Writing Insights Part Two: The Rough Draft
In the first part of this series, I listed some of the insights I wish I’d known before I set out to become a writer. Those insights might not be equally useful to all people, and that same warning applies here as we dive into the writing process. I’m sharing these simply because I think my twenty years of fruitless endeavors might’ve been a whole lot easier if I’d known a few things before I got started.
To me, the rough draft is the most difficult part of the writing process. Revising and publishing are the fun and easy parts. I know many other writers also struggle with their rough drafts. The idea for the story is exciting, and the first chapter leaps right from the fingertips, but things quickly bog down. Excitement wanes. Doubts creep in. The inner critic takes over.
I hope to help you through this process as much as I can. We’ll pick up the numbering right where we left off.
Insight #11: Your Rough Draft Doesn’t Have to be Good
If you take only one insight away from this part of this series, please let it be this one. Nothing stifles creativity and production like the inner critic who shows up too early. I’m going to repeat this, and I strongly suggest that you make it your daily rough draft mantra:
My rough draft doesn’t have to be good.
The entire next entry in this series will be about how to revise rough drafts and make them better. But that process is impossible if the rough draft doesn’t exist in the first place. The most important thing in all of the writing process is to get an entire story down on paper. This is the first goal as a writer. Don’t let anything get in the way of that goal. Remind yourself of this every day.
I like to think of it as gathering clay. You can’t sit in front of a potter’s wheel and turn air into a vase. You need a wet lump of clay to work with. The rough draft is that wet lump of clay. Every day you sit down at your computer and force another sentence onto the screen, you are creating that clay. This comes first. It’s okay if it’s messy. You’ll fix it later.
Insight #12: Write all the way to the end before you revise your beginning
Related to the above, you have to write all the way to the end of your story before you start revising the beginning.
I’ve seen this mistake trap far too many a writer. Revising is easier and more appealing than writing new material. Sitting down in front of the computer, the writer recoils from the awful empty whiteness at the bottom of the document, and their eyes scroll up to the last thing they wrote. They are tempted to improve what they’ve already written instead of pressing forward into the unknown. This is like being lost in the woods and deciding to dress up a clearing rather than hacking your way out to open air. Novels and adventurers die like this.
Forget what you’ve written. Plunge forward. Even if there are continuity issues, plunge forward. You can bridge gaps later. If you want to change the name of a major character, just switch to the new name and leave the old names as they are. You’ll fix it later. If you start your search-and-replace now, you’ve given yourself an excuse to stop writing for the day. If you need to look up the name of a town, enter a placeholder and keep writing. If you get on Google, you may stop writing for the day. Your goal is to cut that trail all the way to the end, however rough a trail it is. You’re going to pave it and make it beautiful later.
This is worth repeating to yourself every day as you sit down at your keyboard: You must write to the end of the story. You must make progress toward that end today. A sentence, a paragraph, a chapter. You must push the story forward, forward, forward. Don’t stop until you get to the end.
Insight #13: Know what you’re writing
Writing to the end of your story is a whole lot easier if you know where you’re going.
Far too much is said about outlines, pantsing, plotting, and the preparations made before the rough draft is written. One of the things I’ve learned is that there are elements of all these methods in every writing style. When you write an outline, you’re doing it by the seat of your pants. And when you meander through a story as a pantser, you are often following established outlines about character arcs and the hero’s journey absorbed through years of entertainment. Outlines contain leaps of imagination and sparks of sudden inspiration, just as wandering stories are far more constrained than we like to admit.
The best stories, however, know where they want to go. This is different from the best prose, and the best plot twists, which often strike the author like a sucker punch in the flow of daily writing. The two aren’t to be confused. The difference can be seen in the TV show LOST, which had moments of pure brilliance that were undone by not having any clue where it was going when it got started. It made for a gripping view at times, but an overall dissatisfying experience for many. The theme of the entire show was cobbled together in the last few seasons. Its meaning was layered on like icing. You should aspire to bake your meaning in right from the beginning. The plot is the thing, and the literary flourishes are the icing.
Knowing how your story unfolds requires time away from the keyboard. Quiet time. You may need weeks or months of daydreaming about your story before you’re ready to write. My best stories had this in common: I knew the final scene of the novel before I got started. I knew where everything was going to end up. This can be as simple as knowing the girl and boy are going to end up together. Or that the murderer is going to be caught. Finding love and finding retribution are adequate goals for stories, but I would call them just barely adequate. Even better is finding love by overcoming the odds of specific ghosts in one’s past. Or getting retribution while also resolving an internal conflict about justice, or gender, or race. The theme should be something important to you. The theme serves as the bones of the novel even more than the plot. It will keep you focused, motivated, and power you to the end of your rough draft.
I’ll give you an example here, and more examples in the next part of the series, which will dive even deeper into the craft of writing. Let’s say I want to write a young adult novel about a teenage ninja girl who falls in love with a young pirate boy. Obviously there are going to be jokes in the novel about peglegs and parrots, and how someone’s wardrobe tends to be heavy on the color black. There will be swashbuckling ship scenes and some sneaking around in the dark. Our young ninja will learn that climbing a mast is a lot like climbing a tree, and that pirates make kinda-okay ninjas if they can learn to keep their mouths shut for one hot minute (and if you can convince them to shower so no one smells them coming). And here is the germ of the story’s theme: Things as disparate as ninjas and pirates have a lot in common. It’s possible to challenge our biases and discover these commonalities.
This is not a new theme. It’s not new because it’s an important theme. It’s one worth repeating, and it can really power a novel forward. There’s a lot of conflict baked right into the plot. It doesn’t matter if the reader has seen the theme before; they haven’t seen it in this context. It doesn’t matter that they know the conflict will be resolved; what matters is the suspense of how it’s resolved.
The detective almost always solves the case; what’s gripping is how she puts together the clues and avoids getting shot by the bad guy in the process. The boy and girl almost always end up together in the end; what’s exciting is seeing the obstacles that crop up along the way and how they overcome them. Find a theme that interests you and mold your story around this. Or daydream about your story until the theme presents itself. Understand the final scene in your story, how your characters have changed, how the reader might feel about those characters and about your story on that last page. Writing is a gradual process of taking one step after the other. It helps when you know where you’re going.
Insight #14: Plot is king. Prose is pawn.
There are two elements to writing that are often in conflict with one another. The first of these elements is plot, or the dry facts of what happens in a story, where it happens, whom it happens to. The other element is prose, or the words chosen to describe these events. Finding the perfect balance between the two is the key to writing your best novel.
The biggest problem I’ve seen with writing advice and writing classes is that they spend too much time teaching prose and not enough time teaching plot. The result is a cadre of authors who write well about nothing. The problem with this is that the vast majority of readers value plot far more highly than they value prose. This isn’t just borne out by the commercial success of genre works over literary works, but also by the conversations people have about the novels they enjoy. They discuss the characters and what happens to them. Far rarer are those readers who gush over their love of Proust’s florid sentences.
The best writing, without a doubt, combines great writing with a great story. It’s absolutely possible to have both. Justin Cronin made the leap from literary writing to genre writing without losing his fine touch with words. You can certainly have both, but the story should always come first. A gripping story told clearly, so the reader understands what’s happening, is the primary goal. From this base, a great writer can sprinkle in as many wonderful analogies and turns of phrase and beautiful descriptions as she likes, so long as she doesn’t distract from the telling of the story.
When writing a rough draft, the truth of this is critical. Rough drafts are often like detailed outlines, so that the author can see the entirety of their novel. The prose is punched up in the revising. And over time, the writer will get stronger both in plot and prose, so that the rough draft needs less work in the revision process.
Insight #15: Write in your own voice
The best way to kill your chances as a writer is to attempt to write like one. We all fall into this trap. When pounding out a Facebook post, or a comment on a forum, or an email to a friend, we write like the wind. The words tumble right out, and the meaning we hope to convey is succinct and clear.
And then, when we sit down to write a novel, we trip over our words as we try too hard to sound like someone we aren’t. I don’t know why we do this in the beginning, but the sooner we get over the impulse, the better. Write that rough draft as though you’re composing an email to a friend about a story you heard. Use your own voice. The subtleties and nuances of this voice will grow over time. For now, keep it simple.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be creative, or witty, or use the fullness of your vocabulary. It just means that you shouldn’t strain yourself as you write your rough draft. You shouldn’t try too hard to be flashy.
Continuing my love of basketball analogies, think of your rough draft as learning to dribble up and down the court. You don’t start by trying to dribble between your legs and around your back. Your first goal should be to get to where you can dribble without looking down at the ball. Make your writing comfortable and second nature before you get fancy. Just get the story down.
I’m going to give you a few examples. Below are the opening sentences of my hypothetical young adult novel about a young ninja who falls in love with a pirate. The first opening:
Anya woke up on the day of her final exam. If she passed, she would finally be a ninja, just like her father and her grandfather. She didn’t want to think about what would happen if she failed. She slowly got dressed, careful to lace everything tight. Loose fabric can get one killed. And today would start a long life of trying very hard to not get killed.
Here’s a second opening:
Anya’s thoughts raced like buzzing bees as she woke up and slowly donned her jet-black ninja uniform, complete with split-toed shoes and her tenth degree blackbelt. The sun lanced through the open bedroom window, reminding her that she was late for her final test, the test that would mean she was finally a real ninja, like her father before her, and her grandfather before him.
And a third one:
Anya was nervous. And ninjas weren’t supposed to be nervous. Maybe that’s because she wasn’t a ninja yet. Today was the day, the final test. If she passed, she’d be a full-fledged ninja like her father and her grandfather. Today she would make them proud. Or she would die trying.
In the first example, I’m just dribbling the ball up the court. Nothing fancy, just the dry facts and plain descriptions. I’m telling a friend a story. In the second example, I tried to emulate what I remember from old habits and what I see from some writers who are just starting out. The temptation to get flowery. It’s not a terrible opening, but it would be more difficult to revise. The ending has punch, but it’s too cliché. And in the third example, I show what happens when we concentrate on the prose and not the plot. You almost forget the details of what’s happening because of the awkward pacing of the sentences. Readers drift off when they run into writing like this.
Of course, all three openings work okay for a rough draft. Remember that this isn’t what the reader will see in a final book; it’s just whacking a hole through the underbrush. So why is the first example the clear winner? Because the first example took very little thought and time to write. I spent twice as long on the second one, and three times as long on the third (and hated the last two even as I played with them).
I’d like to add that if you’re reading these with the critical eye that you’d give a finished novel, you’re already forgetting the important insights from above. The point here is not perfection or even good. The point is to get to the scene where the girl ninja meets the boy pirate. Playing around with the prose does not get us there. Dribble the ball up the court. Make a layup. We’ll work on fancy passes and slam dunks later. For now, find the style that allows you to make progress. It’s usually the simplest one. That’s your voice.
Insight #16: The constant application of pressure works miracles
If you remember back to the last part of this series, insight #3 was that a career in writing is a marathon, not a sprint. As a hopeful author, you need to take the long view of your career and trust in the process. There are no shortcuts. You might have to write a dozen novels before you break through. This same bit of patience will get you through your individual rough drafts as well.
I want to tell you about making it through my first rough draft, the thing that changed to allow twenty years of frustration to suddenly morph into success after success. Those twenty years, you see, were spent wishing I was a writer, rather than spending my time writing. The same might be true for you. We spend hours and days and years wishing we were getting writing done, while not writing.
What changed for me is that I started writing every single day. This simple habit allowed me to write two or three novels a year, where before I couldn’t complete a novel in a decade. I learned to form this habit by writing daily book reviews. I had a self-imposed deadline that forced me to write by the clock, not when I felt inspired. You can’t wait for the muse to strike. You have to sit her down and make her work with you.
When I saw how productive I could be writing for an hour or two every single day, I decided to try – once again – to write my first novel. This time, it worked. I didn’t take a day off. I didn’t worry if it was a great draft. I knew from my daily book reviews to trust in the revision process. But the most important thing is that I carved time out of my very busy life and filled that time with nothing but writing.
We all have that time. For me, I gave up the hours I spent playing videogames and watching TV. I kept the time spent with my family, the time I spent hiking, and going to work, and cooking, and household chores. I just gave up some passive entertainment and replaced it with writing-as-a-professional entertainment. I soon found myself going to sleep earlier and waking up when the house was nice and quiet to write before the sun came up. Perhaps you find your writing hour after everyone has gone to bed. Or during your lunch break. Make it consistent; make it daily; make it happen.
Insight #17: Most of the writing takes place away from the keyboard
Each one of these insights feels to me like the most important advice there is when it comes to writing. I have a hard time ranking them in order. But this one deserves a place near the top.
What used to kill my writing process were the hours spent staring at an open document not knowing what to write next. Writing should not take place behind a keyboard. Your computer has too many ways of distracting you, and nothing puts on the pressure like a blank page and a blinking cursor. The time to write is all the quiet hours spent away from the computer. This is a challenge, because we have become allergic to quiet time. The aspiring writer needs to fix this immediately and with absolute stringency.
Quiet time means driving to and from work or school without the radio on. It means wearing earbuds on the subway but not playing any music. It means taking up yoga or meditation. It means putting an end to perseverating on conversations with friends and colleagues that aren’t productive. Our minds race, no doubt. Keep your mind racing on your novel. Not only will this help with writing, I believe it helps in general.
For instance, instead of going over conversations I wanted to have with my boss, beyond the usefulness of such thoughts, I started listening to conversations between my characters. While doing rote tasks at work and home (cooking, dusting, shelving books, mowing the lawn), I thought about the next scene in my novel, or fleshed out the world a bit more, or thought about what my characters are really like. The goal was to know my next scene before I got back to the computer. I especially found that the time I spent in bed, waiting to fall asleep, was very useful for thinking about my story.
What began to happen is this: Rather than sit down with dread in front of a blank page and a blinking cursor, I raced impatiently to grab my laptop to hammer out the details that I’d already seen in my imagination. As the writing began to take place away from the keyboard, I started to see writing as if I were watching a movie over and over, with the movie becoming perfectly clear, and now my job was to describe the film to someone who hadn’t seen it. Soon after I started writing this way, I began to get compliments on how vivid my writing felt. I kept hearing the word “cinematic.” I was no longer placing words in some particular order to generate a scene; I was living inside the world and transcribing it on paper.
To achieve this, I can’t stress enough the need to cut distractions out of your life. Give up Facebook cold turkey if you must. Stop grabbing your phone every time there’s a lull in the world around you. Embrace the quiet. We used to have hours of quietude in which to indulge our imaginations. It’s possible to return to this. The things we give up will pale before the conquest of bringing a new story out into the world.
Insight #18: Don’t be surprised when you get caught at the crux
In rock climbing, there’s a name for the most difficult part of every climb. It’s called the crux, and it’s where most climbers fall. Getting past the crux is the most critical step in completing the route.
It seems like every novel has a crux, and they all happen roughly in the same part of the story. About three quarters of the way through the novel, it’ll feel like the plot is losing steam. Your heart isn’t into the story like it once was. The middle part is stretching out too far. You know how the story ends, but you can’t quite see how to get there from where you are. For the rough drafts that manage to survive beyond the first few chapters, this is next place they’re likely to falter. Don’t be surprised or dissuaded if it happens. It’s normal. The problem is that you’ve reached the most important part of the story, and you don’t know how to make it through.
Often, the problem is that the story has gone down the wrong path. Part of you knows this, but this part of you can’t communicate any of the details to the rest of you. You just sense that the story has headed off in the wrong direction. The solution here is painful, but it’s the least painful of all the ways out: You often need to go back to the last place you felt excited about your story and start over from there. This isn’t revising; it’s branching.
To ease the pain, copy and paste the text that isn’t working into a new document and save it. Chances are you’ll never look at it again, but it’s less painful than outright deletion. This is an insight I’ll discuss in detail in the next part of the series, and it helps to mention it here: it’s easier to write from scratch than it is to revise what can’t be fixed. While it hurts to start over, you’ll save time in the long run. It also helps to realize that a dead end in the thicket is not useless. Each plot idea that you realize doesn’t work narrows your options and refocuses your writing on what will work. What doesn’t help is staring at a blank page or old writing that you aren’t happy with. Start over; write another dead end; keep exploring.
Insight 19: Your story will have a familiar structure
Overcoming the crux and writing to the end of your novel is easier if you understand and embrace the structure of most plots. There are generally three parts to every story, whether it’s a novel, a short story, an epic saga, a film, a TV show, even a piece of flash fiction.
You have the first act, where the world and characters are introduced and the stakes are set. Here, the reader gets to know what the main characters are aspiring to accomplish or overcome.
In the second act, those main characters encounter obstacles that make it seem as if they won’t succeed. All hope is lost, whether it’s catching the bad guy, finding true love, or defeating the alien horde.
In the third act, by some change they undergo or some personal growth they achieve, our protagonists overcome their obstacles and reach their goals. They solve the case, get the boy, or slay the dragon.
There are very good reasons for these formulas. Turning our noses up at them is the quickest way to fail as a writer. Rather than be avant-garde and buck tradition just to be different, or feel like it’s best to do things like they’ve never been done before, it’s far more useful and fascinating to understand that these structures have existed for thousands of years across countless cultures – and why. When things are this pervasive, it signals some deep root beyond culture and more likely in our DNA. It could be that we tell stories to warn and to inspire. Perhaps stories that follow these patterns are more easily remembered and are the most impactful.
Whatever the root cause, it seems that the crux we discussed most often occurs during the transition from the second act to the third. Here we are writing about the odds our characters overcome and how they manage to pull this off. What clues does the detective unravel? What does the farm girl discover about herself? How does the boy nearly lose the girl but resolve that conflict in the end?
Knowing how to tackle the crux ahead of time is the best option. But if you do get stuck, walk away from the novel and spend hour after hour daydreaming of as many solutions and paths as possible. Seize upon the one that gives you a Eureka! moment.
In my pirate and ninja love story, perhaps it’s the moment where Anya turns the tide in a ship-to-ship battle she was told to stay out of, and here she learns that her training works just fine in the sunlight, where she can be seen. That being a ninja and a pirate is about being brave and making moral choices. And that everyone has told her to stay hidden all her life, to the point that her confidence requires a mask. Perhaps my Eureka! moment while daydreaming all of this is that Anya has been known by her pirate friend both as a ninja and as herself, and she fears he only loves her ninja side. When she decides to remove the mask, she sees her true self for the first time.
Yes, this story has been done before. And there’s a reason for that. Don’t we all fear that the people we love wouldn’t love us back if they could see what our most critical selves see? Maybe Anya realizes that her pirate friend must have those same fears. The crux isn’t the moment she takes her mask off; it’s the moment she realizes he’s been wearing a mask of his own all this time. The crux isn’t when she incapacitates White Beard without killing him, showing a mercy she was never taught. The crux is when she tells her new boyfriend that it’s okay to be scared. That courage is only useful if we are afraid. Maybe the final test to becoming a ninja is an assassination, and when she refuses to kill White Beard, and reveals all of this to her pirate boyfriend, she fails the formal test and succeeds at everything else. Here, we’ve subverted the expectations of the reader (that she’ll pass her final test) while satisfying an age-old structure about the hero’s journey. The test she starts the story worrying about is one she passes by failing to complete. And rather than becoming a pirate, or her lover becoming a ninja, they both become ninja pirate-hunters, setting sail together looking for foes, always at night with black sails flying so no one can see them coming…
Once you know your crux, you can see the light through the thicket. The way out. And the writing comes easy. Keep the writing easy, keep thinking about your story when you’re away from the keyboard, making writing a daily habit, and write like you’re talking to a friend. Do these things, and you’ll get your rough draft complete. And when all else fails…
Insight #20: It’s okay to skip entire scenes and chapters
I saved this insight for last, because it’s so closely related to the next part of this series, which is all about revision. There are two primary ways of writing a rough draft and revising it into a completed manuscript. The first method is to write a “fat” rough draft, and edit out the unneeded parts. You might write 120,000 words and whittle it down to 80,000 for publication. The other choice is to write “lean” and flesh it out as you revise. You could start with a 50,000 word rough draft and layer in detail and extra chapters and scenes until you hit 70,000 words in the final pass.
Each writer has to discover the method that works for them. Try both if you like. But from my experience and observations, I see far more writers fail when they opt for the “fat” writing style. Not only do you put in more hours than needed, but you end up with sections of the story that don’t belong but that you hate to get rid of. Sections that break the flow for readers, and break your flow as a writer. A bloated manuscript is almost guaranteed to be rejected by agents and publishers, and less likely to be finished and recommended by readers.
There are more advantages to writing lean than I can list here, but perhaps the greatest advantage is that you save elements of your writing for after you’ve seen the completed work. This allows you to layer in meaning and depth to your characters with a better understanding of their full arc. It means better foreshadowing and richer themes. We’ll get to these techniques in the revision process in the next part of this series. What bears mentioning now, as you work to complete your rough draft, is that you should celebrate skipping scenes and entire chapters instead of getting stuck.
This goes back to insight #12 about forging ahead and getting to the end of your story. This goal is so important that you should embrace leaving bits out rather than getting bogged down. I promise it’s okay! Perhaps you have an exciting foot chase you want to write, and it comes after a tense scene in a bar where a fight is about to break out. You can’t quite see the bar scene yet, but you know how the foot chase is going to lead to the next chapter and beyond. It might be time to skip ahead and keep your momentum going.
Before you do, make a note of the scene you’re leaving behind. I use the word BOOKMARK a lot in my rough drafts, capitalizing the word so it jumps out (and easy to search for when I start my revision process). Here’s what I would do in the example above:
BOOKMARK (Bar scene where Juan and Sarah realize they’ve been set up by Marco and his goons. Sarah creates a distraction and tells Juan to run. He does. Sarah follows, with the goons on their heels)
Marco bolts out the back door, Sarah right behind him. He can hear bar stools and tables toppling, has that last image of Marco reaching for his gun, and now every nerve in his body is waiting for a shot to ring out, for Sarah to cry she’s been hit, or to feel the punch and burn of a bullet slam into his body. He urges Sarah ahead of him, knowing being shot will hurt less than seeing her go down. The end of the alley is a forever away. Footsteps pound behind them, one of the goons yelling for them to stop or he’ll shoot. Sarah swerves left and throws her shoulder into a shut door, the wood cracking. As the first shot rings out, Juan hurls himself against her to shield her body. The both of them crash through the door and into a busy kitchen. Men and women in white smocks and hairnets turn and gape, but there is no time. Juan and Sarah scramble to their feet and keep running…
And so on. Rather than get hung up on a scene I can’t fully see, I move on to one where I know what happens. The beauty of this is that bridges are easier to build when both shores already exist. Now I can see the bar scene more clearly. I know what has to happen to get to the chase scene. Even better: I am now very motivated to plug that gap. When you write scenes you love, you’ll want to link them all together. When the future bits of your story are hard to see, you’re less interested in writing to meet them.
Once you see the potential in skipping scenes, the demarcation between pantsing and plotting truly disappears. Someone who writes an outline is simply creating a rough draft where every scene is skipped. You make dozens or even hundreds of little notes as you jot your way to the end of the story. And then you begin the revision process by turning those notes into bridges, linking each one up to the next. Pantsing, then, becomes nothing more than very detailed outlining. Just as outlining is little more than bare-bones pantsing.
One of the most successful techniques I’ve found for my own writing is to skip ahead to the end and write the final scene early on. You can even write your last chapter first. This gives you a destination for all of your other scenes. It tells you what the stakes are, what the emotional impact of the plot will be. Even if that final scene doesn’t survive the last edit, and you replace it with a new scene you write from scratch, it doesn’t matter. Use scene-skipping as a way to create the parts of the story that motivate you to write more, all the way to the end, until your rough draft is complete.
Once you’ve done that, you’ve finished the hardest part. Up next is the revision process, the subject of part three of this series. There, we’ll discuss how you can make your rough draft sing.