Lessons Learned: A First Draft Postmortem

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Not too long before Christmas last year, I completed the first draft of a novel, The Black Hat Initiative. It was not my first novel, but it’s certainly the only one that isn’t complete bullshit given a cursory review in the delivery room, so I figure that’s something of an achievement.

It took me three perilous years, working off and on, to create this patchwork monstrosity. While I regard it with all the affection a mad scientist would offer a recently-finished death ray, I also want absolutely nothing to do with it for the next few months. I’ve been veritably pickled in the world of that story, swimming around in it until my fingers and toes got all prune-y and pale. It goes to figure that I’d need some time away.

BUT, I learned some very important things about my personal process, and those things will probably make future novel drafts slightly less haphazard and prolonged. Keeping in mind that any advice I offer here is strictly born of my personal experience, and may in point of fact only apply to me, let’s soldier on!

1) “Serious” and “dramatic” are not synonyms.

This lesson was maybe the weirdest one that I came across, but in this particular context it served me incredibly well. See, all the media that I really truly love–Tengen Toppa Gurren LagannThe LibrarianWarehouse 13Hogfather, music by Dragonforce–all are absolutely, completely, 100% absurd when you look at them in the light of day. Storehouses of preternatural artifacts? A guy with a bajillion degrees saving the world from Kyle MacLachlan with his wits alone? The anthropomorphic personification of Death having to do not-quite-Santa Claus’s job? A kid goes from living underground with his best buddy to piloting a robot with a height measured in light-years that throws galaxies like ninja stars? I mean, holy shit guys.

All of it is absolutely ridiculous. However, all of it is also very dramatic. Seriousness and drama are not the same thing. I feel like this is a mistake a lot of people make, and one that I continued to make up until relatively recently. Drama comes from engagement–being fond of the characters and caring about their journey–and from the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. It doesn’t come from being grim and gritty and other words that start with “gr,” none of which are things I’m particularly good at or that I even like very much.

Which is probably why this novel, the first novel that I’ve completed in a decade, is about kids who go to a secret school that teaches them how to make superpowered hats, and why the heroine is helping stave off the imminent demise of humanity as we know it by the end. But at the same time it’s about friendship and romance and the unpleasant weight of adult responsibility on a teenage shoulders. That, I feel, grounds it enough that when the superpowered hats come out, it is not just fun, it’s also dramatic.

2) Change is good.

If I am anything, I am predictable. Except for the times when I’m incredibly, obsessively mercurial.

Writing time is, for me, unpredictable time. It’s almost as much about figuring out the story for myself as it is telling it to others. When I started Hat, I had an outline. An honest-to-God outline. I almost never do that, but it was NaNoWriMo 2011, and I needed every foothold I could chip out of November’s unforgiving, calciferous surface.

Surprisingly enough, I followed it. I followed the outline, plus some. As I wrote, subplots and character arcs sprang up that I had no idea would even exist during the outlining stage. It was as if I was tending a garden with a single flower in it, and all these weeds started popping up, but instead of pulling the weeds I went, “Holy crap these weeds are totally baller” and just let them go. Luckily, they didn’t strangle the main plotline, but maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if they had. It might have just meant that the original plotline lacked oomph.

Oh, and if you have to change a character’s name, ethnicity, mode of speech, family, or entire personal history in order to keep going? DO IT. Pretend like the character had always been that way and forge ahead. But do NOT, under any circumstances, try to go back and rework what you’ve already written, because you should…

3) NEVER edit anything over a sentence old.

See what I did there? BOOM, segue! That’s how the pros do it.

Anyway, that instinct to go back and fix stuff after you’ve written it? To repair continuity, or to add in foreshadowing? The nagging voice of your inner editor, telling you to revise and polish what you’ve already got, its presence weighing you down like the insistent maleficence of the One Ring?

DON’T LISTEN TO IT.

Loitering in the first draft’s past will only cost you time working on its future. Once you finish the full first draft, and once it has aged on your hard drive like some kind of fine digital wine, then you can make those changes your inner editor is so desperate for. Until then, just keep putting words down, and know you’ll sort that other crap out eventually.

4) Need a character? TOSS ‘EM IN.

For me, at least, it’s pretty damned impossible to fully populate a world while putting together an outline. I gotta get inside the world, take my shoes off, let the mud squish between my toes a bit before I realize, “Oh yeah, I guess that place really would need a psychiatrist or ten on staff, wouldn’t it?”

Those insights, the times when I understood that the world of the story needed a certain individual to function as a coherent place, brought me a whole slew of characters who will be playing considerable roles in the stories following Hat. Some of them will probably be conflated or remixed to keep the number of characters in a manageable range.

That, however, is a problem for Future James and his Future Drafts.

5) For the love of God, Montresor, WRITE!

Yes, for the love of God!

And here we get to the most odious sticking-place of all. The fact that, at the end of the day, novels don’t spring into existence through wishing or daydreaming or word-faeries. You just have to sit down and grind through the whole beast, one word at a time. The best way for me was to not even think terribly hard about what I was writing. To just let the logic of the story lead things forward. “Right, I guess we should check in on Headmistress Li. She was in it pretty deep last time we saw her. Oh, and we haven’t heard from Major Giacomo in a while. She’s probably about to get somewhere interesting.” And when that didn’t work, I’d hit up the outline. “Oh shit, right, that has to happen. Okay, I’ll write that.”

For perspective, I wrote thirty thousand words of Hat during NaNoWriMo 2011, barely scraped together thirty thousand more before NaNoWriMo 2014 landed, and then banged out around forty thousand words over NaNoWriMo and December of 2014. This means that seventy thousand words of my novel–over two-thirds–were written in the span of just three months. Three months where I trucked my laptop everywhere I went, wrote during lunch and after work and whenever I had a spare moment. The remaining one-third were produced in fits and starts scattered across three years.

The most baffling thing? The quality of the stuff written in an orgiastic word-frenzy doesn’t differ a whole lot from the stuff carved out at a careful, measured pace.

I think, if anything in this list will apply to just about everyone, it’ll be this point:

Write. Write fast. Write hard. Write like someone killed your sensei and the only way to reclaim your dojo’s honor is to finish. That. Draft.

Be tired and amazed when you wrap up the denouement.

Then lock the damned thing in a vault, scrub the placental goo off your hands, and find something else to do while that first draft congeals.

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