What exactly is a “draft”? If you go from beginning to end without any revisions, that could reasonably be called a draft. But do we really? I work on a scene forever before I move on, maybe I skip around a bit to feel out other characters, go back and take out scenes because now it doesn’t work, maybe revise a bit before moving on.
I was lucky enough to meet Ray Bradbury in the last year of his life. I asked him for advice for a newbie, and he said, “Honey, just sit down, get your story out, and have a ball, because it’s sheer hell after that.” He went on to say the work starts after you’ve played, after you’ve gotten the story down. The revising and the editing is where the actual work comes in.
My book took two years to get to the point where I thought it might get some bites, and I can’t say I went straight through from beginning to end.
“How many drafts did you do before you felt comfortable letting other people see it?” A question from a stranger at a party that made my eyebrows knit together. As usual, I didn’t want to disappoint with my answers. I thought about pulling a respectable number out of a hat, only to impress with all the hard word I put into the missive. “Twelve,” I would answer firmly. “Twelve long, hard, tough drafts where I killed all my darlings and created new ones.” That would certainly impress them.
But no. I said I didn’t count drafts, only to have the questioner turn away in disappointment. I can’t lie in real life. In stories, sure, but not to someone who seemed so deeply interested in my process.
Drafts? I don’t know. I messed, fussed, picked at, read, adjusted, moved, clipped, expanded, dumped, re-wrote, and massaged words all through the two-year episode.
But drafts? I didn’t start at the beginning and go all the way through to the end, if that’s what is meant by the word draft.
Which segues nicely into my next meander: are you a pantser or a plotter? See, if I were a plotter, I might have a better answer. I could go from the beginning, looking over at my outline of beginning, middle, and end, and breeze right through to the end.
But no. I’m a pantser. I write from the seat of my pants, my gut, my instinct as to what a character might do. What I think might happen seldom happens. As I get into my characters and start conversations (my husband hates it when I make that statement) with them, it becomes clear to me that they might do exactly the opposite of what I had thought the direction of the story might go. “Aha! She’s not going there – she’s going there and doing that, which makes the antagonist mad, and therefore leads us to X.” But when it comes to writing the “X” scene, what I think might happen may or may not happen. And so it goes.
I once had a mentor tell me that letting the characters dictate what happens when you’re writing is the wrong way to go and you’ll go off course and get muddled.
I call BS on that. “Stick to the outline,” he said. He even had us write out what each scene meant, where the conflict was, and what the motivation was for the character to do whatever it was that they did, and how it affected other characters. It ended up being an eighteen-page document that I resented for the time and effort I put into it, because I just wanted to write my story. I tried going by an outline, but didn’t feel at all creative and my characters were champing at the bit to do something different and surprise me, but I forced myself to stick to the script. I had no fun, and neither did my characters. They came out moody and dark, like bad actors on the stage. There was no heart, nothing to give them any dimension. I threw it all away and went with my gut.
That’s not to say I didn’t know the ending. I knew exactly where my characters would end up, it’s what happened in between the beginning and the ending that surprised me, and that’s where the creativity comes in.
Drafts? In my book (pardon the pun), it’s not a finite thing. What I start with in the beginning days of a new project I know will never appear in final form. It will be tweaked many, many times before it’s deemed ready to be seen by others’ eyes. And when I look back on the first keystrokes I blush at the audacity I had to even begin this journey, but with a lot of massaging and thinking, adjusting, and tossing, it can become something that rises from a humble beginning into something I am proud of. It came from me, pulled out line by line from my psyche, my heart, and my life.
You can’t get that from an outline. Just one woman’s humble opinion.
Just don’t ask me how many drafts I’ve done. I don’t have a respectable answer.