“The only draft that really matters is the final one, but the three-draft rule of thumb does seem to correspond to some fundamental rhythm in the process. First comes conception. Second comes development. Third comes polishing…”
-Stephen Koch, The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop
I’ve been thinking about the revision process a lot lately. To some people, the first draft is just that – the first whole draft they ever write of something. I tend to think of it as the first whole draft of any particular re-imagining.
I may write multiple drafts on the same premise, but if enough core elements have changed, I call it a new first draft. I do this because there’s a vital difference between writing a novel and re-writing it. First drafts are allowed to be crap. Second drafts, not so much.
Authors from across genres agree; stories start from some fundamental idea. It can take the form of a creative nugget. Or a persisting question. As the writer thinks about these things, they form a type of vision for the story. You don’t need to know the ending or the inciting incident, the main character or the main conflict; you just need this idea, this sense of what you want to write about.
And that’s all the first draft is. Writing about your vision. You are trying to find your story.
Sometimes I imagine a big jar of beads dumped out on the floor, and a little child with a long piece of string, creating a mishmash of a necklace. You sort the beads even as you create a pattern. It’s going to change every second, because half of it will be choosing which stories you don’t want to write about.
This is the value of outlining; you get to experiment before you ever begin writing. Incidentally, this is why outlining is not for everyone. I need to write my story before I can know it: outliners need to know their story before they can write it.
Your second draft (or drafts) takes all your experimentation, all the raw data you’ve gathered, and tries to find a focus. It takes the string of beads and looks for the natural pattern.
Your first draft is probably a gaggle of plots, thematic elements, and even premises – ideas you tried to work into your novel. Now is the time to find your core story. So in the second drafts, you do a lot of identifying.
What are your main characters, your main story arc, your main plot? What is your core conflict, theme, and voice? What tense, point of view, and narrator? What style best fits these elements? Second drafts are about finding your focus, and then shaping the story around it.
By the time you reach the middle drafts, the story going to be complete, but jagged. You will have all the right pieces and they will all fit together. Your goal now is coherency in everything: flow, pacing, continuity. So you begin honing. Tightening. The excess is cut, the remains are improved. This is when most of the fleshing out happens. This is also where you start adding subtleties, foreshadowing, and thematic elements.
You are making the story deeper. All the parts must come together – the small things must work together, and they must work with the big things, and the big things must work with the small.
By the finishing drafts, your goal is much simpler. All the shuffling and focusing is done. All the roughness is smoothed and the honing is complete. Finishing drafts are for making each chapter, scene, and sentence as dynamic as possible. You’ll unleash the inner editor. You’ll make your dialogue snappy, your descriptions live, and your exposition profound.
Whatever you made better in the first drafts, you want to make best in the finishing drafts. And you keep doing this. Until changes are worse than what they replaced, until you have fixed your fixes so many times, that neither solution feels right.
Then you are done.