I call my work-in-progress my third novel, but really it’s number four. And in terms of books, it’s number five due to a nonfiction jazz band biography I wrote in 2000-01. But that’s another story.
What those numbers mean is that I’ve written a lot of full-length first drafts. All of which had fatal flaws in those initial, rough stages.
In thinking about those old wobbly-legged first drafts, and the one I’m working on now, I’ve developed a three-fourths theory. If you break down the essence of a traditional story, whether it’s genre or literary, you find four main components: plot, character, voice and sense of place. During the first-draft stage, it seems I’m only able to render three of those elements while casting words onto the blank page.
My earlier novels (and even the biography) were strong on character, voice and scene setting in their first incarnations, but lacking in plot. It’s taken until my last novel, BODY COPY, for me to really learn how to successfully thicken the plot through rewrites and to learn the fine art of dramatic irony. One story element must build on another. That was the missing piece in those earlier two novels, which, despite vibrant settings and quirky characters, came up short. That’s part of why the BODY COPY writing process took six years, and why I love the result. I was able to incorporate all four parts while playing with time and narrative structure.
So with my new novel, I have plot (tons!), a strong voice and plenty of historical scene-setting, but my character motivation is missing. Ask me how my protagonist feels at any given moment in my draft so far, and chances are I’ll answer, “Umm, I think maybe, well actually, I’m not sure.”
Until now, this has terrified me–because one change in character motivation could send the whole novel spinning in a different direction. The bones are so nicely structured, and the story is heading exactly where I hope (with a few hiccups). But without the proper emotions in place, and a deeper sense of my protagonist’s character, there’s no reason for a reader to keep turning pages.
In coming up with this three-fourths theory, though, I have reassured myself that there’s no such thing as writing a perfect first draft. (Yes, there are brilliant writers who have done so, but I’m not one of them, and I don’t know any of them personally.)
So back to the theory: If you can get three of these four elements on the page (plot, character, voice and place), it’s totally feasible to add the fourth during rewrites.
- If you’re short on scene-setting, throw in more descriptions, or moments of looking around at the novel world from a particular standpoint.
- Try telling the story a different way, or from a different point of view, or through several characters’ eyes, if the voice falls flat the first time around.
- Find your loveable, flawed protagonist more obstacles, keeping in mind how the solution to one problem could create the next difficulty, if you’re lacking plot.
- And if you don’t know your characters, go through scene by scene and figure out who’s thinking what, and why.
If you find more than one of these elements missing from your first draft, then maybe it’s time for a deeper look at your manuscript. For inspiration, check out Roz Morris’ post, “A bad book? No, it’s a good book you haven’t fixed yet.”
What do you think about the three-fourths theory? Does it apply to how you write first drafts? Are you eager to suggest more categories and argue for a four-fifths theory or a seven-eighths one?