The Process, Part II: From Zeroeth to Final Draft
To read part one of Donald’s post, click here.
I’m going to let you in on a secret. Virtually every word of fiction I’ve ever written I’ve written out longhand first. Some of it is a convenience issue. Given that I write in snatches, it’s a lot easier to keep a few pieces of paper folded in my pocket and work on a story when the opportunity presents itself.
But I also find that I connect with my story better through the physical act of applying pen to paper. I’m not entirely sure why this is, but it’s what works for me. (I recently learned that Jeff VanderMeer has a similar process, starting with pen and paper.)
So I have my premise and the outline of a structure. What I like to do next is to get words down on paper as fast as my schedule allows. If I haven’t figured out a character’s name or how I get from point A to B, I leave a blank and move on. In a story like “The Lovebug Murders” with multiple points of view, I sometimes will follow a single viewpoint and then come back to the others. In this instance, I followed the serial killer’s point of view for a while and then came back to the investigator’s.
The main goal in this phase of the process is to keep the narrative flow going until I get a more or less complete version of the story. I call this first hand-written version of the story the “zeroeth” draft. It’s nothing as formal as a first draft. It’s the draft before I have the complete idea of the story. Calling it the zeroeth draft gives me the mental freedom to be messy, to make mistakes, to have no clear idea of where exactly I’m going. It’s no big deal. It’s just the zeroeth draft. Just get the thing written.
That’s the point at which I ran into the biggest hiccup with my TWA story. I wrote about 500 words of a version of the story with a very different setup. There were going to be two detectives, a chief appearing as a speaking character, and a couple of false leads. But I realized by the end of my second day of the contest week that I wouldn’t be able to finish a story that complex in the allotted time.
So I abandoned that draft. I took about a day to re-imagine the story, almost going back to the brainstorming stage. But at least I had the feel of what I wanted to go for. I wasn’t starting over from nothing. I just had to figure out a way to make the tale more manageable for the time constraints.
So I stripped the story down to just two “on-screen” characters. This allowed me to get at the heart of my basic idea in a scale that I could actually finish on time. The first sections of this new zeroeth draft went very quickly. The ending was a little bit trickier. It took me through Monday to see where the story was leading me. But the solution I hit upon was already there in the zeroeth draft.
The next stage for me is to type my handwritten draft into the computer. This is already part of the revision process, especially since I can’t always read my own handwriting! I will try to catch any grammatical mistakes I can, clean up the phrasing, and fill in as many of the blanks as I can. The Word file becomes my official first draft.
In an ideal world, I like to have beta readers at this point in the process. A good critique group like Critters is an excellent resource. This was not an option in the compressed time frame of the arena. I printed out a version of the first draft and read over it myself. In the revision process, I often like to work from back to front. Remember that I’ve been through the story twice already, not counting any in-brain drafting. It’s easier to gloss over mistakes because of my own familiarity with the story. Reading things from the last page backwards can help “defamiliarize” myself enough to make mistakes easier to catch. Reading backwards can also help me catch concepts and images at the end of the story that I want to Chekov into the beginning.
For “The Lovebug Murders” I even used my Bic four-colored pen for editing. Red for things I definitely wanted to change. Green for sections that were okay but could be improved. Blue for general insertions or notes to myself (like the victim’s name, which wasn’t added until this point). Not that I use the same color-coding every time, but the different colors help me evaluate where to put my focus during rewriting.
I worked second shift on Tuesday, so that gave me the time in the morning not only to go through the printed copy but also to rewrite the story. This version was a literal re-write.
I took my printed copy with all my notes and wrote the entire thing over again by hand, incorporating the changes as best I could. For better or for worse, there were no structural changes at this point, mostly phrase or paragraph polishing. Then I spent what story time I had on Wednesday checking this second written copy against the computer file and making the choices I thought worked best for the story.
Oddly enough, I usually find that my final draft is longer than my first draft. I’m not sure why that is exactly. It could be that when I’m composing I have a tendency to write in a telescoped style which I then have to expand for the story to make sense to anyone else. For my TWA story, the final draft is about 100 words longer than the first draft. I read through the story one last time and submitted it to the contest.
These are pretty much the steps I follow for any fiction I write. They’re what work for me. I know if I leave any of these steps out, I wind up with a weaker story. I appreciate everything that Tony and Albert and the guys are trying to do with TWA, and I wanted to give them my best effort within the week time limit.
I leave it up to you, dear reader, to decide to what extent I succeeded or failed.
Donald Jacob Uitvlugt lives on neither coast of the United States, but mostly in a haunted memory palace of his own design. He studied book-fu on the peak of Jinshan Mountain at the feet of Ray Bradbury, Charles de Lint, and Zombie Basho.
Donald strives to write what he calls “haiku fiction,” stories that are small in scope but big on impact. (Find out more about haiku fiction here. He welcomes comments at his blog http://haikufiction.blogspot.com or via Twitter @haikufictiondju.
For the record, his surname is Dutch, and he pronounces it “EYEt-flukt.” Tony and Al get better at it the more they say it.
His book-fu is better than yours.