Since tomorrow marks halfway through the month of November, it seems appropriate to post about how NaNoWriMo is going for me. And long story short it’s harder than I expected.
I expected NaNoWriMo to be easy. You’re talking to the girl who once busted out 10,000 words in four hours. I live and breathe writing. I have loved writing since the sixth grade when I wrote that first terrible Star Wars story. (Note: It wasn’t terrible because it was Star Wars. It was terrible because it had no plot. Also, for the record, though it probably does count as fan fiction, all of the characters were completely original. It just took place in the Star Wars universe. Basically, I shortcut world building). Writing is what I do. All the time. For fun.
So I thought getting 50,000 words in a month would be no problem. Instead I’ve found it to be intensely painful every step of the way.
The words didn’t flow like I was used to. I realized that as much as I knew about my main character, Zeke, I actually didn’t know him. I only knew the text book facts of his life. I didn’t know him as a person. I didn’t know his voice. And it wasn’t just him, my main character, I didn’t know. It was everyone. Every side character, every friend and enemy Zeke has. I didn’t know who these people were.
And that’s when I realized something.
I was trying to write a Draft One, when I wasn’t ready to. I needed to write a Draft Zero first.
“Draft Zero” may be an unfamiliar term to you. I’m not sure it’s something I’ve ever heard someone else use, though in my head I use it all the time. I’m just going to go ahead and blame my boss in my day job for this one, since he’s talks a lot about “Zeroeth Order Success”. Essentially, a level below the level that should be first…
So why do I say “Draft Zero” instead of “Draft One”? Well, because I’ve discovered there are two different kinds of first drafts.
The kind of used to dealing with recently is what I’d call a Draft One. It’s a draft of a new story in a world I completely understand with characters I completely understand. Sometimes, that’s because it’s a sequel (though I tend to not write too many sequels as of right now). With a sequel, I’m writing in a world I already completely created. I don’t need to stop every too pages and ask myself if people would behave a certain way in that world or what sort of technology they have. I already know that. Often, I already know most of the characters too. They are the same people from the previous story, or people closely involved with the people in the previous story. I know who these people are. I understand their world.
But sometimes it’s not a sequel. More often than not, for me, it’s a world I created a long time ago and wrote a (terrible) story in when I was younger. I was an extremely prolific writer in my middle school and high school years. I created new worlds all the time, and I wrote down as many details and thoughts about them as I could. Most of them I even wrote stories about. And they were pretty terrible. Epically terrible even. However, in college I re-discovered a lot of those old stories, and I re-imagined them. This worked very similar to any sequel work I’ve done. In many ways I already understood the worlds. I might have to redefine an aspect or two, or sometimes I even mashed two old worlds together to create a new world which required a lot of rework, but for the most part it was like smoothing out something I already created. More like the revision process than the draft process, even though essentially every word I wrote was brand new and nothing like what I wrote in my younger days.
A perfect example of this would be The Descent of Chris Chappell. The idea for that story had been in my head since I was fourteen. And I finally wrote a first draft last year, literally ten years after I had the idea. For ten years that idea was stewing in the back of my mind, pulling in all sorts of awesome creative juices. For ten years I had been writing random scenes and sequences, figuring out who these characters were. And then one day it just clicked. Thus the 10,000 words in 4 hours. I wrote a first draft. It wasn’t beautiful. It needed a lot of work. (Still needs a lot of work. I’m almost done with Draft 2). But it came to me fairly easily. Because these characters were people I’d known for ten years.
Which brings us to the idea of a Draft Zero. This is a completely new story. I had the idea for the setting for this world maybe a year ago, and didn’t play around with it much. I just wrote it down somewhere that this would be a cool world. And then for NaNoWriMo I decided to write a story in that world.
And it’s not going well. Because I’m expecting it to work like a Draft One. And it’s not. It’s a Draft Zero.
In a Draft One process, I know things are going to need to be revised but that for the most part they are working in the right direction. In this Draft Zero process, I don’t even know that. I’ve written ten chapters (20,000 words!) and I’m just now beginning to know who these characters are. I don’t even know them fully. Essentially every sentence, every word, and every idea I’ve written is going to have to be completely thrown out.
What I’m learning is that this draft is completely crap. Completely. And I’m going to have throw the whole thing out.
Just like I did with those old drafts in high school.
This crappy draft is what my old drafts in high school were to my recent stories, as in it barely counts as existing. Hence, Draft Zero.
Before NaNoWriMo began I never realized how long it had been since I’ve done a Draft Zero. In undergrad I worked almost exclusively in one world, the world of Spirit Riddled, which I’ve written about fairly often here. I created that story, from scratch my sophomore year. It wasn’t based on anything from high school, but that sophomore was extremely creatively productive and I essentially created a Draft Zero. It wasn’t a pure draft in many ways. I wrote well over 80,000 words on just random scenes between characters and events that I thought might come to pass. And then I went back and wrote a draft one. Then I revised it. Twice. Revising it for a third time before shopping it around has been on my list of things to do for quite some time.
Then I began to focus on Descent. Which had tons of Draft Zero work done in high school on it.
There was one other original story I began to work on in undergrad and I would argue it’s still in the Draft Zero phase. I’ve written tons of backstory and what I think might happen, but I haven’t actually started on a Draft One yet.
And I guess this NaNoWriMo has really taught me that the Draft Zero is critical to my writing process.
I just can’t sit down and write 50,000 continuous words in the same story and expect to feel good about it, and expect to call that my first draft. That’s not how my process works. I need to give myself more freedom than that. I need to write 80,000 words of what might be, what could be, just to develop the world and how the characters interact with each other. Those 80,000 words don’t need to be continuous. They can be fun scenes. They can be pointless scenes where characters do nothing but talk and interact. They can be nothing that will ever, ever make it into a finished draft.
And that’s ok. That’s my process. Because I’m a weird mix of a gardener and an architect. I can’t write a story without a plan, without a vague outline. But I can’t write an outline without having detailed knowledge of who my characters are and what world they live in. And I can only create that knowledge with free form writing. So I make a test garden, where I plant whatever the heck I want and watch how it grows. Then when I see what those seeds become, I go back and I design a brand new garden.
If I get nothing else out of NaNoWriMo this month other than it has taught me this critical fact about my process, then that’s ok. And from this moment on, I’m going to go forward with my NaNoWriMo in a different way. I will write 50,000 words, but I’m not going to feel rushed to make it a story, to make it coherent. I’m going to have my characters walk in a corridor talking back in forth just to see what happens. I’m going to isolate them in a room just to see what happens. I’m going to write about characters who will never appear in the story just to explore the world.
And that's ok.
So how about you, what's your process?