The novel I’m currently working on, The Solune Prince, has been in the works for over four years now. And so this summer, when I started getting a good hold of the ropes of publishing and self-publishing, I truly and finally realized how far the current state of the novel was from being clean and proper publishable material.
And that’s when I knew I had to do a full edit of the first book before continuing on where I was in the second book.
But I quickly found that wouldn’t be enough. You see, I had started this novel, unlike my first manuscript (which still isn’t edited or published, but is next on the list) I decided to take the classic advice of writing a crappy first draft. I think addressing this idea, and how it was certainly harmful to me, and maybe even might be harmful to others, should be its own article so I won’t dive too deep into it here.
Writing a Subpar First Draft
I’ll just note that there is a huge benefit too intentionally allowing yourself to write a subpar first draft, which is you don’t get caught up in perfectionism and anxiety about doing it wrong, since the goal is to do it wrong. If you have these issues, then definitely aim for a subpar first draft.
But if you lean too far into the idea, as the more common name “sh***y first draft” asserts and encourages you to do, then your first draft might end up like mine, needing so much fixing and being so a lost that a full edit isn’t enough.
I had to do an entirely new draft. A full rewrite. I will resist calling it a fully new first draft, because I did actually keep a lot of ideas from the previous draft. But apart from a couple of fascinating paragraphs, none of the actual written sentences, paragraphs, or really anything else concrete was carried over. I guess that’s the problem with writing the crappy first draft.
What you’re really doing, if you end up reworking it as much as I have, is you’re just writing in oversized and way too wordy outline. And you could save 10s of hours of writing if you’d just laid out your ideas in a shorter form. But we will move on from this discussion so that I have something to write about when I get around to doing a full article on this subpar first draft concept haha.
So my plan from now on is, rather than writing a crappy first draft or a subpar first draft, I will aim to write a powerful but imperfect draft. Incidentally, this will also strengthen a person’s writing, because they’ll be striving towards their best during that first draft writing phase, rather than settling for, well, subpar. Alright, there isn’t much of a point lingering here too long.
Weird Side-Effects of Writing a Completely Unplanned Draft.
To answer the question in the title, why I decided to do a full rewrite of book one anyway? It’s because I took that advice maybe too seriously. My first draft was really not great. In fact, the first six chapters were pretty boring and felt kind of pointless. It wasn’t until there was an attack and a bit of fighting that things got interesting.
And the worst thing about that is that if I’m recalling correctly, I put that in attack in just to keep up interest. I kind of threw it in randomly because I guess a part of me knew that things were kind of slow going, so I had the enemy group who originally would not show up until they travelled to the new city, send in assassin ahead to stop the journey before it even started.
And I can tell that was kind of just shoved in for the sake of effect, because now during the rewrite it’s very awkward to have this attack happen when and where it does. It’s really inconvenient to find a place in a royal city where somebody can be covertly targeted. And I think the worst thing of all, is that four years later when I was going over this part of the first draft, it’s the point of the novel where I thought things started to pick up
The New Plan
What I’ve been doing for this rewrite is aiming for something really polished—for a first draft anyway. Something imperfect but clean. I am doing a sort of outline. I do not like the concept of having a rigid story structure, and then painting the story by numbers and forcing the plot into a three-act or hero’s-journey box. So maybe I’m planning more than outlining.
The point is, I went over many different books on creative writing, searching for techniques that allowed the creative flow-state mind to work unhindered. My current planning style, which has actively been improved and refined as I went, is sort of like writing a short active summary of the book.
And the reason I gravitated towards this approach (which I think I’ve written about before*) is that at heart I am a “discovery writer,” or a “pantser.”
I really do enjoy not so much discovering this story as I write it, or writing by the seat of my pants, as the above titles for this sort of spontaneous, unplanned writing implies. What I prefer is actively engaging with the story myself as the characters engage with it. However theoretical, I enjoy preserving a sense of freewill in my characters.
And so basically what I’ve ended up doing is spontaneously writing this summary. And so while it ends up reading like a really condensed story, I get to have my cake and eat it too. I am able to write by the seat of my pants, and save hours and hours of time writing that first draft, and even more hours editing out of the thousands of words that don’t really work.
And so really, I’m just passing over the immense amount of editing that many pantsers (not all) end up doing, while still pantsing the outline in a narrative summary form, and then later pantsing the first draft!
How it’s Going
There have been a lot of hiccups as I refine my process. The method I’m working with is based on Barbara Kyle’s method which she outlines in her book Page-Turner. she calls it story lining rather than outlining, due to the things I explained above, where it really is more of a narrative style outline than a bullet list or scene by scene outline.
Since my last deep dive into my writing process, I’ve made a few innovations And I will write about them in more depth later. But I found that, since this novel, The Solune Prince, is so large, with a couple of layered plotlines and multiple POV characters, just writing this narrative summary off the top of my head caused me to derail a few times.
Not that I’m trying to railroad my plot, it’s just a saying haha. No, rather the story has a place it ought to be heading towards. Book one is about receiving the mission, preparing a group to travel and do the mission with, and then travelling to the city where the rest of the series takes place.
So it does have to at least go in that direction. And I find myself writing off the path—way too far off the path—and causing issues for myself that I have to go back and fight to fix.
And so, briefly, the solution I’ve found is to do an exercise I just kind of made up. I call it the “book on one page.” And it’s exactly what it sounds like. I sit down for an hour or two, and (handwrite, usually) the entire story, confining myself to only one page.
And this page of events does shift here in there. It isn’t the final word on the story. I leave that to the narrative outline.
And that way, again, I don’t box myself in. and the great benefit of this is that when my creative flow state of spontaneous writing gets stuck, all I have to do is look at the next bullet point on my “book on a page” plan.
Sometimes I can’t directly go to write that scene because there needs to be more setup, but at least then I know where the story ought to be aimed at. And if in that moment I disagree with the “book on one page,” I can take a moment, reflect, and maybe change that bullet point and continue writing.
Perfect freedom. Not just for me, but especially for the story and my characters.
Alright, I hope you enjoyed this. I’ll be back at some point with a deeper dive into this improved method of narrative outlining.