Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Drafting, and the Aftermath

I've been reading more thrillers lately, gathering tips about building plot twists and amping up suspense. But few scenes are as frightening to me as the process of completing a draft of a novel. And the aftermath.

A few weeks ago, I finished a draft. I finished, quite simply, because I had a deadline. I dislike the process of writing first drafts. I'm a huge reviser. But deadlines are my number one motivator. Without a due date, and a person waiting on the other end, and some money on the line, I might just revise the same sentence over and over again. There's nothing like sheer terror of a date glaring at me to make pages pile up.

I finished the draft, and then learned that my editor couldn't get to it for a few more days. I knew it could use another read-through and more work, so I took it with me on my trip to Seattle. I read it over again on my Nook, on the airplane. (I highly recommend uploading your own work to an eReader -- you really see it with fresh eyes). Then I started unraveling a plot tangle -- probably not a wise last-minute maneuver -- and ended up pulling a couple of late nights, while visiting my family, to fix and patch up the big issues. I finally sent in the manuscript, which is now in the hands of my capable editor.

Then I came home to face this horror.

I was hoping it had cleaned itself in my absence. No luck. This is an aerial view of my office, or one corner of it. You can see reference materials, notes, a white board with calendar boxes for keeping track of a timeline, and my favorite tool of the trade: post-it notes.
Here's the desk itself:

Lots of notes. More post-it notes, creeping up the walls and onto the art print and onto a photo of my son. A visual timer -- I try to work in 30-minute bursts (at least to jump start a sluggish writing session). A summons for Jury Duty -- can't remember if I dealt with postponing that or not. And my trusty iPod, which I used to replay the same three songs over and over when I got stuck or needed to block household noise.

Oh, here's a closeup of the iPod:

(Yes, I know it's from 2006, and I know this was the type that was recalled. Don't judge).

The office pictures and the iPod capture what happens to me when I'm drafting, when I'm into a story far enough to know I'm going to see it through. Aside from my family, the novel takes over. Priorities sharpen, fast, as I become increasingly greedy for desk time. Untangle that iPod cord knot? No way -- I have plot knots to untangle, ones worse than that. Straighten those papers? Not gonna happen. I know vaguely where things landed and can find my notes if I need them. Answer that jury duty summons? Sorry, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, you lose! I have to finish this novel!

While drafting toward the finish, I try to pare down my life to the basic essentials -- and admittedly, this is very hard when you have a family. (And even when you don't!) Every day became a challenge of finding corners to cut. I didn't do any unnecessary errands. Response time to emails and phone calls lagged. I didn't watch TV. Downton Abbey Season 3 ended (which is fine by me, since I've missed Seasons 1, 2, and 3), but while my family was alternately cheering and sobbing over it in the other room, I was toiling away the computer, trying to hammer out own story's highs and lows.

I don't always get the desk time I need -- especially when my son misses school for a cold or snow days, which happened several times during my push to finish this draft -- so I jot notes and ideas when I can, where I can. On napkins and papertowels. Here's my husband's grocery list on our kitchen whiteboard, infiltrated by crazed brainstorming:

There were some things that really kept me going through this draft, though. Among them were:

1. My family. My husband is a great sounding board for ideas, and he patiently listened to wild plot points and character developments -- without knowing completely what the book is about -- at all hours of the day, sometimes even before he'd had a sip of morning coffee. And my parents spent my birthday dinner with me talking only about a big plot issue and offering their insights from the business world, which helped me immeasurably.

2. My writing friends. My in-person writing group looked at pages in progress, cheered me on, and pulled me back from cliffs. A fellow sleuth on this blog, Laura Ellen, did daily/weekly word count check-ins with me, which was highly motivating, especially as we wrote our way through the holidays. And another writer friend had the same deadline, so we did check-ins too. I've never been so grateful for social media as a psychological lifeline.

3. Mental breaks. I tried not to burn out, even as I worked some very late nights. I took full breaks every so often to play with my kid, or pet the cat, or have a cup of tea.

4. My first book. I kept reminding myself that I'd done this before and could do it again. When I'd hit a certain page number, I'd go back and peek at that same page in the published book, as a reward, and remember what it felt like to get there too.

5. Expert help. I have consulted a number of experts in the past few weeks, including mechanics, lawyers, police detectives, port authority workers and shipping container manufacturers. They saved me hours of online research with their fast responses to my crazy questions. I didn't have to waste 50 pages on a misguided plot development if what I was proposing wasn't even remotely plausible. And often, the expert suggested plot developments that were entirely plausible -- but that I wouldn't have thought of because they were out of my area of expertise.

If you are in the midst of a draft, I am here to remind you it is possible to finish! Keep going! Decide it is time to finish, and do so! I have a post-it note on my office door -- "The only way out is through" -- and I live by that. Get through it. You can.

I had many desperate moments where I doubted myself and thought I could not do it, but in the end, I got that stack of pages I'd yearned for:
And now I guess I'd better start digging out my office before my editorial letter comes and the revision process begins. Stock up on some more post-it notes.

Oh, yes. And respond to that jury duty summons, my civic obligation!

For more tips on getting through a first draft -- and to learn about my three favorite tools for drafting -- you can swing by my personal blog: http://dianarenn.blogspot.com/.


Diana Renn grew up in Seattle and now lives outside of Boston with her husband and young son. TOKYO HEIST (Viking/Penguin, June 2012) is her first novel. Her next YA mystery, LATITUDE ZERO (see ultrasound, above) will be published by Viking in 2014.


  1. Hooray! So excited for you and can't wait to read it! (And p.s., I just got summoned for jury duty, too. Maybe it'll be good for future mystery ideas?)

  2. Thanks, Elisa! (And yes I'm looking forward to jury duty too -- kind of hoping I get a meaty case!)

  3. Awesome post! I love these "window into a writer's world" type posts - and a/the desk shot is always fabulous.


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