Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Various drafts of a novel: Blocking, First Draft, Second Draft, Third Draft, Polishing into eternity

I have heard rumours that there are people who write their novel from start to finish, without even knowing how it's going to end - though I must say, I've never seen any hard evidence of this.

I've also met people who say constantly rewriting is a waste of time, and that you should consider every word carefully the first time you put it down. Admittedly, these are the kind of people who follow recipes to the letter, while I take instructions and quantities as more of a... suggestion.

However, the majority of quotes I've heard from successful, published quthors, suggest that nobody gets it right first time, and coming up with a decent novel requires drafting and redrafting.

I can't speak for anyone else's working process, but I'm going to set down here the process I've developed over the years, which I've found gives me the most benefits.

These include: pretty much eliminating writers block, increased effiency, being able to knock out a draft in a fraction of the time it took me before, and a more consistent, solid story.

The Novel Factory guides you through the planning steps


I'm not going to go into detail about planning here, because frankly, I could write a whole blog about it (and hey, look at that - I am!). But I do want it to have a clear position, because planning has to have been done (in my opinion), before you can get to blocking. If you say 'pah' to planning and want to get straight into thrashing out words, then so be it - but don't say I didn't warn you. If you want to know more about planning a novel, then you can read about my novel writing roadmap, or even better, check out the software that takes you through each step of writing a novel.


This is a sort of pre-first draft stage, which I find invaluable. Following the loose notes I have for the plot, I go through and loosely write out what is going to happen in each scene. I often do it in the present tense, which also helps make it clear that I'm not writing prose (cue heated debate about writing in the present tense). It looks a bit like this:

Bob comes into the room and finds Joe there, who is acting suspiciously. They have a conversation about where Joe was last night and Bob drops into conversation that Sarah didn't answer her phone.

Bob paces around the room angrily, and Joe eventually storms out, saying he's never done anything wrong, and it's Bob who's the bad friend.

Bob throws some stuff around, then finally settles into the armchair with a glass of whiskey. He rolls the whiskey round and thinks about things. Could he have been wrong? Maybe Sarah really did run out of battery...

Etc etc.

You can notice a few things about this.

Firstly, I break the cardinal rule by telling, instead of showing. That's because it's blocking, not prose. I just want to sort out stage directions and roughly what's said. I'm not slowing myself down by thinking about making sure it comes across in a good way.

Secondly, I don't write the actual dialogue. If I had a particularly witty line that I just knew would have to be in, then I would note it, but generally I avoid going into actual dialogue, because if you do that then before long, you find yourself writing in too much detail (writing prose, basically), and then you'll get tied up before the blocking is finished.

As I'm doing my blocking, plot holes and snags come up, and I'm able to go back and make changes without having wasted hours, days or weeks, polishing a particular scene which then has to be hacked about or even completely cut.

Once  you have steamed through the blocking and you have a strong scaffold with all the biggest problems noticed and fixed, you can move onto the first draft.

The First Draft

This awesome writing programme shows you all your plot & structure notes
I used to hate writing the first draft. That's because my planning was poor and I hadn't done blocking, so I'd find myself constantly going back and having to change huge chunks of prose that I'd lovingly crafted. Also, I'd spend hours staring at the blank screen trying to think of what to do next, and trying to keep all the story elements straight in my head so I didn't mess anything up, all while simultaneously trying to think of a killer metaphor. It's enough to make your head explode.

Not anymore. Now the first draft flies out of my fingers, and I can usually get a 40,000 word first draft knocked out in a couple of months (versus a year and a half for my first novel).

That's because all my blocking is there to tell me what's happening next, so I can concentrate on immersing myself in the scene, visualising my characters in their locations, having their discussions, comfortable in the knowledge that the large scale things are taken care of.

The first draft is where I really start to write prose. I'm trying to write as if that's what the readers will be reading.

However, at this stage, I still try not to obsess too much about the exact details, such as balance of action and description, action > reaction (see below), or getting descriptions perfect. I do try to show not tell, and avoid adverbs, but I don't freak out about it.

As with the blocking, I do my best to force myself to get all the way to the end, rather than becoming distracted with polishing a particular scene or conversation.

The Second Draft

The Novel Factory keeps track of novel drafts - and it's free to try!
The second draft is an interesting time because you have so much material to work with, and it's so satisfying to rewrite, cut it up, cut bits out, rearrange sentences, swap paragraphs, and generally hone and polish. I would say that at the second draft I probably rewrite almost every single word, but it doesn't feel like it.

This is where I really start to feel I'm getting towards a finished product (I'm not, it's still miles off, but I like to fool myself).

Now is the time to obsess about completely eliminating anything that's not perfect. Doesn't add to plot, atmosphere or character development? Cut it. Description a bit waffly? Compress it. Sentence clunky? Restructure it. Every word should be perfect.

A major technique I use at this stage is checking the action > reaction cycle in the small scale prose. Basically, this boils down to making sure every two paragraphs follow this structure:

Paragraph One: External, impersonal description of the facts. E.g. Boris pulled a gun from his jacket.

Paragraph Two: Internal reactions, going through: feeling, reaction, thought. E.g. Samantha's heart started beating in double time. She reached for her own gun, thinking: Not this time, sucker.

I'll go into the action > reaction cycle in more detail in another post, but if there's a secret to writing great prose that yomps along and just feels, right,the action > reaction cycle is it.

The Third Draft

Depending on how well you did your second draft, and how fussy you are, your third draft may be a similar process to the second draft, or it may be more of minor exercise, tweaking a word here and there, but no major changes.

Around this time it's really useful to get a second opinion from someone who can read it afresh and give you a sense of what works and what doesn't. Obviously, you have to use what's available to you, but personally I highly recommend using a local, face to face writing group for this, as family and friends generally don't offer the kind of feedback you need, for various reasons, and online feedback also has its limits.

Polishing into Eternity

The advice before you attempt to submit your work to agents, is that you should make sure it's absolutely the best it can be. I understand that they receive a baffling number of half cut, lazy manuscripts - with hopeful, but hopeless wannabe authors expecting the agent to edit it for them - and they want to avoid that.

But the question of when a novel is the best it can be is an impossible one. Of course, you can always, always, make improvements. But that is the road to insanity. So, at some point you simply have to put down your pen and call it finished. At least until it's A) been rejected by at least twenty agents / publishers and B) You've finished your next novel.

Good luck, and comments on how other people find the drafting process and what you think about my process are very welcome!

And in case you haven't noticed, if you find this or any of my other posts useful, I'd highly recommend having a free trial of the Novel Factory, a creative writing programme by writers, for writers.

No comments:

Post a Comment