The Zeroth Draft

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So I’ve written plenty of times before about how my basic story writing process works from first to final draft: story dump, read through, fix what’s broken, make it pretty, read it aloud. I don’t think I’ve ever really written about what goes into things before the first draft.

What makes up the 0th draft?

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I was pretty much a pantser when it came to writing. Either I would start with a cool concept or character or situation and write until I found my way to the end or, sometimes, just start writing and see what happened, figuring things out as I went. It was fun, and it worked well enough for me for a first draft, but after that first draft, it got to be a lot more work.

The read through produced a crazy number of notes and things to be addressed, probably twice as many or more as it does now, and in the second draft, where I actually fixed all the problems, I often turned up a whole bunch more that I missed the first time instead of just a handful. That said, although the second drafts took a lot longer than my first drafts, they might have made the third draft part of the process a little easier.

One of the major projects that I’m working on right now is a return to my roots in that method. I started with the scene of a small group of people exploring the wreck of an alien battle cruiser when the partner of someone another team runs up them and collapses. That partner turns at be another, different kind of alien, whom humans are allied with, but who only communicates in the couplets and verses built out of iambic touch amateur.

That scene has led me to how those known aliens form bonds with other species, lost alien colonies, remains of a collapsed alien Empire, and exploring the galaxy far, far off the far frontier. It’s fun, and at this point I more or less have the ending in mind, and have for a while, but the story itself messy, crazy, all over the map, and probably has a whole lot of internal inconsistencies. I think the basis of a good story is there, but it’s going to take quite a few editing hours to bang into a shape words actually readable and flows properly.

Which, essentially, is the reason I don’t really write that way anymore, even when looking at short fiction. In more recent times, I’m an outliner, and, to a certain extent, a plotter. I use what I guess is kind of a semi-snowflake process to get to the first draft. I like the basic methodology of starting with what essentially is a log line, blowing that up into a few sentences of what the key plot points are, blowing those up into chunks a story arc, and then breaking those chunks of story arc down into chapter or scene level bits of description. Those bits usually wind up having 50 to 150 words each in them, so that by the time all is said and done, my outline process has produced a document that is somewhere between five and eight thousand words long.

And that’s before I even start the first draft.

I don’t follow the snowflake method, exactly, even on the plot side of things, and I don’t follow it all on the character side of things. I like the characters to help me tell who they are through the course of the writing, and sometimes that means that I wind up having to adjust the plot here and there, and that’s okay.

After I’ve got that scene level district description document, now it’s time to build the tracking file for the story as well. This is basically a scene or chapter listing, sometimes both, with a prediction of approximately how many words each of those scenes will take to complete. Those are broad guesses, though, even if I frequently wind up plus or -25% from the initial projection. In the final word count, once I reach the end of the read aloud draft, may bear no relation to that initial projection. Just because I write something that I expect to take 1500 words in the first draft doesn’t mean the final draft won’t be 3000, or 500, or, occasionally, disappear entirely with the important bits sprinkled somewhere else in story.

And I do, to the course that first draft, leave myself room for a little pantsing, to explore more of the world than I had originally planned to or because the way the characters have developed indicated something very, very different should happen next. I’ll veer off the plot but figure out ways to get the same basic events and steer my way back to it eventually. Last year, working on the second of what was originally the Troll World Quartet, I had two big deviations that added between eight and 10,000 words each to the story, but both added appropriately to the story I was working on and both became critical to the modified storylines in what were originally the third and fourth books. I overshot the original plot length island by more than 25,000 words, and I think there’s still little bit to build in. That book has a fairly logical split point, so it’s likely going to wind up being a Quintet, but I’m getting sidetracked.

These days, I’m a significant outliner who allows himself space for as much pantsing as he wnats, most of the time.

And I follow the same basic principle of short stories, although it’s a much more compact version of it. Single sentence description of the story becomes thumbnail sketch of story arc becomes a single sentence to describe each scene in the story becomes first draft. There’s probably no Excel tracking involved unless it’s part of a larger, connected set of stories, or my initial expectation is that it’s going to be a novella.

I do find that having the outline, even if I don’t necessarily follow it exactly, or even closely sometimes, helps me keep the end goal in mind, the narrative on or close to track, and makes sure that each scene is contributing to some combination of story developments, character development, and world building. I kind of like it when a scene does all three. Though not all of them do.

So, before I even start the first draft of a novel, there’s usually some significant amount of time spent on figuring out story events, at least in broad strokes, and building the basic structure of the tale. Different writers have different needs of course, and there are different names for this piece of the process. A lot of those come down to something like “pre-writing”, but I tend to think of the various pieces of that as writing as well. You’re still making progress in creating the story, and that counts just as much as editing after story has made it out of your head and into a first draft. It’s still making words.

Be well, everyone.

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Lance
Lance Schonberg is an eclectic genre fiction author with more than two dozen stories published or on the way. 2019 is the year he dives into independent publishing, starting with "Thorvald's Wyrd", "Skip To My Luu", and "Turn the World Around". And he needs a more exciting short bio.

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