Lost, Somewhere on a Fictional World

I’m writing the first draft of my latest novel, second in a trilogy. It’s been a while since I wrote the initial draft of the first book. I’d forgotten the annoying little quirks of this stage, things like overusing specific words, dropping a plot thread and having to go back and reinsert it in chapters I’d already “finished,” having to rewrite a scene that sounded so great and easy to write in my beat sheet but when I actually began penning the words, the logistics felt clunky. At first I was discouraged, until I remembered that this is common for a first draft. I’ve heard of mythical writers who “get it right” the first time through and never need second, third or fourth versions.

I’m not one of them.

Right now, the only person who sees/hears the scenes when I finish is Bobby; he’s my enthusiastic sounding board and doesn’t hesitate to point out errors or problematic elements, for which I’m grateful. He also provides input when I know what I want to happen or what needs to happen, but I can’t figure out the best way to get there. I wouldn’t think of showing it to anyone else yet. It’s not ready. A first draft is like a painter’s preliminary pencil sketch on primed canvas or the metallic skeleton of a nascent construction project. It is the merest beginning of something that will develop with time. The painter adds layers of color, light and shadow to give her image depth and to provoke emotion in the viewer. The builder adds wiring, walls, roof, doors, and turns an open frame into a museum or a school or a home.

It’s worth noting, though, that the end product—so much more than the sum of its parts—relies on that first effort. Without a sound foundation, a house could collapse. Without a sketch, a painting’s composition could fall apart. Without a good first draft, a novel might end up in the digital trash in favor of a traumatic “do-over.” May the Muses save me from that headache as often as possible.

I think it was Mary Burton who once said in a workshop at the Hampton Roads Writers Conference that she usually gets it right by the seventh draft. I can relate. The first novel in this series went through about that same number before it got to where it is now. I’m a long way from that point in this work, but once I remembered that this is (my) normal first draft process, I became a writing fool. I’ve been ignoring phone calls, forgetting dates, missing appointments. I’m almost at the mid-point of the story, where something significant shifts in the main character’s situation, and I get really excited at the thought of uninterrupted writing time. The characters and the plot points circle in my head most of the day. Bobby makes a point of reminding me each morning to remember to stay in this world and in this time while I’m driving. (Insert honking horn here.)

So forgive me if I make this a short post. Alira (my main character) is just about to step in it big time, and she needs my full attention.

‘Til next week!

2 Replies to “Lost, Somewhere on a Fictional World”

  1. 1. beat sheet;
    2. I wouldn’t think of showing it to anyone else yet;
    3. the mid-point of the story, where something significant shifts in the main character’s situation.

    Good afternoon, Drama,
    I’ve copied and pasted these three phrases from your blog because they are either unfamiliar or just very different than my own process. So, here goes.
    1. What is a beat sheet?
    2. I always grab a reader for every word I put on paper, no matter how rough. And I don’t let them off with just sitting home reading what I’ve written. Oh, no! We get together and one or both of us reads it out loud. And when one of us hears a sour note, we may have to read a sentence or a paragraph out loud more than once before the ah-ha moment. I also, however, send off chunks of a manuscript as I’ve finished them and my “editors” are reading out loud at home. And, having done that, they have highlighted sections and made comments on the ms. itself and I then read aloud with and without their corrections, incorporate as I see fit, and move on to the next chapter. It is, I will admit, a very time-consuming approach, but it works for me. Having “trained” (read nagged) several of these folks in the benefits of the Dean Robertson Method, I then return the favor when asked. It creates a lovely little community of writers.
    3. I’m not sure I understand this. It sound like a writing “rule” or convention that you observe in your own work??

    I fear I am a rather disorganized sort of writer when it comes down to it. I’ve never been to writers’ conferences or writers’ groups. I did, over the period of two years when I was participating on the social media, get to know several very fine writers and exchanged some reviews. When I sit down to write, I don’t sit down with a plan of any sort. I mean, of course I know generally what I’m going to write about but nothing like a structure. And I guess I kind of draft and redraft as I go, looping back on myself pretty much when the mood strikes. I spend an unconscionable amount of time playing around with vocabulary and sentence structure.

    I think we all get there–the destination is the book. Our roads are just a bit different.

    When you have time, could you address 1 and 3 above? Thanks, Drema.

    1. Hi Dean! Good questions here. A “beat sheet” is sort of like an outline — it’s a list of the different scenes or “beats” you want to have in your novel. Each one should further the story’s goal and move it along toward an inevitable conclusion, otherwise it’s just taking up space. There can be as many story beats as your story needs, but there are a few that should (according to some plotter formulas) fall at specific points in the story. The first one, of course, is the hook, the thing that happens at or very near the beginning of the story. It is a “hook” in the sense that it nabs the reader’s attention and intrigues them so much they keep reading past the first chapter or so. The others are called (by some) “plot points.” The first plot point happens about 20-25% of the way through the book, and is the point when something happens to or with the protagonist that changes *everything*, with no going back. The midpoint is just that — the midpoint of the book, and happens between 45-55% of the way through. This is often a turning point for the protagonist. Before this, she has been REacting to the change that took place at the first plot point. At the mid-point, she takes a more proactive stance, and begins taking active steps to resolve her dilemma. The second plot point happens about 75% of the way through, and is when the protagonist’s last “battle” or struggle really peaks. There are other relevant points in this system, but to really understand it you should read Larry Brooks, Story Physics and Story Engineering. Both are excellent for someone who wants a way to plot out their story before diving in.

      There are others who advocate for a similar plotting structure that would run the middle two “quarters” together into one long segment; Christopher Vogler’s “The Writers Journey” describes this method in detail, comparing it to Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey.” Interesting reading, again for someone who wants to add some plotting techniques to their own process. Very motivational.

      It sounds to me like you are what I’ve heard called a “Pantser,” meaning you write “by the seat of your pants” with little or no prior plan. Someone who plans every single detail down to the last descriptive phrase would be called a “Plotter.” I used to be a total pantser, but found that a bit of planning helped me get where I wanted to go in less time and with less gnashing of teeth. I fall somewhere in the middle between the two, but my beat sheet (also a Larry Brooks term/planning tool) really helps me stay focused on where I want to go with my novel.

      You’re right, we all have our own strategies that work for us. As long as we get there, it matters little what road we took. 🙂

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