Early drafts can be a real grind. Especially if you don’t really have the story straight in your head yet. Sometimes, I sit up in bed at two in the morning, awakened by the force of the muse dropping an entire story into my head all at once. In these cases, I run to my computer and make a bunch of notes, guideposts that will help me remember this gift in its entirety. But most stories don’t come that way. Most stories grow organically out of a ‘what if’ moment.
The impetus for my novel The Vengeance Season came from this little nugget: What if a guy went back in time to solve his grandfather’s murder and accidentally ended up saving his life? And what if saving his grandfather’s life changed the future so that time travel had not been invented? I ended up rewriting all the time travel out of it, but that was how it started and that version got me an agent.
The idea for Murderology was basically, what would happen if a group of sleuths got together to hunt serial killers and the serial killers recognized them as a threat and started hunting them?
Those aren’t fully formed stories. Those aren’t even ideas. They’re musings. When you’re developing a story, be it a short story or a novel, from something as thin as that, you’re on a completely different footing than when you’re writing a story you know all the way through. The first few drafts of a story based on a whisper of a shadow of an idea are just exploratory exercises to get your brain thinking in the right general directions.
And, inevitably, there comes a moment during a first draft of that sort when you realize you’ve gone the wrong direction on a bad road and the bridge is out ahead. That’s when you tell yourself to just turn around and start over. Just abandon the draft and start again. It sounds logical but it is in fact a mistake.
I’m there at that place right now working on a short story that got away from me and ballooned up to novella size while I wasn’t paying attention. With two paid short story publications, I don’t have the guano to get a novella published in any magazine that I’m not currently an editor of. And, truth be told, I’m not sure I would publish this novella. Why? It’s not done yet. It’s a first draft of a glimmer of a spark of an idea.
Imagine you’re an editor of a big SF magazine. You spend half your time reading unsolicited submissions, most of which are truly awful, by unknown or unproven writers and the rest of your time doing 100% of your job. You’ve set a hard limit on short stories at 8,000 words because space costs money and publishing one novella basically means you can’t publish three stories by other equally deserving authors.
If someone sends in a novella it had better come with some extraordinary bonafides. I don’t have those bonafides so I know full well at this very moment that I’m trying to close up the wound on this draft that this version of the story will never see the light of day. So cut bait, right?
Actually, no. And let me explain why: I’ve been in this position many times before and I’ve always taken the path of least resistance and abandoned the draft to head back to the beginning and start over with a fresh perspective. That has uniformly proven to be a mistake for two reasons.
First, I will eventually reach the end of a later, successful draft only to find that I have no experience with the finale because I’ve been ejecting early during every previous attempt. Even if the ending you come up with is inappropriate for the final product, the ideas you play with in that endspace will be important explorations into the nature of your story. You have to know the paths the protagonist didn’t take just as well as the one he did if you want to know him completely.
Secondly, you don’t know which part of your story sucks until it’s over. If you stop at 66% and tell yourself it’s a wash and go back to the start, how can you know which part was the wrong part? Was it the beginning that was messed up? If so, how do you know the ending was equally bad?
The novel I’ve been working on here and there for the last five years is now growing backwards. I have the ending I want because I went all the way through a draft I knew I didn’t want to use. It turned out that the first 66% of the novel was rubbish but the last third was exactly what I wanted. Now I’m pulling a John Irving and working from the ending toward the beginning.
I like to think of the bad draft as the 40% solution. Even as I’m writing it, I know it’s mostly bad. Let’s say it’s 60% bad. But that leaves 40% that’s good. And it may not be a contiguous 40%. There may be a scene here and some dialogue there that need to be saved but you would never have them if you pulled the big red handle before reaching the end of the draft.
“You wouldn’t have these problems if you worked from an outline,” I hear you saying. That is you, right? But the truth is that I have worked from an outline before, several times in fact, but the outline is never the complete realization of the story. It’s just the frame on which you hang the story. And, unlike with architecture, you can’t know ahead of time if the frame is right for what you’re about to hang on it.
Obviously, this doesn’t apply to all of those writers out there who do everything in one draft. They’ve been touched by an angel (or madness) so none of the rules apply to them. For me, however, toiling away on draft after draft, I’ve found it best to go the distance before starting over.