Second time around

Now that I’ve started rewrites on my NaNoWriMo ’06 project, I thought this might be a good time to describe my approach to fiction. This is by no means the only way or even the “right” way to write fiction, it’s just what works best for me.

For the first draft, best written for NaNoWriMo with reckless abandon, I take to heart Stephen King’s concept of stories as fossils, found things in the ground. The writer’s job is to dig up the fossil so its shape is visible and recognizable while breaking as little as possible. With that in mind, I start with an idea, a few characters and a vague sense of where I want to end up and start writing. The story twists and turns, tries to buck me off and I wander down a blind alley or three that go nowhere and force me to pretend they didn’t happen and start over at an earlier point in the tale, but I usually end up with a workable first draft this way. It’s not readable by anyone but me, and vast swaths of it even lack punctuation, much less perfect spelling, as those parts were typed literally with my eyes closed as fast I could go. This is what I finished three Novembers ago with Homeworld, my Mars novel.

A few weeks ago, I started reading back through that first draft, reintroducing myself to the story and characters. Two years may seem like a long time to let a story lie fallow, but it took that long for me to get enough distance from it to approach it again with fresh eyes. Rereading the story as a new reader I was by turns impressed and horrified at what I’d written. Some parts were great, others not so much. But the story beneath the telling was just as amazing as I’d remembered.

As I went through the first draft, I jotted down the major scenes, just simple reminders of what each scene was about. Like:

Bev is attacked by a space aardvark. The crew drives it away with Nerf bats.

(no, that’s not a real scene from the book)

This gives me a very loose outline (no Roman numerals here, despite what you were taught in school) for the second draft. Just a beat by beat summary of what happens.

Then, with the characters and their voices firmly in mind, I start the second draft. This is complete draft, taking nothing from the first other than the vague outline. I’m rewriting every word over again. And, as you might expect after a separation of two years, the second draft is different. So far there are things I prefer in the new draft over what I wrote originally, and there are things I think I did better the first time.

When I’m done with this draft, which will also be the first truly complete draft since the first draft got stuck in act 3, I’ll go back over both drafts and compare them scene by scene, and merge the best parts of each into draft number 3. After that, I’ll go back over the third draft for style, continuity, and then finally give the whole thing another polish to reduce word count as much as I possibly can, shooting for 80-85% the length of draft number 3, the combined version.

That’s the plan. For those of you working novelists out there (published or not), how does this compare with your process?

Update: Fittingly (or ironically, depending on your perspective) for an article about second drafts, I forgot to mention a few things on the first run through. Specifically, I told you what I do, but not why. Which is kinda important.

The outline process between drafts one and two is vital. While the first draft is all about creative abandon, the outline process is where I take the key elements of the story, rearrange and otherwise change them as necessary, and then reassemble them into a narrative structure that makes sense. This is where I find and plug plot holes, unconvincing character motivation, etc. When I start on the second draft, I’m secure in the knowledge that the story is solid. This is also where I get to do a lot of foreshadowing, since I know what’s coming up, knowledge I didn’t necessarily have in the first draft. But unlike draft number three, which is about style and craft, draft two is still about story, which is why I start over from scratch. There’s still room for surprises, but over an underlying structure rather than out of nowhere.