Rough Drafts

A few days ago, after three months of working on it almost daily, I finished the rough draft of my work in progress, the 8th installment in the Liss MacCrimmon Scottish-American heritage mystery series. When I say “rough draft” I mean REALLY rough. As in holes in the plot that make it look like a slice of Swiss cheese. As in characters who are inconsistent as all get-out. As in a manuscript that is at least 4000 words too short. As in loaded with repetitious words and, worse, repetitious scenes where characters go over the same old information they’ve already discussed and come to no new conclusions. My amateur sleuth makes wild leaps to come up with, more or less, the right answers and I have no idea what logical means she might use instead to reach the same place.

All that sounds terrible. I should be worried. Let me tell you why I’m not. For one thing, the manuscript isn’t due on my editor’s desk until September. I have time to fix it. For another, just about every book I’ve ever written—and this one will be my fiftieth to be published when it comes out in the fall of 2014—has gone through this same exact stage. Somehow, every time, I’ve been able to make a lemon into lemonade. By the time I was finished, each one not only turned into something the editor would accept but was also a finished product of which I could feel proud.

This truism says it all: Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten.

Or, to put it another way, just about anything can be fixed at the revision stage.

The trick is to figure out what needs to be done before you turn the manuscript in. Some call this “self editing.” I just call it common sense. Some things work and some don’t and the only way to tell the difference is to put a little distance between yourself and what you’ve written.That’s why I’m putting this admittedly bad piece of writing aside for at least a month.I might have a thought, write a note to myself, and stick in in the looseleaf that contains a printout of the current version, but other than that I will pointedly ignore the whole dreadful mess. I will take a look at the historical project I set aside last fall and decide whether to go on with it, revamp it, or scrap it. I may try to write a new short story, or at least start one. For me, short stories take longer to come together than an entire novel does, so just jotting down ideas is a major achievement. I’ll update my “A Who’s Who of Tudor Women” and play around a little more on I’ll read for pleasure. I’ll work on the jigsaw puzzle I started a couple of weeks ago, before finishing this rough draft took over all my spare time and left me too pooped to do more than watch old movies on TV when I was done for the day.

Malice Domestic is coming up on the first weekend in May. I’ll go, do my panel, visit with old friends, have what is guaranteed to be a great time. I’ll have more to say about me at Malice after I get back. But, aside from that, just as it has the last couple of years, my return from Maryland will mark the beginning of the first official revision of the WIP.

This is when I find out just how bad it really is. If my own past history is anything to go by, I will have gained perspective. I’ll be able to look at the manuscript as if someone else wrote it. No matter how many problems I spot or how serious they are, I should also be able to figure out how to fix them. Sometimes it’s just a matter of moving scenes around so that things happen in a different order. Sometimes a character needs to be better developed so that his or her behavior makes more sense. And every once in a while, when I go back to the WIP, the whole thing is better than I thought it would be.

Parts have already undergone some polishing. Others are raw writing—direct from my fevered brain to the keyboard. I’ll need to check details, change what doesn’t work, cut some extraneous bits and expand other scenes for clarity or to build suspense or to develop character. By the time I get back to it, the manuscript will likely be bristling with post-its.

No matter what I find wanting a month from now, I know one thing already. The hardest part is done. I don’t have to face the dreaded blank page or screen. I have something to work with, something to make better, something that will, eventually, be ready to send out into the world.

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11 Responses to Rough Drafts

  1. MCWriTers says:

    I’m in the same boat. Rough draft done, now trying to fix the holes, cut, deepen, tighten, bring more power to the scenes, etc. I used to hate revision. I was totally hooked on that first, fresh taste of story. Now I like the process of refining, of asking whether something belongs there and whether it helps the book.

    After fifty books, you absolutely know what you’re doing. I can see it when I read one of your “seamless” finished stories.


    • Thanks, Kate. Right back at you.

      Definitely seams showing at this point. Bra straps and the lace on the bottom of the slip, too. And I think a bit of spinach between the teeth.

  2. Yes. Yes. Yes. My first drafts are always crap. In fact, the working title of anything I write should be “Return to Crap Mountain.” Revisions—many of them—are when the magic happens. You’re right, Kaitlyn, at least the hard part is done: the manuscript exists in some wobbly form and there are no long spans of blank pages to taunt me.

  3. Lea Wait says:

    Congratulations! Finishing the first draft — in whatever condition — is a MAJOR accomplishment! And you’re a friend — but I have to tell you, you’re panicing me a bit. My next manuscript is also due September 1 — and, for various reasons — I haven’t written one chapter yet. (eek!!!!) In any case — refusing to panic immediately — see you at Malice!

  4. Judy D says:

    I enjoy visiting the emporium. Keep ’em comin’.

  5. Barbara Ross says:

    You’re panicking me, too. My next book is also due Sept 1. (Like girls in a dorm, will all the Maine Crime Writers eventually end up on the same cycle?)

    I’m ahead of Lea, but not near done. And not nearly as experienced.

    But I am relieved to hear you’re 4000 words short. My first drafts are always short! Those people who have to cut, cut, cut. I wish I were one of them!

  6. Lea and Barb,
    No panic allowed. We all work at our own pace and mine is the result of usually having to start the next Kate Emerson historical right about now. No rest for the wicked!!!

    I think we need a party after we all turn in our manuscripts. Are we all in Maine in September?

  7. My favoritie quote is by James Michener: “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter. I stumbled on this when I attended a Margie Lawson class. What a relief! Get the words on the screen, hit save, and move on. Going back later is great. A month is super if you can pull it off. Loved this post.

  8. LC Rooney says:

    Thank you, Kaitlyn, for the encouragement to JUST WRITE IT – let it be what it is – and then “have something to work with.” The hardest thing for me as an aspiring author has been fighting the urge to polish, polish, polish as I go along. Marsha, I may just make that Michener quote my screen saver, so I have to look at it every day!

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