Friday, April 23, 2010

The Exploratory Draft

Quote: “Me, I have recently taken to calling that first flawed, juicy, wild draft the “exploratory draft.” It sounds so much more exciting than “first draft.” It sounds fearless, like you’re stepping into an unknown territory with a knife strapped to your thigh, or like you’re sailing around an uncharted island, looking for a place to drop anchor so you can dive in and swim ashore. And it IS kind of like that, because in your early days with your idea, no matter how well you think you know it from your daydreaming, brainstorming, and outlining, you can’t really know it until you’re IN it.

You have to find the story -- and that’s what exploratory drafts are for: exploring the unmapped lands of your idea and mapping them.”
~Laini Taylor

Song Playing: Welcome to the Jungle Guns and Roses

I am reporting deep in the editing trenches, machete in one hand and a pen in the other. I read a really great post about Plot by Laini Taylor, which in turn lead me to her post on Revision. Right now I am reading everything I can on revision, if only to give me more ideas on doing so. I find it’s an efficient way to motivate me, because whenever I read a technique on revision, it makes me want to try it. And what do you know, I have this fresh First Draft, just waiting to be revised.

The best idea I gleaned from Laini’s post on revision is she calls her first drafts “exploratory drafts”. This is an awesome idea. It really encapsulates how I am trying to view this draft. Not as this concrete thing made of stone, where I can only chisel a bit here, and smooth out a rough edge there, but a wild romp of an idea that I took for a test drive. Sure, I crashed into numerous mailboxes with this manuscript, but don’t we all?

It’s better to look at what you have and think: How can this be better? How can I make this character more interesting? Instead of just tinkering around with the sentence structure, all the while wondering why your writing feels flat.

Why settle for good enough? Why settle for “well, that’s the way I wrote it, so that’s the way it stays.” Trust me, I know. You’re thinking, “Nooo! I thought I was done with the writing part!” But what’s the rush? Especially for those of us not published, and not working with contracts and deadlines, you literally have all the time you need to make this the best story it can be. When you’re editing, you need to make sure to clean under the couch and underneath the sink too, not just dust for loose modifiers, and throw away purple prose.

The important thing is to reimage things for THIS story. You’re not making a monument to every idea that you’ve ever had, but you are making a monument to this idea. Sometimes you haven’t figured out what that idea is until AFTER you’ve written the first draft. That’s okay. That’s how a lot of writers work, if the blogs I read are any indication. It’s how this book turned out. As I revise and work my way through the scenes, I think of a better way to introduce the character, reimage ways to get the character from Plot Point A to Plot Point B, and come up with ways to tie subplots together.

I am not saying you should utterly change everything about your first draft (unless you need to), but I do think it’s in your better interest—and the book’s—if you allow yourself to be open to change. Even though the first draft feels very concrete, that’s a lie. It’s not concrete. You wrote everything exactly the way it is, and you can also change everything about chapter 12, or delete that chapter all together, if that’s what you need to do in order to make it the best book it can be.

Notice how I am saying “the best book it can be”. There’s always some amount of growth when you finish a book. I am a better writer now than I was six months ago, and I am definitely a better writer now than I was when I wrote the book. The idea isn’t to shelf this book, and write another, but to use what I have learned to make this book better.

Which brings me to my next point. Writers want to know when they should stop revising. Some people get stuck in this revision cycle for years, telling you proudly that they’ve been revising their masterpiece for 12 years.

Maybe you need 12 years to revise a certain book. I recently read an amazing book that took the author 7 years to write. I can bet you though she wasn’t working on that book nonstop for 7 years. She probably nurtured and prodded the book off and on over the year while doing other things.

Some people can revise a book in two weeks, and it comes out of the end of her gauntlet-like revision process as a publishable work. Personally, I would pay money to witness this bloody process in action, forget gladiator fights. Two week complete revision? Ouch!

However long it takes you, you should be improving the book. That’s the key. You should be able to see the progress between draft 2 and draft 3. Or 1 to 2, or whatever draft you are on. If the book isn’t moving forward, if you’re just dinking around with a word here and there, you’re procrastinating and it’s time to kick the book out the door to sink or swim.

What about you? How do you view your first draft? As one big experiment or something more solid? When do you know you’re done revising?


  1. I like the idea of the exploratory draft! It is so freeing. You do explore in the first draft and then later you can tie things together and polish it up. Great thinking!

  2. I know! It's sooooo freeing! I feel the weight of expectation off my shoulders. It's fun again! Laini appears to be some sort of genius.

  3. I like this concept. [save as="first draft"] ["first draft" already exists. overwrite?] [yes] [exploratory draft has been saved]

  4. I think it encompasses the essence of a first draft better. I might even call the first draft the exploratory draft, and the draft after that the first draft. That feels more accurate.

  5. Nope. It would be an exploratory draft. Then, after I weed out subplots and other stuff that plague my first drafts I would have a first draft that is closer to what the book is actually going to be about.

    So the first draft would be closer to draft zero, or really long expermential outline.