2022/02/15 - On Novel Rough Drafts and Process

On Novel Rough Drafts and The Writing Process

Aside from the novel wordcount update (88,800 btw), I wanted to post something more interesting this time: share my experience in novel writing so far. I am transitioning from finishing the first draft of my novel into revising toward the all-important second draft, and I am also realizing the significance of that writerly advice to 1. Trust the Process and 2. Finish What You Begin Even If It Doesn't Work.

I have attempted at least 3 novels before this one, but I have always given up somewhere before the halfway mark (40k - 50k words, give or take). I am now learning what a massive mistake succumbing to this loss of steam can be. I thought that the ability to realize when a project wasn't working and abandoning it showed discernment and efficiency as I could start the next attempt immediately. However, I seriously underestimated how many valuable lessons I was missing by never seeing the other half to completion.

3 Important Lessons Learned from Finally Completing a Novel

Point the First: You must become intimately familiar with the characters, which takes time.
My first mistake was in thinking that plot or setting would carry me to the end of the first draft. I would think something like
I'm doing a sci-fi dystopian epic in this interesting place I've created. I know how sci-fi dystopias can go, so I'll choose plot points until I reach some inevitable end. This approach eventually failed me every time. The infamous writer's block would crop up. I'd started too many plots and subplots without understanding how they fit into the larger narrative. I'd created dynamic and fun characters, but had no clear understanding of how they fit into the plot I was hacking together. I also didn't understand how each character related to the world I had built. I simply didn't understand my characters well enough. My mistake was that I didn't spend the time pushing through my own ignorance of my characters to figure out these answers. I just gave up and started something else instead.

Oddly enough, I should have learned this lesson from writing 3 seasons of Reynaldo the Assassin. Those characters drove the narrative because I understood their personalities, wants/needs, fears, and motivations. I knew what each of them would say, think, feel, and do in most situations. I had invested the time required to understand them as people rather than convenient vehicles who execute my desired plot points.

Point Two: You must remain open to the idea that the plot will turn out quite different than you thought.
My second mistake in my early days of attempting novels was to try and force a particular plot or story and railroad it to a predetermined endpoint. Anyone who plays D&D knows this storytelling mistake. In D&D, the DM cannot predict what the players will do and must adapt accordingly to various surprises. The novelist's job is similar, except you're the DM and roleplaying all the characters yourself. Railroading a story is just as unsatisfying to you and your readers as it is to D&D players. Embrace the joy of the unexpected and stay adaptable and responsive to new ideas and character developments as you go.

This is a lesson I had already learned in the context of short stories (under 20 pages) but struggled to apply to the novel's longer format. Novel characters need more room to grow and change. They need opportunities to redefine themselves from scratch, even. Each of these shifts will necessarily change the plot and can even change the fundamental themes of a long narrative as it develops. The characters I initially wrote for this novel are definitely not the ones I have now, but their final forms are right for the final story and vice versa.

THREE: You must embrace the mess that is the writing process and trust that revision will bring it all together.
My rough draft, while complete, is an absolute mess. I once perceived this mess as failure, but oh that is so untrue. This was a long standing, painful case of
do as I say, not as I do. I would teach my students to embrace the mess. Fix it in post. You can always upgrade, change, rearrange, and reinvent in subsequent drafts. The rough draft must exist first. Then, I would promptly not apply all that to my own novel attempts. Perfectionism has no business rearing its ugly head in the rough draft phase. Revision exists to put things in their right places just as much as editing exists to polish dull and mind-numbing sentences and phrasing. I lacked discipline in this regard for far too long.

Pushing through the discomfort and uncertainty of the messy rough draft has taught me that The Process does indeed work in all the ways I kept telling my students it did. I just didn't trust myself to be able to handle that mess at a novel-length scale. Well, every little bit helps, and a journey of 1000 miles starts with one step.

What Is This Writing Process Magic You Speak Of?

I don't want to turn this into a lecture, so I'll be concise. The Writing Process more or less consists of:

  1. Prewrite/Plan

  2. Rough Draft

  3. Revise (2nd Draft)

  4. Edit (3rd Draft)

  5. Proofread (Final Draft)

I kept failing at step 2 despite my best efforts at prewriting/planning because I didn't understand the value of spending so much time and energy understanding how my characters would naturally respond to the settings and plots I had planned. Worldbuilding does not a story make. All attempts at plotting should be regarded as a malleable goo instead of a wrought iron frame. Character is king.

As I thought about my characters over longer periods of time, discovering their quirks, motivations, desires, and fears, I began to see how each of these particular fictional entities defined themselves in relation to their world and circumstances. They began to direct themselves (creating a glorious mess where who they were in early chapters conflicted heavily with who they became in later chapters). I don't mean character arcs, either. They redefined their arcs against my feeble will the more I grew to understand them as people.

I became less a DM and more a roleplayer. I relied more on figuring out the logical reaction of Character A when faced with Conflict B. The outcome, Resolution C, felt less and less dictated by me as author and more and more dictated by the characters. It started to feel like I was simply summarizing a movie that was playing in my imagination. I didn't always know what should happen next, but eventually my characters did. Then, they showed me.

The rest is just words I typed to convey it.