I started my writing career as an in-house copywriter. I wrote catalog copy, speeches, replies to customers’ nice or nasty correspondence, magazine ads, marketing and training materials, newsletters and more, all nonfiction of course. I did my research, laid out the facts, embellished them appropriately, and sent them off to where they had to go in time to meet my ever present deadlines. There was often a round of executive approvals to be made, cursory changes now and then, but for the most part my pieces went unchallenged and unchanged. I still write nonfiction and still use the simple method I learned decades ago. It still gets published.
Recently adding fiction to my credentials was a lot harder, even painful sometimes. It’s difficult for me to tell when something I’ve written is ready to send out to the world. My chosen critics give me contradictory feedback, some of it blistering. I labor over favorite ideas, words and phrases, lamenting when it seemed best to cut them from my story.
I’ll get through the first draft of my fictional stories using elements of my nonfiction process. I’ve spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars studying the craft of fiction and the more I write the better it gets… not easier… but better. I’ve published a bit, won a contest or two.
Now, a few years in, not as published as I want to be, I’m learning how to re-write. There’s less written on how to do that, and what I’ve found from my critique groups, articles and books has been only marginally helpful in each instance. What is helping is a synthesis of my research on rewriting. I foolishly thought that my first drafts needed only a little tweaking here and there to render them publishable. Silly me. Now I’m moving toward a five draft process, probably not unique, and I’m still learning to use it.
My first draft is the flow of the story. I’m a cross between a story outliner and a seat of the pants writer. I get up at 4am every day and write at least 500 fictional words. I typically plot one or a few steps ahead and then let the characters take me where they want to go.
In the second draft I enhance the scenes that need it. Who wants what? Do they get it? Why? Why not? Add tension via dialogue and action. Etc.
Then I enhance the characters in the third draft. What are they thinking? Feeling? Why? Maybe add some backstory, some contradictions to make them more interesting. Etc.
Still not done. In the fourth draft, it’s time to pull all the elements together. Read it through again and again. (I should pause here briefly to tell you that, because I have a short attention span, I write only short stories and novellas, nothing much longer than 40,000 words.) Fix the grammar, check details like dates and names and color of hair and eyes if they’re mentioned, double check any research facts. Etc.
Finally, in the fifth and final (I hope) draft, I polish up the language, show off in those little ways that will engage the reader even more and get her or him to leave a glowing review.
See, not much over 500 words in this article. But I did redraft it a few times. Less than five because it’s nonfiction. I promise.