From first draft to final draft

I’ve posted a couple of rough draft pieces for subscribers on my Patron, and it got me thinking about editing. What does it take to go from that messy rough draft to a finished product?

I’m still figuring this out for fiction, but I’ve done tons of editing in other contexts, working on pieces from 100 words to 4000 words. (Ah, the days when the WoW Insider editors would struggle over who had to edit Anne and Rossi’s novel-length Know Your Lores. Sure, they were great, but they were long and giving them a good pass for grammar and clarity took a while.) For the non-fiction work I’ve done, it really comes down to two things: improving word choice and cutting down verbosity. And so far, fiction feels similar… though there are some new things to worry about, too.

So, word choice. When you first make a sentence — or when most of us first make a sentence — you’re focused on getting your point across. The sky is blue, the grass is green, the spaceship is fast. You’re saying what you need to say.

But most of the time that’s boring. “The sky is blue?” The sky is always blue (at least where we are), so who cares?  While you’re getting the basics across, there’s nothing interesting in the description. Maybe what you mean to say is “The brightness of the sun almost blinded her to  the cloudless blue sky above. It was a perfect day for lounging in the sun… at least with enough sunscreen.” Or “It had just hit nautical twilight, with the sun below the horizon and the sky the darkest blue you’d ever see. Or at least the darkest blue she’d ever seen.”

I just made both of those up, so they may still be terrible, but it illustrates the point: those are both blue skies, but nothing about them is the same. In a rough draft, you’re getting the facts down. In the second, third, whatever-th draft, you’re making them interesting.

Then there’s cutting things down. It’s not necessarily that you’re trying to hit a certain word count: it’s that you want every word to matter. How we talk is a great example of this. In casual conversation, we pause, we repeat ourselves, we stop mid-sentence and head somewhere else. (It’s something you become awfully aware of if you ever have to transcribe an interview or off-the-cuff lecture.) If you wrote a sentence down exactly as you’d said it, it probably wouldn’t read very well.

Writing a first draft (of anything) is much the same. You’re getting ideas down on paper, but it’s not necessarily good. You probably ramble or come up with new ideas mid-paragraph or even mid-sentence that take you in a completely different direction. Last week I wrote a headline that read “Diablo patch 2.5.0 patch now live.” Between the second word and the fourth word I changed my mind on phrasing and didn’t notice until I reread it. (The final headline, by the way, was my third headline.)

I  know there’s a lot of both of those in my rough draft of Accidental Futures. A rough draft is just that: rough. It’s in your next drafts that you polish those rough edges off.

But there are other concerns in fiction, and right now pacing is one I’m particularly worried about. In a traditional three act story structure — and for whatever you think of “rules” in storytelling, a lot of them exist because they work — the first act is 25% of the story, the second is 50% of the story, and the third is the final 25%. Right now my beginning is long and the rest is too short. So am I taking too long to get to the heart of the story? And if so, what can I cut down on to help me get there faster? And if I cut some of those early scenes, am I losing good stuff?

All of these are things are tough to figure out in a first draft, when you’re sketching out ideas — but you can smooth them out (and hopefully fix them) in subsequent drafts.

Right now, while I haven’t finished a complete draft of Accidental Futures, I’ve been going back and editing some things. This is absolutely something a writer should not do. If you start editing before you finish, you’ll never finish, and I know this, but here I am anyway putting together  revision notes. (Which may be my downfall on finishing before my self-imposed deadline, though my editor is being very accommodating.)

But just like those rambling sentences, as I’ve written I’ve figured out new things about the story — and not all of them fit in with how the story started. I’ve gone back and made notes about where I need to rework things to make the story flow smoothly. I have to do it sometime, and already having notes to work from for the next draft just makes me feel better about making everything fit together in the end. So I’m doing it even though I know I shouldn’t. (But have told myself that I can’t go back and completely rewrite anything. Then what happens if I change my mind about something? I’ll have to go back and rework all over again.)

So that’s where I am with work right now… though I’m sure to figure out more as I work through the next drafts. (My goal is three before it goes to my editor.)

And p.s., this is the third draft of this post. Enjoy!

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