reached an ending point, or whether it’s better to painstakingly get each paragraph and scene as right as possible the first time.

“I’ve experimented with extreme examples of each style, and I’m not sure I can say which method produced better results for me,” says Janz. “I think the more careful, slow initial draft method may have actually been less work in the long run.” With the quick draft method, she wrote a lot fast but it took more time cutting it down. For instance, the first draft of Janz’s story “The Year of the Bear” was going to contain a section that began as follows.

“The door to Brownie’s stall still needs fixing.”

Brennan took another pull from his mug of warm milk before answering. He liked his milk best this way, fresh from the cow, the rich cream only beginning to separate, but Tira complained that warm milk made her gag. She complained an awful lot, these days.

Janz says, “There are many problems with this (‘Another pull from his mug’? What was I thinking?). But the most serious problem is that, in a 7500-word story, there isn’t space to ramble on about how Brennan prefers his milk. We probably don’t need to know their cow’s name, either.”

Fortunately, Janz recognized after about 300 words of this that the scene was going nowhere, and threw it out. The fight between Brennan and Tira was introduced later in the story where it would have more impact, Brennan now drinks mead instead of milk (since he’s a beekeeper and Tira the daughter of a brewer), and instead of describing the taste of the mead, the story uses Brennan’s excessive drinking as another source of conflict between the two.

“When I was writing ‘The Kiss of the Blood-Red Pomegranate’,” Janz says, “I had similar scenes that I knew weren’t going anywhere, but I forced myself to write my way back to the main thread of the story rather than cutting my losses and starting a scene over. This gave me an initial first draft of 18,000 words, and many 800- and 900-word passages that I had to cut out to bring the story below 10,000, resulting in loose plot threads that I then had to tie. The original first draft of ‘The Year of the Bear’ was only 9000 words, and the revision wasn’t nearly as much work.”

Both approaches did result in publishable stories for Janz. “The Year of the Bear” was published in the January 2010 issue of Allegory, and is currently available under Free Fiction on the author’s website. “The Kiss of the Blood-Red Pomegranate” has been accepted for publication in Aoife’s Kiss.

Personally, I took 20 years to write my first novel (Throne Price) and I wrote about six books worth in the process. I now write a novel in about 8 months and come in close to the required 100,000 words in the first draft. But I also recall being unable to write in “draft” mode for months after finishing the final edits on Throne Price and needing to give myself permission to risk blathering on a bit in order to charge up my engines.

How about you? What’s your experience?


21 thoughts on “Writer’s Craft #8: How Much to Craft the Draft?

  1. I often find contending impulses in myself. On the one hand, I tend to bog down in endless revision of paragraphs, wanting to get things just right before I move on. On the other hand–especially since word processing eliminated the need for white-out or cut-and-past revision–it’s easy to steam ahead too fast. But the notion that I can go back later (perhaps much later) and fix things isn’t always true. Experience suggests that, if I’m too cursory with the first draft, it’s easy to lose things that lie just out of mental reach then, but have disappeared forever when I return to it.

    Pursuing a middle way, I aim to get the story moving and keep it going, at the same time I try to make sure I don’t lose any of the initial inspiration before shifting along. That can mean treading a fine line in practice.

    Re-reading that, I see I’ve produced a masterpiece of waffle.

    One device I use is bracketing words, phrases and longer passages that I know still need important work. Sometimes I insert “REW” (rewrite/rework), again flagging my special attention when I revisit the draft.

  2. Gosh how funny, I”ve been struggling with this for a month now. So many writers advise to just get the ‘sh*tty’ first draft done with’ and then rewrite. But when I hit Ch 20 on an estimated 29 chapters I really felt like I was sloggign through mud. The reason? I was ready to tie things up but I didn’t know where the strings were. Plus, my characters had changed on me, and they let me know that my intended ending for them was no longer any good.

    I’m rewriting the first 3-4 chapters to a point where they are ‘solid’. I”ll then finish with my book, and go back to rewriting everything beginning Ch. 5. We’ll see how this works.

  3. I’m a revisionist-pantser, so I tend to write as tight a final draft as possible, but with just the barest trace of a plot in mind (the characters tend to lead me by the nose through a scene). I just can’t bring myself to throw together a s**t draft, but I envy those who can, and I can only point to which method works best for me.

    I’m also a very visual person, so an odd habit of mine is to actually write in Word within a template of my own design, spec’d out to resemble a mass market paperback (6.88″ x 4.25″, with margins, fonts, paragraphs, chapter headings, etc. “just so”). This ends up creating a little extra work before submissions when I convert it to manuscript format, but that’s what works for me. It’s very satisfying to tap along with my words dropping into a format that is already “book-like” in appearance. Maybe in my own mind it legitimizes my words more. It definitely helps me compose structurally pleasing passages, I think. And it also helps when I convert each chapter to a PDF and drop it onto my wife’s NookColor for proofing!

  4. I actually have the opposite problem as most writers. I tend to write too little and have to go back and add more detail in revisions. That being said I’m more of a world-builder and a planner that a writer so I’ll have an incredibly complex world but the book I write out of it weighs in at only 62,000 words. Not enough for many fantasy publishers to pick up.
    That being said most of my revisions and rewrites happen because of grammar because on first draft my grammar is terrible.


  5. I labor too hard over my first drafts. I end up wasting a lot of time. But when I know that what I’ve already written is crap, I have no motivation to continue, because I hate, hate, hate revising. I still end up having to do a lot of it once other eyes spot the flaws in my work, but if I know in advance that the revision is coming it depresses me to much to keep going!

  6. One of my colleagues on the SF Canada listserver was collecting writing quotes the other day. Here are a couple of mine on first drafts:

    Writing the first draft is like storming the beach on D-Day: you keep going forward and don’t stop for anything, not to tend the wounded, not to bury the dead, not to wonder at the insanity of it all. If you don’t keep going, you’ll die on the beach. So forget everything else. Get off the beach.

    The thing about the first draft is not to get it right, but to get it written.

  7. Interesting harvest! I’ve long believed this question is one of individual taste and habit. Glad I can write a novel in less than 20 years, now, but I suspect my work would have been very different if I hadn’t done all that preliminary rambling and exploring trying to shoe horn a ten-novel-saga into one book, while I was young. Intersting, as well, to see some writers hate to revise while others find their story while doing it.

  8. My observation in working and talking with many writers over the years, is that those who go full steam through the draft and dislike revising, seem to be right brain dominant, while those who revise to perfection before proceeding tend to be left brain dominant. I’m more of a reviser, but I’ve discovered that it’s important for me to write the first draft of each new section of a story completely in right brain, non editing mode, to make sure I draw out all the surprising, subconscious creative stuff . Then I’ll go back and edit yesterday’s work as a warm up to writing today’s new stuff.
    As for finishing the entire draft before you start revising, that only works for me if the story proceeds more or less in the direction I anticipated. It’s easy enough with short stories, which is mostly what I’ve been doing lately. But I if realized that my half finished novel was going completely off the rails, I wouldn’t keep going in the wrong direction, I’d have to go back and start over. Tolkien wrote the first dozen chapters of LOTR five times before he finally found the real story. That’s good enough for me.

    1. I also edit in order to transition to drafting when I need to warm up. Maybe the more experience one has getting a book from draft to publication, the easier it becomes to make the transition. Does seem to be case of changing “gears”. Or sides of the brain :-).

  9. I think it’s possible that I lean towards (though am not entirely decided about) spending more time on the first draft because I’m so terrible at revision. My final draft tends to not be all that different from the first, no matter how bad the first draft was.

    I do tend to outline a little more before writing than some of my writer friends do. I almost always know the end of the story before I start writing it, and have some idea what steps I need to take to get there. I wonder if writers who outline more also feel the need to labor more over the first draft, rather than just getting it done, because it’s easier to set up the ending along the way than to have to patch in little bits of set-up after we’ve written the whole thing.

  10. In writing any novel, unless you’re a Ken Follett type who puts all the creativity into the outline, there comes a point — usually in the middle — when it all becomes a muddle. If you don’t power through, there’s a risk of becoming one of those who endlessly polish the first three chapters and never finish the book.

    Finish the draft, and you have something to work with. You see the shape of the thing and can tell what’s needed: add this, take out that, combine those two characters, change the ending because the characters’ motivations have changed.

    Better to treat the first draft as primer, with other coats yet to come.

  11. For the first fifteen years of my writing life I would craft a perfect first draft, revising the previous day’s drafting before I’d continue with the draft. Frankly, this crippled me. By the end of the first draft I’d worked so hard making it perfect that I really had a hard time making any significant changes to the story. If the story required major revisions – change in point of view, a different protagonist, etc., I just couldn’t make them because I’d invested so much in the story.

    Now I write a first draft and then entirely re-write a second, third, fourth, until I find the draft that works. For short stories this isn’t a big deal, but for novels, it’s more work, definitely, but the finished product makes the work worthwhile.

  12. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer here, IMHO. Some writers need to get it all out and wrangle the thing after it’s on the page. Others need to fiddle with each line before going on to the next. I’m in the second group. I can’t get the story moving until I have the voice pinned down, and that can take a lot of redrafting of the first paragraph (and this depends on how muchI know about the story before I begin writing). I don’t think this is better than another way, just how I do it. I don’t have an outline or a way of knowing exactly where most stories are going, just some vague notion that I want to explore, so defining the voice helps me experience things as the characters experience things and makes it possible to push the story forward. But I am not a fast writer, and I don’t mind spending the time it takes to get the story right (in my mind–there is no right way to write fiction).

  13. I’m really lucky because more often than not, I’m now writing a graphic novel version of my novel prior to starting in on the first draft. This of course serves as my outline as well as a major source of dialogue.

    I find writing in graphic novel, pretty close to screen play format, releases me from the tedium of outlining and I see it as added value as opposed to a waste of time. When I first started writing I read several books on writer’s craft. I stopped reading them when I read one that talked about just powering through the first draft as Matt Hughes suggests, and then another by Elizabeth George who outlines down to the paragraph level.

    To each their own indeed.

    1. Never heard of anyone doing a graphic novel first, as a “first draft” technique. Interesting. Most writers I know think about adapting existing novels, in print, to graphic novel format. Do you think of publishing the graphic novel, as well? Or view the graphic novel as purely a drafting technique?

      1. So yes, I will publish both the graphic novel and novel. Graphic novel will actually come out first. They will differ in some specific ways. The graphic novel format allows me to handle back story a little differently (what is one page in the novel is 15 in the graphic novel), also because I’m dividing the graphic novel into three issues it means some changes to ensure each issue has a good arc.

        Would I write a graphic novel without thinking I would publish it but only to outline? Yes. It provides arc, character development, all the visuals and beats of the story and plenty of dialogue. A great way to kick off a book.


  14. I’m slightly with noothergods on this in that I’m primarily a world-builder. I often get rather carried away with my notes on the world being constructed with less focus on the manuscript (bad habit, I know) so I end up with a draft shorter than it should be.

    At times though, I find that I get too expository in the manuscript and wind up having characters go on and on about the world in loving detail, something that I don’t like reading in most fiction let alone my own.

    Generally with revising though, I tend to go more with the outline. It gives me an idea of where I’m supposed to be headed when drafting. After writing the draft though, I do still tend to go back and revise what I’ve already written when I feel that the direction has changed or characters need to be more this or that. The draft also at times affects my outline. When I realize that some of my characters need new roadblocks or new allies, this will affect my outline and future drafts.

    I does become rather messy in the end though, hehe. But, aye, each to his own and whatever works I suppose.

    1. Rewriting when direction has changed sounds good to me. There shouldn’t be too much in a novel that DOESN’T need to be rewritten if there’s been a major change in theme or character, IMHO.

  15. I’m a world-builder, too, and the world or situation-threat-danger comes first, then the characters who inhabit it. It can take months and years in my head. When I feel that the story is ripe, I do a basic “backcover” resume that hooks the story, then a “big scene” by “big scene” outline, sometimes with diagrams. I rarely got the details all figured out at that stage, but, like Matt Hughes said, chaaaaaaaaaarge!

    I end up with a rough first draft, then I begin the lovely work of adding up bits and pieces, as new details branch out through my mind.

    The manuscript that I am currently working on was OK with world, action, conflict and resolution, but the cast of secondary characters appeared rather papery pale, lacking personal background besides the main character. So I added some dialogues and inter-action in the scenes. Thus was born a very nifty subplot with my main character’s parents, which was not in my outline, but wove itself on the story. The downside is that the manuscript gets longer! (I wrote a blog post on “chasing your wild ideas”) Later*, I do the necessary trimming down.

    *when my editor, who knows me too well, ask for a trimmer version…

  16. A trick I’ve learned with secondary characters is to make them a) represent some point of view that needs to be established and b) exaggerate some aspect of their appearance or character to make them easy to identify. Sometimes, of course, they become too interesting and evolving into main characters as Eler Nersal did in my series. Dela is a better example of a supporting character who began with some exaggerated features to distinguish her, but still represented a cultural point of view I needed to dramatize. My initial take on her was “ditsy, plumb and clumsy but still a Golden Demish princess of the inner circle”. Her preoccupations and emotional makeup dramatized Golden Demish culture. Her contrast with the Golden Demish ideal of womanhood made her stand out as someone easy to recognize. She’d be the one knocking over the perfect flower arrangement or eating all the beautifully crafted pastries before they had been properly admired.

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