Voyage of Discovery: Writing a Rough Draft

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, pondering the similarities between writing a rough draft and making a voyage of discovery. You know, like Columbus searching for a shortcut to the Indies, or Cabot looking for a northwest passage to the wealth of Cathay. You may find uncharted lands and fabulous riches or you could be eaten by a sea monster or fall of the end of the earth. To paraphrase Mary Chapin Carpenter, you might end up as the windshield . . . or as the bug. There’s no way to tell till you try.

Whether you refer to this stage of writing as the rough draft, the first draft, or the [expletive deleted] draft, it’s a necessary step in producing a book. Those who plot in advance have some idea where they’re going with it. Those of us who write by the seat of our pants? Not so much.

For me there is always a lot of going back and forth as new thoughts occur to me. Right now I’m about a third of the way into the rough draft of Overkilt, the twelfth book in the Liss MacCrimmon series. It’s due on my editor’s desk on the first of December. I got almost this far before I took a break to attend Malice Domestic at the end of last month and to give a final polish to the first Mikki Lincoln mystery, Crime and Punctuation, which was due today. So, last week, when I went back to what I’d written on this one, I was hoping my subconscious would have come up with some good ideas for the next two-thirds.

I’d already had one epiphany concerning the identity of the murderer—this was a very good thing, since until then I had no idea who dunit. Unfortunately, after reading through what I’d already written and punching it up as I went along, I got back to the place where I’d stopped and sat there staring at a blank screen. What should happen next eluded me.

As is so often the case, talking over an impasse with my husband helped jump start my brain. The first thing I realized was that one of the scenes I’d already written was in the wrong place. Once I moved it, the direction in which the plot should move became much more clear.

That sort of thing happens to me a lot when I’m working on a rough draft. I start at the wrong place or try to have something happen too early and until I spot where I went wrong, I’m stuck. Fortunately, although it may take me a while to see what’s right in front of me, I eventually spot the problem and figure out how to fix it.

I scribble notes to myself that deal with events two or three chapters ahead. That’s about as far as I can see, which explains why I don’t outline the entire book before I start. I simply can’t visualize what happens next until I’m almost at that point in the writing. Is this an efficient way of writing? Of course not. But it works for me. And it got Columbus out on that ocean.

Unless you are one of those rare writers who does all the pre-writing in your head before you ever put fingers to keys, the first version of a book will undergo many revisions before it sees print. Those people are rare. I’ve heard Isaac Asimov was able to do that and I’ve witnessed Mary Higgins Clark come up with near perfect prose off the top of her head, but the rest of us are stuck with multiple rewrites. The thing is, you can’t rewrite what isn’t there, which is why a rough draft, no matter how badly it turns out, is better than no draft at all. In my case, once I have something written down, I can fix it. And if that ship has sailed to a place I didn’t expect? That’s good, too. I end up with a whole new continent to explore.

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of over fifty books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category for “The Blessing Witch.” Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (Kilt at the Highland Games) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in a Cornish Alehouse) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” series and is set in Elizabethan England. New in 2017 is a collection of Kathy’s short stories, Different Times, Different Crimes. Her websites are and


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4 Responses to Voyage of Discovery: Writing a Rough Draft

  1. John R. Clark says:

    Nicely done. I’ve learned that my rough drafts are as full of surprises as other peoples twisty published books. Sometimes those moments when the voice in your head orders you to kill the favorite character or enter the wrong cave make the whole process worth it.


  2. Wonderful post! It perfectly describes how many of us write. I especially liked “What should happen next eluded me.” Priceless!


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