This month’s blog post is in honor of reaching my first do-over of my current project. Now, I have accepted that I’m not a very good outliner. I can’t seem to gauge if a plot will make sense until I try to write it; what may seem logical in bulleted form often turns out to be nightmarish in prose. Plus, I often don’t know what the characters really need until I’ve really gotten to know them, and the best way to do that is also by writing them. Sure, I can fill out all the character questionnaires in the world, but that won’t tell me anything about their actual voices. (I do love a good character questionnaire, though. They’re fun as hell, and they’re the best kind of guilt-free procrastination fodder because they feel semi-productive, even though they’re mostly not for me.) In any case, I love rewriting. Circling closer and closer, draft after draft, to something that feels Right and Good is the best part of the whole process for me.
That means, of course, that first drafts are the worst part. Mostly, I just have to grit my teeth and remind myself that I do actually love writing while I produce garbage sentences and plot holes the size of the Marianas Trench. Moments of delight alleviate the frustration when I learn something important about a character or I happen upon a turn of phrase that works well, but overall it’s a slog. That’s fine. It can’t all be fun, and at least I know that trudging my way through the first bit will bring me to the good stuff eventually.
Still, it would behoove me to learn some things from my past first draft mistakes, if only so I can make different ones. After the first 30K words of this project, it has become clear to me that I should write this down so I can avoid painting myself into these particular corners again:
- For the love of god, stop placing all of your characters literally miles apart from one another at the beginning of the story. When you do that, you will then spend ALL of your time simply schlepping them from one place to another so they can interact, which eats many, many words without actually moving the plot or being interesting.
- Seriously, stop doing this. I don’t think you’ve ever not done this on the first go-round. You’re on your fourth novel, Kathleen, get it together.
- On a somewhat similar note, a decent number of your major players need to know each other before the story starts. They can’t all be brand new acquaintances, or, again, you’re just going to hemorrhage words introducing everyone.
- LINE. In terms of characterization, sure, complicated and messy is the way to go (only awful babies need apply), but in terms of plot, try to give everyone one main goal at a time. Preferably, several of them should share that goal. Once they get there, then that can give way to the next goal.
- Like who are you even trying to be over here, George R.R. Martin? No. No, you are not. You respect yourself more than that.
- With that said, the characters are going to feel weird about their goas, or get distracted from them, or figure out they were wrong. Pay attention when this happens, because that’s what will be important in the subsequent drafts. You know, the ones that are actually good.
- (Full disclosure, I have an upper limit of how streamlined my plotting ever really gets, and I know that limit sometimes falls short of conventional wisdom. But Fast-Paced Plot is quite a few tiers below Characters Who Feel Real for me as both a writer and a reader, so sometimes detours must be made. Just not quite as many detours as I took in the first 30K of this story, lord help me.)
- And finally, an evergreen reminder: if you find a character explaining, in great detail, why something makes sense, that means that it doesn’t.
- Let the finale of the first season of the reboot of The X-Files be your guide. Even the unparalleled menace of the Cigarette Smoking Man couldn’t make his five-minute long monologue about “why this plot twist totally works” anything other than cringeworthy.
So off I go to draft 1.5, with an outline that probably still has tons of nonsense in it, but hopefully not the specific aforementioned nonsense. Wish me luck, friends! Because as irritated as I currently am with this story, I am very excited to get it to the place where other people can read it. It’s about death, the characters are terrors, and there’s gonna be footnotes. Can’t wait to get to the good part.