I’ve been struggling to finish another full-length book this year. But, I finally realized what was holding me back and now I feel stupid because it was something I’d learned long ago. I wasn’t making my rough drafts rough enough.
THE PROBLEM: TOO MANY TASKS
I was writing my rough drafts so they would be fairly close to the finished work. I was showing, as per the old advice, not telling and trying to write each sentence to be its best.
That was stupid because that’s not what a rough draft is for.
Writing a book and telling a story are two different things. Both are important, but trying to do them both at the same time is a great way to get frustrated, hate everything and yell at your loved ones.
In doing both at once you’re trying to craft the tale and create engaging prose at the same time. That’s two things. That’s multitasking. And while we all claim to be good at multitasking deep down we all know we’re full of shit.
Separating the two processes speeds up the rough draft and the final work substantially.
THE SOLUTION: DON’T SHOW. TELL.
This is exact opposite of what everyone says. Show, don’t tell it great advice for good reason—telling a story is boring. Just listen to a kid tell you about their day. A book can’t be like that. But the rough draft isn’t for anyone but the author. And right now, they’re just laying out the instructions for the book to come.
The story is simply what happened followed by what happened next. So, I write my rough drafts like a 4-year-old tells a story: then this happened and then this happened and then this happened. Granted it’s a 4-year-old with a foul mouth and a twisted sense of humor, but a 4-year-old nonetheless.
There are a couple of steps to get to this point:
- First, I write down what the book is about. Just the basic plot line: “Hero is facing a threat.”
- Then I dived the story into thirds and write what happens in each third.
“The threat reveals itself.”
“Locating the threat.”
“Confronting the threat.”
- Then come the chapters. I break each chapter into what needs to happen to advance the story. This is where the big scenes and moments that were playing in the back of my mind start falling into place.
- This is where the rough draft really starts to take place and the 4-year-old really comes into play. Line by line I write what happens. Then what happens next. I tend to drop in dialogue as I go. But other than that it’s a line that says “the hero and threat fight. The threat gets the upper hand. A bear eats everybody. Etc.”
If I don’t have a name for a character I write THIS CHARACTER NEEDS A NAME and I’ll drop it in on the second draft. If I think there might be joke there, but I don’t know what it is, I’ll type JOKE HERE and move on.
Not only does this keep the story running in my mind and my fingers moving on the keyboard, it makes it easier to make changes. If I need to change something, I deleted a few lines of dry instruction instead of a thousand hard fought words that I might have fallen in love with.
Plots can be moved or abandoned without costing hours of work and new plots can be born just as quickly.
When I’m done with it I’ve got myself a perfect set of instructions to build the book.
THEN THIS HAPPENS: DON’T TELL. SHOW.
Every element is in place at this point. Every line of action is there. Everything that needs to be said is paraphrased. Every loose end is sewn up. Now it’s just rewriting. And that’s easy.
Really, now I’m just following my own instructions.
The line of instruction comes out and the captivating line of description goes in and everybody cheers.
WHY I RESISTED
Like I said, I knew all this. But, I hesitated.
It took me a while to embrace the roughest rough drafts.
I thought that the writing process would loose its fluid nature. I thought maybe the characters would no longer have control and they wouldn’t surprise me anymore. But, it still happened.
Even when writing in this very basic fashion I see the characters and scenes vividly. It’s all born in my head and describing it in the most basic way doesn’t change how I’d pictured it. It was just that I freed myself from writing it down and was able to focus on building the story.
WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?
At my fastest I could rough out two chapters in a full day. Twenty to thirty pages. Now it’s five to seven chapters in a couple of hours.
I’d know where the story needed to go but couldn’t get it there. That’s frustrating. Now it’s easier to stay enthusiastic about a story.
Writer’s block isn’t even a thing anymore.
A rough draft would take two to three months if I was lucky. Now, I can turn out a rough draft in about a week.
I yell less.
So, when it comes to rough drafts, the rougher the better.
Here are some other writing mistakes I’ve made.
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This was an excellent, helpful post. Too bad I’ve already almost completed another book in rough draft perfection as opposed to four-year-old drabble. Pinnin it so I’ll remember for the next one.
Thanks for this!
Thanks, DJ. I hope it helps.
Thanks. Needed to hear this because I’m struggling to finish my book. And yes I’m writing out every scene, all the dialogue, stopping to work on colorful descriptives, etc. Finishing half a chapter a day and hating every minute of it. I lost the excitement of writing.
Hi Ben. Thanks for this post. I actually write in a very similar fashion, but after finishing a massive rewrite of a novel last month that basically melted my brain after having to double the word count, I’ve been struggling with getting to the next big thing. Mostly, it’s because I forgot how I did it in the first place. You’ve just reminded me that it’s not some magical process that happens when the scotch that greases the wheels has just the right amount of woody undertones – though that certainly does help. Time to sit my ass back in my chair and have at it. After I have a scotch.
Scotch does make the sitting easier.