In full honest confession, I actually didn’t know what a zero draft was until a couple of years ago when a writer friend mentioned she was about twenty-thousand words into one. I asked her what a zero draft was, and the answer I got surprised me: It’s the earliest draft of your story, in which there is no order.
It’s fairly well established at this point that I’m a pantser. I write based on whatever inspiration I have on hand. Up until I’d heard about a zero draft, I figured drafts that meandered, made no sense and generally had gaping holes were rough drafts.
Dependent on your particular process this might still hold true. Your rough draft is for you and no one else. A zero draft however, is often where you throw things in for the story before you write a proper draft. In other words, rather than looking anything like a first draft, it might just be a conglomeration of notes–such as ‘Come up with Witty Banter. Will needs to sound smart.’ or perhaps just a few rough ideas of dialogue. There might be a random character that pops up and then vanishes until two chapters before the end.
More or less, zero drafts are unstructured pieces of writing. This might mean a free writing exercise that takes up dozens of pages. Alternately, it’s just a collection of scenes to help you explore what you want to write. There’s really only one rule:
More specifically, write uninterrupted. If you get hung up on trying to come up with clever dialogue, then leave a note. If you don’t know what the next scene would be, skip to the one you do know. You can leave a note for what you know should happen next, or you can just hop from one scene to the next and back.
Do not edit. Don’t rewrite anything. Don’t even use the backspace or delete key. Just keep writing.
Give yourself permission to make the worst piece of writing ever. Title that document as your Worst Version Ever. Leave ridiculous notes in the middle of sentences. Ignore basic formatting or even start a new line every sentence. Whatever it takes to just get the ideas down.
Writing a first draft is well-known to be rough. That’s one of the reasons why it’s also called the rough draft. Doing an entire rewrite is only moderately easier. If you’re a panster/discovery writer, doing a rewrite can completely spark an all new interest in the story. But, how do you decide on doing a complete rewrite?
For me, that start with the intent to polish a very rough draft. As with everything else I edit, I started by making a list of things that needed attention. This only covered the big arcs of character and plot, and scene-level issues like placement problems and incorrect facts. That ended up being a two-page list of large issues.
From there, I started looking at the major structural problems I was having. The big one was plot. Although it’s got a good base on it, it’s rushed and there are parts of it that feel a little contrived. That was a good note however, I know in my early drafts the plot can be a little wobbly, but the fact I had a decent base meant I also had a good chance of salvaging something.
Characters were also another really big problem. Their motivations either weren’t clear or were utterly nonexistent. The three biggest characters also only differed from each other in very small ways: none of them stood out as a character on their own. I also had some problems with side characters, who I admit, only seemed to exist to fill in a role in the story.
My setting was good, though it can still use some fleshing out. It offered plenty of place for conflict and both resources and obstacles for my characters. The problem was my plot almost completely ignored those opportunities. Between that and the glaring problems with my characters, the structure of the story itself wasn’t sound.
It was pretty obvious right away that there wasn’t much hope for polish. As it was, the story needed too much structural work. Although there’s a few lines I’m hoping will survive, a handful of sentences out of some fifty-thousand words isn’t a lot.
Starting the rewrite however, first requires going back and building a little more groundwork. To that extent I’m doing some worldbuilding and a few character-development exercises.
Writing and editing are constant states for me. It’s very rare that I find myself not in one or the other. In the last couple of days however, I’ve found myself in between projects. Although I have plenty of things to be working on, because of how busy my schedule has gotten with the approaching holiday season, I haven’t actually picked up my next project.
While it feels weird to sit down when I have a few minutes and realize I don’t have an active project, it’s also given me a chance to organize and categorize what I want to do with my current projects.
Because it’s a long list I won’t delve into the details here, but two of the big things I want to work on are easy to see.
One: Editing speed and comfort are still trailing behind my writing a fresh project speed. As a result, my rough drafts and new projects outnumber my second drafts and works-in-progress by ten to one, quite literally. It’s a problem and one I am to fix.
Secondly: I love the sci-fi and fantasy genres, but I want to expand what I’m comfortable writing. The two genres I’ve steered clearest of so far are romance and mystery. To me, they’re the hardest to write. Capturing the complexities of a mystery plot takes a lot of concentration and organization. Romance scares me strictly because the focus is entirely on the emotional journey of two people falling in love.
Although it’s early for me to set up my goals for the next year, I’m keeping those two things in mind. For what’s left of this month, I want to try and stay focused on editing. I just have to decide which one to start editing.
Where are you at with your projects?
Currently in my writing projects, I’m knee-deep in a rewrite. In this instance, I’m talking about completely scrapping the initial drafts and notes and starting over again. I’m keeping the characters and the basis for the conflict, but everything else has been moved to the ‘junk’ folder. In a lot of ways, as much as rewriting is a significant part of my process, it’s also the most frustrating.
There are multiple reasons for needing to rewrite something. Perhaps the plot makes too many illogical leaps. The characters might not have solid motivations, or they lack development. Maybe the setting creates problems. Individually, the problems might be solved by rewriting one or two sections. The main reason I’ve found for needing to rewrite an entire manuscript is because the problems have all added up to need multiple different sections rewritten.
As I mentioned however, it’s frustrating. The idea itself may be good, but the execution and the work already put in may not be enough. Having to throw out the time and effort I’ve already expended to start over can give doubt a reason to creep in.
In some ways it’s a good thing. Rewriting gives me the chance to explore the story again, to find new places to look for mystery and wonder. It also gives me the opportunity to bring an old idea up to par with my current skills. Although it doesn’t always help, reminding myself that a rewrite is just another opportunity to learn can curb some of the frustration stemming from needing to start over.
How do you handle rewriting?
I’m one of those people that keeps almost obsessive track of my word count. I like seeing how much I’ve added at the end of the day. Some portions of the writing process take time, and that time often feels like it’s wasted when you’re plodding through something the size of a manuscript. Marking the progress helps curb some of that frustration by giving you a mark of how much you’ve accomplished. While writing something, keeping track of that is easy. It’s during editing that it gets a little harder to measure progress.
With editing word count does work to some extent if you’re tracking the number of words changed. It’s easy enough to note how much your word count changes from when you start editing and where it ends at the end of the day. One problem I’ve encountered while doing that is during early edits, when entire sections can be cut and rewritten resulting in a negative change. During later drafts when there’s mostly fine tuning to be done instead of big changes, the change coming up can be minimal.
Another option might be pages. They’re easy enough to number and counting the number of pages you’ve edited through today negates any inconsistencies incurred when dealing with word count. The problem is with formatting. A double-spaced manuscript will have a lot more pages than something single-spaced, and certain fonts and font sizes will get more words on one page than others. As long as your formatting is consistent during your editing, the problem is solved. If neither pages nor words works one final option is to measure the amount of time.
Counting the minutes and hours spent revising a piece makes it easier for you to set goals and deadlines for yourself. Keeping track does become an issue if you don’t have the option of setting down a given amount of time for editing.
Regardless of what option you use, selecting a measure can help if you find yourself frustrated with your writing process.