Ten Screw-Ups You'll Fix In Draft Two

I've blogged about how I love writing the very first draft, or Draft Zero as I call it.  The sheer exhilarating freedom of knowing that no-one will ever read it.  Slamming words down on the page, doing the very best you can, safe in the knowledge that subsequent drafts will sort it all out.

I'm on the second draft of my first novel since 2005.   (Because I call my very first draft Draft Zero, this means there is technically no first draft and I proceed directly to the second.  Nothing confusing about that at all, no sir.)  So I'll scribble about that process, since it's markedly different to writing Draft Zero.

Here are 10 things that, if you're anything like me, you'll strive to fix while working on Draft Two.  I'm talking about prose here, but many of the principles are the same with script.  Apologies in advance, as always on this blog, if I'm teaching grandmothers how to suck eggs (what the hell does that saying mean?!)

On Draft Zero, we overwrite.  Come Draft Two, we notice that many sentences are over-long and are full of the word "and" and "then" and then more "and"s.  If Draft Zero was sent straight to a recording studio to be turned into an audiobook, breathless actors would want to kill us.  The majority of sentences will benefit from being chopped down or hacked into two new sentences, whether they're description or dialogue.  In script, a wonderful technique is to systematically eliminate all widows and orphans.  This makes you tighten sentences, which almost always improves them.

Most of these will be surplus to requirements.  You really don't need to have people flying around a room "like rag dolls", as I did in Draft Zero of this novel.  Having them flying around the gaff will be sufficient, thank you very much.  Generally speaking, it's the subtler and more striking similes which will make the Draft Two grade.  The ones which don't make you sound like Garth Merenghi.

Draft Zero is bound to be littered with all manner of adverbs, many of which you won't be wanting to keep.  As Stephen King has said, "The road to Hell is paved with adverbs".  I'm especially tough on needlessly precise adverbs which lessen the effect: things like "slightly", "quite" and "somewhat" (bloody hell, always kill "somewhat".)

There are holes the size of the moon.  The moon!  There's stuff you spontaneously threw in during Draft Zero, but which doesn't gel with the planned stuff.  Then there's stuff you didn't plan all that well in the first place.  It'll need to be fixed, but not all of that needs to be achieved in Draft Two.  Why?  Because you can sort it out whenever the hell you want to.  The end result is all that matters: how you get there, with all your idiosynchratic methods, is immaterial.  You do of course need to remain very much aware of plot problems and massively fundamental ones may cause you to effectively return to Draft Zero.  But fixing most will require deep thought, which will slow down this draft.  I prefer to do my deeper thinking between drafts, employing whiteboards or index cards, but that's just me.  Hopefully you've been aware of some plot holes since making your running notes during Draft Zero, but others will rear their ugly heads this time around.  Start a brand new series of running notes for Draft Two, so that Future You will never be allowed to get away with this nonsense.

Oh so variable.  One fun game I enjoy, is trying to discern the points in Draft Zero where I was clearly running on empty towards the end of a working day.  One minute the words are all sparky and full of life... and then you can suddenly feel the inspiration dry up.  It's like that moment in Human Traffic, where everyone's off their tits at a party, really bonding... and then the comedown strikes and they're barely able to talk to each other.  In your novel, people suddenly start flying around like rag dolls.  Never fear: no-one will ever know.  The second draft is when you swoop in to replace all that lacklustre prose with shiny delights.  I tell you, though: when bits of Draft Zero read well, you love your past self for making life easier for you.  That's why, despite my love of Draft Zero's initial creative blast, I do make it the very best draft I can.  I don't just sit there slapping the keyboard like I'm pretending to play the piano (not often, anyway.)

Don't they just, throughout 90 per cent of Draft Zero.  This is because you generally fed them the first words which popped up in your desperate, caffeine-fried, oh-dear-God-90K-words-is-a-LOT brain.  In particular, when Draft Zero characters have to deliver important expositional information, they will do so with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer-wielding baboon.  They'll utter especially large amounts of mechanically transparent crap at the intersections where plot meets subplot and it all ends up feeling terribly clunky.  In Draft Two, you can begin to smooth out that kind of wince-making dialogue.  As with the rest of this novel of yours, you had to create the bones so that you could drape them in lovely Draft Two flesh.  Hey, and if you like the look of this stuff, wait 'til you see what you come up with in Draft Ten!  (Another note about characters: unless you've written them before, most of them probably won't have their voices fully in place in Draft Zero.  They're saying things they shouldn't, in ways that they wouldn't.  Come to think of it, your own voice as a writer might be all over the place too.)

Okay, so in Draft Zero you thought you were being clever and varied with your descriptive words for how characters say stuff.  In Draft Two, however, you realise that "said" (or "says" if you're working in the present tense) is all you need, nine times out of 10.  Having characters "opine" is the kind of thing which will make readers opine that you're a dodgy writer.  "Also beware characters doing impossible things," he laughed.  It's impossible for a character to speak a sentence and laugh at the same time.  Characters hissing dialogue is another pitfall, albeit one which I regularly have to stop myself from blundering into.  Humans do hiss, but again, they don't talk at the same time.  Snakes on the other hand - who knows?  That probably is an ancient, evil language.  (UPDATE: since writing this, I've totally had a character hissing.  Every once in a pale blue moon it's a useful shorthand, even if it doesn't technically make sense.)

You, you clever fiend, may well get this right first time 'round.  Me, I sometimes write Draft Zero stuff which feels too distanced from the reader's eye or just plain hard to read.  It comes down to a few factors: the way in which you present adjectives, those over-long sentences again and the use of the dreaded passive tense.  Things like that.  In the giddy rush of Draft Zero, it's all too easily done.  For instance, in that last segment of this very piece, Draft Zero of one sentence began like this:

"This is because you were generally feeding them the first words which popped up in your..."

That "ing" on the end of verbs: that's the killer.  Destroy those "ing"s and make the sentence more immediate and direct.  So the sentence became:

"This is because you generally fed them the first words which popped up in your..."

Here's another example: the subhead for point seven in this piece would've been better and more direct as "CHARACTERS OPINE!  AND HISS!"  The only reason I haven't edited that is so that I could make this point.

Tell you what, I'll throw pride right out the window and go the whole hog: here's a random godawful sentence (why am I doing this to myself?) from Draft Zero of this new novel, which I haven't yet dealt with in Draft Two...

"The man’s bony hands, with their gnarled misshapen knuckles, began ferreting around on the floor around him, trying to find purchase."

Five (at least!) problems present themselves here:

1) Jesus Christ!  "Ferreting"!  What the hell was I thinking there?  I was probably distracted by wondering what was for dinner.  Perhaps I hoped it would be ferret.

2) The sentence is too long.  

3) I probably don't need to have an adjective for both this man's hands and his knuckles. 

4) "Around" appears twice.  All those thousands of words in existence and I had to use one of them twice. 

5) There's that problem of directness.  If I was going to keep that terrible verb, then "began ferreting" should become the more compact and direct "ferreted".  Characters "beginning" and "starting" to take action is a common bad habit of mine, which I always look out for in Draft Two and beyond.  It weakens the action: don't tell the reader what someone's starting to do, tell them what they're doing NOW.

"The man’s bony, misshapen hands scrabbled on the floor, trying to find purchase."

That's at least an improvement.  Still not a great sentence and I'll think about it some more when I come to it 'proper' in this draft, but it's better.  (UPDATE: I ended up deleting this entire 757-word scene.)  

This segment's been too long, hasn't it?  I'll cut it down in the next draft.  (Hope I don't forget!)

You know all those neat little moments and turns of phrase you were pleased with while carving out the first version of this novel?  Between the countless writing sessions it took to create Draft Zero, you forgot you'd already used them.  You went on to use them again in another session.  There are no less than three characters whose smiles don't reach their eyes.  There are five instances in which the sun bleeds over the horizon like an open wound (kill that simile, no really, kill it dead.)  This time, provided your Draft Two sweep is conducted as continuously as possible, you'll notice all this stuff.  You'll pick the most appropriate single junctures to use your neat bits and ditch the repeat appearances.

Everyone has their own peculiar habits which spill out all over Draft Zero, then need culling.  I've mentioned one or two of mine already, but here's the big one that I'm obsessed with: people looking at things and turning to look at things.  Oh my sweet Christ, I'm fixated on that stuff in Draft Zero.  Can't get e-fucking-nough of it.  For some reason, I feel the need to not only describe people looking at stuff, but also specify them turning to look at it, as if the reader needs to know in which direction characters are facing at all times.  During Draft Zero, I'm dimly aware that I'm doing this, but the best remedy I can generally muster up at the time is to have characters occasionally "gazing" at things instead.  No, Mr Arnopp, that will not wash.  Come Draft Two, I hack through all that stuff with a large scythe, because 99% of it isn't necessary.  If you describe stuff in a scene, then it's generally obvious that the characters involved are seeing it too.

So that's ten.  I could go on with this stuff and talk about inconsistencies of tone, patches of missing research, jokes that need to be funnier, scares that need to be scarier and so on... but Draft Two beckons.  I've got ferrets to ferret out.

What are YOUR own quirks and foibles in Draft Zero of the things you write?  I want to see them in the comments below.  Give us your most memorable Draft Zero similes, too.  C'mon, we're all friends here...

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Thorn Davis said...

Ha! Two minutes ago I was stuck at the last 20k words of my current draft and I thought "I wonder if Jason Arnopp has anything useful or inspiring or comforting to say about any of this" and lo and behold...

Anonymous said...

I've 'just' finished a draft zero, and can immediately spot so many of these follies - especially with characters 'turning' and 'looking' at each other (you're not alone on that one.)

Regarding action description (adverbs / similes), I'm really confused between directly describing what happens on screen, or to enthuse the script reader by making the description more animated. I read this article about Shane Black where the journalist said the way that he manages to sell scripts so easily is because he makes the scripts so fun to read. If we literally describe scene movement - and that's it - wouldn't it come across a bit dull?

A great checklist here though Jason! Thanks :D

Jason Arnopp said...

Thorn: glad to be of service!

TechnicallyB: Thanks! And thank God I'm not alone in the "turning" and "looking". Someone else on Twitter also 'fessed up to it today.

In terms of action description in scripts, I think that if our story and the events within it are thrilling enough, then presenting them in a no-frills straightforward manner should still grab the reader. It's great to jazz description up as much as suits your style, although I believe that too much wink-wink window-dressing - especially stuff that won't be appearing onscreen and could never be communicated onscreen - can snap the reader out of the hypnosis which a great script can bring about. Shane Black scripts are of course great, but he's kind of a one-off personality. That's how I see it, anyway.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jason - great post and I was smiling throughout, recognising many of my own foibles.

The 'looking at/gazing at' trap litters the zero draft I'm working on now, so this is a timely reminder to sort it out in the next draft.

Kelly's Eye - Writing, Music, Life

Eleni said...

Loved this. So many smiles that don't reach eyes... Good to know I'm not alone. Also, I've stopped reading back at the end of a day cos the quality definitely deteriorates in relation to tiredness. Again, glad not just me. Thanks for a great post.

Christopher Brosnahan said...

My worst (other than half falling asleep and introducing the land of faerie into a gritty crime thriller) was the following line (which I'm paraphrasing from my memory, which it is seared into):

She knew she shouldn't have responded with that comment, but he wouldn't mind really, and it was funny.

Telling the audience how funny the previous line was. Ugh. Pure Garth Marenghi.

Antony Davies said...

Very helpful. I recognise a lot of my own Draft-Zero foibles in there. "Looking" especially. Now I just keep it in and figure I'll fix it later.

To add a couple:

My protagonist (1st person) catches an awful lot of other people's eyes. See also, exchanging looks/glances.

Also, I never notice when I'm typing the 'power of three', it's just instinctive.
"I lay there, exhausted, frightened, angry."
"She was so nice, so pretty, so unavaiable."
"The storm was wet, windy and loud."

But my biggest word-count muncher is the wandering mind. Philosophising. The structure goes 1) observe, 2) speculate, 3) LOOK! This relates to the overriding theme.

EG "I was walking along the street (etc) and noticed (really? Noticed?) an old lady in a wheelchair having a go a young chap who had clearly wronged her in some way. I wondered how she came to be like this, unable to walk, but still demonstrated the balls of a dock-worker. A tough childhood, perhaps, overcoming the hardship of an opressive workplace? I wondered if I'd have the same strength to do the right thing, if the bad guy carries out the threat under which I've set up the plot."

Basically, these things need to go or be more subtle.

Thanks again. I even spotted new common mistakes that I will exterminate... efficiently.

Antony Davies said...

Also noticed in my current zero draft, no one seems to just "do" something. A guy can't just "have a shave" or even "shave". He must apply foam, pick up the razor, then shave. He can't just call his wife. The character must first locate the phone, dial the number, count how many rings until the pickup, and probably exchange inane greetings too.

That must be about 10% of my word count eliminated right there :-)

Anonymous said...

'That' and 'just' are mine. Most of the time they can be removed and a sentence will still make sense. Just read it over with and without.

Mark Granger said...

Love this, I find when I'm coming to an end of a session I find ridiculous ways for the scene to wrap up. Then when I come to the second draft I have to change nearly all of that section.
In my last short story I had to find a way to kill EVERYONE off by the end. This was not as easy as I thought it might be and I came up with all sorts of ridiculous scenarios towards the end. Not sure I even want to go back to that one.