Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Fun with numbers

I wish I could remind myself that it's really not necessary to count drafts. But I like having concrete goals and accomplishing specific tasks. It feels so fantastic to say, "Do you know what I did these past few months? I finished the third draft of my novel." Specific, concrete, and tangible. But hey, do you know what's not always specific, concrete, and tangible? Creative writing.

I wrapped up my second draft in mid-June, three very long months ago. And I've been plugging away at the book for most of those days, but certainly not all. There's been some stuckage. And I'm starting to make my way through the muck the past week or so. But when I solve the problem in one scene (for example, what happened to my antagonist? Why hasn't he shown up in forty pages?), another one awaits me right around the corner.

I've been doing a lot of cutting editing. When I cut a big chunk out of a current draft (anything more than two sentences) I save the text in a document called Extras. And just as I was getting frustrated about working hard yet feeling like I was going nowhere fast, I noticed some interesting math in my word count.

  • Word count draft one: 88,260
  • Word count draft two: 72,911
  • Current word count of draft three: 79,646
  • Current word count of Extras I deleted from draft two: 5,908

    We all know that a first draft is often full of awful, extra, excessive, unnecessary, redundant words. But let's take a look at what's happened between drafts two and three. My good friends over at Excel tell me this means that while I've cut about 6,000 words out of draft three so far, I've added in 12,000 new ones. My story isn't getting completely hacked away after all! And hopefully my sentences are getting more efficient. If I said it in ten words, could I say it just as well in eight?

    So back to the challenges ahead. One word at a time.

    1. I guess one of my questions has always been, how on earth do you quantify drafts? For example, I wrote my current story until I was finished. I guess you could say that was draft 1. But then I made several small edits over time, some larger, some smaller. At one point I changed the ending. Does that become draft 2? My most recent change was to boost the climactic scene. Is that draft 3?

      Or do you quantify in terms of level of editing: deep, overall, fine-grained?

      This is a great topic because I think there is an efficient way to revise, one that ensures you don't spend YEARS revising a story, but of course it's different for everyone.

    2. Hi Sierra,

      I'm still figuring out my process, and it's certainly different for short stories than novels. When I wrote my first novel, I did each draft straight through front to back, one chapter at a time. I did about five drafts.

      My process on this book has been much more iterative. I don't outline, so I just wrote a first messy draft in about three or fourth months. The second draft was much more of a mechanical edit, where I changed both the tense and point of view. When working through the second draft, I also labeled and numbered each scene, then moved chunks (chapters at a time often) around. That was my attempt at outlining.

      So now in draft three, I feel like I have the plot in better shape and I'm focusing on character, voice, and language. There are still some plot holes to iron out, but I know exactly where I'm heading with the story, where in the first draft I just let the story evolve however it wanted.

      I'm going over chapters several times, but right now my attention is just on the first 100 pages. Once those feel solid, I'll move more to the middle section, then the end.

      So that's the method to my madness. I imagine this excessive draft labeling probably comes from my background in technical writing and the need to version control documentation on a routine basis. It was something that helped me hit milestones (and feel like I'd never lose anything) so it's a carry over I've brought into the world of creative writing.

      It's something kind of tangible that keeps me motivated, but I do agree it's different for everyone.

    3. I like that milestone-based way. Plus I was a technical writer too. :)

    4. Then Sierra, you will know what I mean when I say I blame it all on CVS. And not the drugstore! :)