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The Writer’s Craft #46 – Whittling Away

November 14, 2011
Desirina Boskovich

Desirina Boskovich

Desirina Boskovich is a graduate of the Clarion class of 2007. As a freelance writer, she specializes in weird, fantastic and unlikely things, both true and imaginary. Her work has appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine, Realms of Fantasy, Last Drink Bird Head, Fantasy Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and The Way of the Wizard. She lives in Springfield, Missouri. Find her online at crackingdes.livejournal.com.


For some writers I know, a rough draft is where they sketch the outlines of their scenes — the basics of who said and did what, with maybe a hint of motivation and a glimpse of surroundings. Then, on future drafts, they fill in the details, adding richness and texture to the environment through sensory imagery, and expanding the emotional subtext of the character’s actions and interactions.

I think this is actually a pretty good way to go about it — but unfortunately that’s just not my style.

For me, the process of getting into the story requires that I envision all aspects of the environment and detail every thought that motivates the character. My rough drafts are typically flabby, wordy and excessively descriptive, with long torturous asides. When I look back at a rough draft, my first thought is often: “Really? You just said the same thing three different ways.”

This also means that later drafts are where I whittle it all away.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past few months, as I work through the final draft of a novel. Most of what I’ve been doing is cutting. Whole paragraphs and dozens of sentences have fallen by the wayside. Sometimes whole pages. There are sections I’ve trimmed down to less than half of their former selves.

Unlike during early drafting, when a good day ends with five more pages, now a good day ends with five fewer pages. Sometimes I wonder if I’m chopping too much, if the paragraphs on the cutting room floor actually held some useful insights or valuable background. After all, that wordy style works for some writers. Then I look back at those old drafts, and I think: “No. Keep cutting.”

How about you? Do your rough drafts start out “bare bones” and accrue details, or the other way around?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 14, 2011 7:19 am

    My husband teaches Language Arts at the middle school level, and one of the biggest problems he has with students, particularly budding writers, is convincing them of the value of revising and editing. Once they’ve finished something, even a special work of fiction that they are proud of, they think they are done, except for maybe fixing a typo or misspelling here and there. It is inconceivable to them that they should actually go back and cut even a phrase of their brilliant prose.

    I advise emerging writers to think of that first draft as a “brain dump.” While you are in the grip of inspiration, get it all down there in excruciating detail, never mind the language. Digress shamelessly and leap around erratically. Record everything that occurs to you, even contradictory threads of plot. You never know which one may turn out to be the most productive one. An ideal first draft should be just as Desirina describes: flabby, wordy, excessive.

    A lot of writers hate revising. For me, that’s the fun part. (Well, it’s all fun, except for the drudgery of marketing.) You’ve got this heap of words with a splendid story inside, and all you have to do is chip, carve, rearrange and polish to find it. Saying something three times is fine in a first draft. You then splice and trim until you’ve said it once in the best way possible. I often begin with a 15,000 word draft in order to produce a 5,000 word story.

    I do accrue more details as I work with characters, plot and situation, as I learn more about them and see holes or gaps that need filling. The word count on a ms. goes back and forth as I figure out what it is that I’m trying to say and how best to say it. But the more material I have to work with initially, the more nuggets I’ll find as I pan away the gravel.

  2. Mishell Baker permalink*
    November 14, 2011 8:24 am

    I am definitely in the same boat as you. The only time I add things in a second draft is when I needed to research something and didn’t have time the first time around (or didn’t realize I was going to need to know the mating habits of mollusks) and just wanted to press forward and get it finished. The overwhelming majority of the time, for me, the act of making something better involves wielding a machete.

  3. November 14, 2011 9:06 am

    “How about you? Do your rough drafts start out “bare bones” and accrue details, or the other way around?”

    Both? At the beginning of writing, I throw everything on the page to see what sticks (I don’t outline beforehand, so all the ideas I’ve been even remotely considering including tend to sploot out onto the page at this point). Things go much smoother in the middle, when I’ve filtered out the nonfunctional ideas and am playing with the good ones. As I near the end and start getting sick of the danged thing, my writing gets sparse and “telling”, because I just want to get to “THE END” and move on to something else.

    Too bad there’s no sure-fire plastic surgery of writing, so I could lift the flab from the beginning and inject it into the bony bits at the end.

  4. November 14, 2011 9:47 am

    Sad question. I wrote 22 chapters last year and ditched them all, saving just a handful of story lines. Characters got dumped. Plot lines got dumped. New plot lines were added. Motivations were created. But I needed those 22 chapters to get a feel for what my characters and story were really doing.
    Those chapters were approc 4,000 words each. New chapters are less than 3,000. What happened is a paid someone to read my first 50 pages, and he basically said, ‘you’re taking too long to get the story moving’. those slow chapters were cut.
    Aack…

  5. November 14, 2011 11:39 am

    Interesting. I do both, all along the way. Wrote the first draft in one long swoop with no outline or plan. (It was so long that it has turned into a fantasy trilogy, the Star-Seer’s Prophecy.) But it was the only way I could find out what happened next and ultimately what the story was really about. Then I threw out the first third.

    As I wrote the following many drafts, characters and their relationships evolved, and details of the settings/ world grew, with many surprises showing up, while scenes that were redundant disappeared. I guess my style could be called organic rather than linear. For me, this is great fun!

    The downside is that it takes a long time: a dozen years later, the first book of the trilogy, Dark Innocence, is just about published (maybe this week, if the “proof” copy passes inspection!!) However, I think I’d find outlining and working from an outline a bit more like work.

  6. November 14, 2011 3:38 pm

    Hi Desirina,
    I don’t outline–never have and never plan to do so–not even when I was in writing class in school…When I write a scene I’m there with the characters, walking along the narrow rocky path or sitting with them at a cafe–I’m in their heads as they speak and think…When I look around I see what they see and I describe it–I cut at least a third of the first draft of my trilogy but in the past month I’ve had to add because the story was too short and there was not enough emotional detail and internal dialogue for readers to connect with–(and also during subsequent drafts my characters have grown and developed). I guess you would call me a seat of the pants writer and now that I’m on the 8th draft of Wolf Moon Trilogy it seems to be finally coming together! ( a long slog but one I’ve enjoyed every minute of)
    Nikki

  7. November 15, 2011 1:36 pm

    I’m a bones first, flesh later gal!😉 Often in the rough draft I add notes to expand or add a scene I don’t want to write right now because it would break the flow… or I changed my mind about something and need to rethink it. But then, I’m also a very loose outliner and great improviser… Ain’t it cool that we’re all so different in our creativity?🙂

  8. JohnP permalink
    November 16, 2011 1:49 pm

    I am another “dump it into a pile” type. I find that I lose/forget pieces I wanted if I try to define too carefully at first.

    The trap here is that I find checking my own work pretty much impossible, so a LOT of errors make it past any editing attempt.

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