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A good rough draft

Yesterday I finished a good rough draft of a longish story. What a glorious feeling!

I still have a lot of work remaining, but at least after the end of the rough draft, I know what kind of monster I’m dealing with. Before I write something, I know a story’s  general direction and choreography, but often I discover the awkwardness of certain transitions and dramatic moments which don’t turn out to be as dramatic as  expected.  Also, new details occur to me while writing that never would have occurred to me otherwise. These details are like gold found accidentally along the sidewalk.

Often when I finish the rough draft I realize how the beginning ought to be written. When I start, I rarely have an idea about how long my story will be or what parts will end up being the longest. But once I finish the rough draft, I see which scenes the story is driving towards and which scenes are mirages. Often after the first draft, I see where there is too much introspection and where the emotions are too raw or melodramatic. In the second draft I tone things down and delete whole chunks of introspection. Good riddance! I like it when stories are introspective, but when you are first writing something, you don’t know the best time and place in the story to have this introspection. Often during the first draft, introspection will leak out at several places because I’m unsure where this introspection ought to take place.

The hardest part about revising is not deleting entire scenes which are not holding their own. Once you write a scene from start to finish, you are unconsciously committing to every event in it. That is a dangerous tendency. Once you start with an idea of what dramatic action has happened, it is hard to bury  parts you know were  there. The hardest part about editing is not compression (that’s easy) but deleting three or four paragraphs at a time for the sake of pacing. When you finally realize that these three or four paragraphs are unnecessary and can be safely removed, it is like you have unlocked a new  secret to  the universe.

Although this story is told in third person, I generally use 1st person (a dangerous tendency I know). With first person, I always mess up tense and  time and always overindulge the inner monologue. It’s awkward to move back and forth between inner monologue and “meanwhile back in the real world.” With third person, there is a tendency to give too much information for the sake of the completeness. “And then they got in the car and went to the airport (long description about being in the plane, etc). When they arrived in LA, they saw….” (Uggh, I get tired just writing this! pity the poor readers!)

I spend a lot of time making a good first draft. A lot of people just rush through the first draft in hopes of getting to revisions. I understand that strategy (and occasionally I do that too), but for the most part a rough draft should be carefully written and you should especially be aware of narrative obstacles which are preventing the story from moving. Ok, if the obstacle is a simple verbal one (“how do I get them to the party from the house after the fight”?”) often I can put off decisions, but most of the time it helps to try to solve these problems in the first draft.

Now here is a nonobvious writing trick. You can write a scene which readers find to be pointless or boring. You can take that same scene, remove a few details and brighten a few phrases and tighten a few transitions and  voila! the scene will no longer offend (even if doesn’t bring big payoffs).   If you compared the original version vs. the tight version, the differences would seem unremarkable; both passages can look more similar than different;  but cumulatively the minor corrections can do wonders and fool readers into thinking you’re some kind of genius. I once got stuck on one paragraph of a love scene in a story (called  “T.I.W.”)  I spent two or three weeks revising the paragraph. The funny thing is, the paragraph wasn’t particularly important, and even the scene wasn’t that important. But I knew (don’t ask why) that the scene needed to be there; I had to make it work, and it had to be brief enough not to get in the way of the scene immediately before or after it. More importantly, this paragraph wasn’t supposed to stand out or to be too emotional or lyrical; it was supposed to be functional and drop a detail so casually that it seemed to be an accident. I agonized over this paragraph, and I even toyed with the idea of removing it altogether; any paragraph which was causing that much pain must not want to be written properly; at least that’s what I told myself. In fact, I sometimes give up on sentences or paragraphs; as competent a writer as I am, there are some sentences which I am utterly incapable of making beautiful (and yes, I am man enough to admit it). Finally, I hit upon a version which didn’t offend me. But alas, a week later, I revisit it and start tinkering again. Later, I change a sentences one more time. I just reread it again; it does not seem perfect – there is something off about the sentence rhythm – but the typical reader would not notice or care about it (at least that’s what I tell myself).

In an age of abundant prose and all sorts of artistic media, a writer can’t spend too much time polishing sentences (that luxury belongs to authors of a previous era). On the other hand, you have to be willing to do whatever it takes to make a paragraph work. Sometimes, you just have to stare at a screen until you fix it (and pray that inspiration comes). At other times, you have to revisit a sentences multiple times and even take a long break from it before retrying. Every time you revisit the painful passage, you increase your odds of randomly hitting upon a solution. It’s amazing how a sentence which seemed impossibly broken one day can be easy to fix a day later.

Finally, I wish to tackle the question of literary greatness. Writerly competence is a  craft you can learn. I am confident enough about my talents that most of what spills from my pen will be good and readable (I’m not including blog posts, which is just rambling). But readers don’t really respond  to merely competent writing; it doesn’t make them gush with enthusiasm. Readers get excited at originality and amazing plot construction and memorable characters with compelling stories. I confess I have no idea to achieve these things. Either you have it or don’t. With regard to the story with the challenging paragraph I mentioned earlier, I like the story a lot; parts of it are great, and I do a really good job of executing the story. But is it great? I have no idea. I can’t really say whether the plot or characters will touch a nerve. I can’t really say whether readers would think the odd psychology of the story is compelling or corny.

In my early 20s, I wrote  T.H.E, an amazing comic novella (still unpublished, but I will get around to it). It remains one of the freshest and funniest thing I have written. Anybody who reads it will love it (by the way, it almost won a prize, but alas, almost isn’t good enough).  It is absolutely original and the main character is memorable and fun. Even though the writing is competent and appropriate, the style is in fact, nothing special. The plot and character would be enough to entertain people (despite the occasional prolixity). In the year 2009 I have been trying to write a sequel to it. The idea of having a sequel is good, and I have a general idea of where the sequel should go – even though I have no idea about the specific incidents. The 44 year old writer is much more talented than the 24 year old writer. I’m sure that when I eventually get around to writing the sequel around some incidents,  it will be good and impeccably written. But will it compare favorably to the original novella? Probably not — but I’m hoping that people’s love for the original novella will make them tolerant of something less than brilliance in the sequel.

I make it sound like writing stories is like rolling the dice. Perhaps it is. I’d like to think that the 44 year old version of myself can sort through ideas more quickly than the 24 year old version.  The difference is that the 44 year old knows that the 24 year old has already written a great novella and knows he must must equal it in brilliance. When a 24 year old writes something, he has no idea about such things  (In fact, the  24 year version of myself knew he was talented but still wondered sometimes whether this self-confidence was a sham). The 24 year old could write with absolutely no pressure.

Can writing talent make a story great? I am repeating the question for emphasis; I wonder a lot about these things, and I still don’t know the answer. Some ideas seem great from the beginning; and if you are competent enough, you can usually help the story to realize its greatness. Occasionally,  I start a story not knowing if the dramatic action is interesting enough.  I wrote a yarn  (T.S.) two years ago with a far-fetched plot and an element of fantasy which might strike people as ridiculous. I  wrote it more as a lark.  But as I wrote it, I discovered new possibilities and new emotions. The story provided an outlet for  literary flourishes and dramatic action. (I’ve received  positive feedback from readers as well).  I hesitate to call this story “great” (who really knows?)  But there’s no doubt that my  original estimation of the story was way off base.  I never expected the final version to be as satisfying as it eventually was. I wonder: can a story be accidentally great?

So I am happy to have finished a first draft; I am also excited. I write every story with high expectations. It is a sad fact that every writer believes his story a great one while writing it. Only later, with the passing of time does the writer eventually accept that the initial expectation was wildly optimistic, that the writer should just be content with the knowledge that the story has been written at all – great or otherwise.

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