Sometimes I can get a scene pretty much right the first time, as happened with one chapter in my first published novel, or as happened with individual scenes since then, with increasing frequency. It’s one measure by which I can tell I’m getting to be a more proficient writer.
More often, though, a draft requires multiple passes. I aim for the former but plan for the latter. Here are the steps I’ve started following.
- First, I know not only who my characters are, but what they want (also, what they think they want).
- Then I outline the scene — rather, the entire novel has to be outlined in rough form. Sometimes I detail an individual scene carefully before I start, but lately I’ve just been thinking about the upcoming scene, what has to happen in it, and how to get from THIS moment to the NEXT moment. I ask myself, for instance, if they’re restating information that’s already known, or ask myself if there’s something interesting happening, or if their victory comes too easily, if the pacing feels right. All of those things and more have to be kept in mind while you’re drafting, although that stuff can obviously be tweaked during revision. (It’s better, though, to have those effects in mind while writing the rough draft.)
- With the characters and scene in mind I set down to work. Sometimes that means I just start drafting in dialogue with occasional attribution, or even a stage type indicator of who’s speaking (I.E. Kirk: “Look out, Bones!” — I know stages plays don’t have quotes, but if I put quotes in now it’s one less thing I have to add later.)
- I play to dialogue because I hear it easily. I use it as the skeletal framework for a scene. I usually add in a few descriptive bits as I write because I picture some key things, but I give myself permission to add as much or as little as I want during rough draft.
- After I get the dialogue mostly working right I go back and add in the other details. Because I haven’t described the environment yet I can make it whatever I want once I start editing.
This isn’t at all foolproof, but it certainly seems to be working for me. It’s enabling me to draft at least 10 thousand words a week, given five normal work days, and sometimes more. If you think about that, it means a rough draft of an 80 thousand word book can be accomplished in 2 months, or a 120 thousand word book (what I’m aiming for these days) in 3.
The process is still developing; it seems like it might work for me to get 2 1/2 books a year written this way (allowing time for revisions, promotions, and an occasional break). I suppose I’ll soon learn if that’s true. The stumbling point is always how long it takes to plan a new book or series and know characters. That always seems to take longer for me than I want. I believe the first complete draft of the first book of this series, which took a year and didn’t entirely work, was me just getting to know the characters. I need to find a way to be more efficient with that. Because man, the years are just shooting by…