Thoughts on a First Draft

I didn’t write anything yesterday. Which is weird, because as I’m writing this it’s yesterday compared to the earliest you could possibly read it. So I suppose what I should say is that I didn’t write anything on Wednesday.

There were times in my life when not writing anything on a given day or during a given week or month was standard operating procedure. I would think about something to write. I would sometimes sit down and pull up a word processor. And then nothing would come out. The words refused to make the transition from mind to finger, finger to keyboard, keyboard to screen. Writing was a thing I loved. Writing was a thing I hated. It was an adversary, in turn chasing and running away.

I didn’t write anything on Wednesday. I didn’t write anything on Wednesday because I didn’t have anything to write on Wednesday. I didn’t write anything on Wednesday because on Tuesday I wrote ten thousand words over the course of ten hours. This was the final culmination of a ramp up over the course of the Fourth of July weekend and the preceding days where I would write four or five thousand words. It was the final stretch, the last sprint to the finish line.

I didn’t write anything on Wednesday because I finished the first draft of the Nightwind rewrite on Tuesday. Well, technically I did write on Wednesday, since I finished it at 1:30 in the morning on Wednesday. But then I went to sleep. And the day ends when sleep begins. Perception matters more than the calendar or the clock.

Either way, I learned many, many things from this particular first draft that I never learned in previous first drafts. I need to catalog those lessons. I don’t want to lose them. Over the last two months I leveled up as a writer in ways I didn’t expect when I started this process.

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One of the big problems I already see when discussing this is that final sprint at the end. Those days where I wrote four or five or ten thousand words create a false narrative. They create a world where I could sit down and write a book in a week and a half. Ten ten-hour days and you’re done. Boom goes the dynamite. But you can’t write a good book ten thousand words at a time.

Those days at the end where the word count advanced by leaps and bounds came because I’d laid the groundwork. They came not in spite or mockery of the days where I crawled forward, writing a thousand words or a hundred or a sentence but because of those days. Those early days of slog are the training. Those final days of sprint are what the training allows.

I don’t know anyone else’s process and I can’t pretend to speak for anyone but me. But for me I didn’t really know where the second half of the book was going until I was passing the first half of the book. This is odd, since it’s technically a rewrite, but it’s a rewrite because I tore everything down. I told a new story with most of the same characters in the same universe with the same overarching story. But I was gutting and renovating a house with a plan I started drawing up the day after I tore everything old out.

Some days I wrote basically nothing. On those days I looked up everything I could find on space elevators or how light refracts through the atmosphere or had long conversations about firearms technology. Some days I spent hours listening to Mike Rowe tell me How the Universe Works. It’s a lot easier to get important information like that now than it was back at the turn of the millennium when I first sat down to write Nightwind. That’s for damn sure.

Either way, I decided to do the rewrite in, what, February? In March or April I decided that I would take the rewrite in a completely different direction, since just rewriting the first version but better was creating a confusing hodgepodge. At the end of April I thought I’d have the book done by June. Because those multi-thousand word days danced in my head. I knew I was capable of it. I just forgot the reasons why.

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I read a surprising amount over the last three months. I read the sixth book in Ian Douglas’s Star Carrier series.[1] I read John Scalzi’s The End of All Things. I read a couple of Seanan McGuire’s Incryptid books. I just finished re-reading Leviathan Wakes because I didn’t really remember the book that well and wanted to see what was different between the books and SyFy’s The Expanse.[2]

Let’s set Ian Douglas aside for a moment, since the Star Carrier books are actually kind of a mess and my appreciation for them begins and ends with the extreme attention to detail. Scalzi, McGuire, and James SA Corey are four of my current favorite authors. The rewrite of Nightwind owes much to both Scalzi and Corey.[3] I approached them this time not just as a guy reading books but as a guy reading books while also writing books. I saw something this time around that I’d never really noticed before.

Long sections of the books I was reading were downright pedestrian. These were books written by professional authors and edited by professional editors. And don’t get me wrong. They were good books. Hell, this is my minimum third re-read of Leviathan Wakes. I love that book. I loved it as I was re-reading it. I’ll probably read it again in a couple of years.

What holds those books together isn’t unbroken strings of perfect sentences, stringing one after another to create perfect paragraphs and perfect chapters. They’re held together by the fact that writers who have spent years honing their craft by building stories and spinning out universes and putting real, concrete characters into those universes. They didn’t assemble perfect words into perfect sentences. They assembled interesting characters in interesting places and wrote a hell of a lot of words to describe them. Some of those words were very good. Some of those sentences were great. But great words and great sentences assembled to describe stupid places where characters just lurch from one place to another aren’t nearly as effective as good words to describe great characters in memorable places.

I realized that one night while I was still somewhere in the first half of the Nightwind rewrite. I had found myself, as I so often do, doubting my ability to write. The words were often wrong. The sentences that sparkled in my head were dull and lifeless on the screen. Then, one night, I just stopped worrying about it. Because I read a few sentences in Leviathan Wakes and thought, “Huh. That wasn’t very good.” I suppose it’s arrogance on my part, but I realized that my average sentence was probably pretty close in quality to the average sentence from any book I was going to read, especially when I stopped comparing a first draft to a complete, professionally edited book and got my book to the point where it was complete and professionally edited.[4]

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I knew I was going to love The Expanse almost at the beginning of the first episode. There’s a long tracking shot that passes through various parts of Ceres and ends with Thomas Jane as a world-weary detective in a ridiculous hat standing in the middle of the medina watching an OPA hothead harangue a crowd in the strange Belter language of the book. It wasn’t a scene from the book but it was a scene from Ceres. It established in just a couple of minutes that, yes, the people who made the show had every desire to turn to the source material and visualize the world that up until that moment only existed in my mind.

This was one of my most important lessons. I realized shortly after I decided to completely tear the entire thing down and start the rewrite from the foundations that I had no idea what anything looked like. I had never mapped out Nightwind’s interior. People lived there but they just kind of floated in a vast, enclosed void.

It actually started with Zaqar, which was the new name I gave to the colony ship Winged Messenger. The Winged Messenger was just a big blob moving through space on rockets or something. I never described it. So I wrote a new chapter that started with a description of the ship.

Then Kat Silas arrived. She started as an idea. Because with the tearing down of the original story I realized that I needed a new wrinkle. I needed, in effect, a b-plot. So I spent a couple of days just throwing ideas around in my head. Kat’s character solved a couple of different problems that the change to the story created. She brought with her a whole new problem, though. I had to answer the question of where she was when we first meet her and how she gets to where she needs to be.

It’s not actually that big of a deal, really. It’s the matter of a couple of chapters right at the beginning of the book, but those chapters required me to spend more time thinking about the world all of these characters exist in than I put into the entire worldbuilding of the first draft.

She also becomes the first person to smell Nightwind. This might not seem like a big deal, but before Kat Silas it never occurred to me to describe a smell. That also caused me to realize that I had never said a single word about the colors inside of the ship. They surprised me. They will probably surprise my readers, too.

There was another change that came from my first foray into describing the inside of Nightwind. The ship got a lot smaller. When I first wrote the book I just said that the ship was a kilometer long because that’s a nice, round number and the ship needed to be pretty big because duh. One night I sat down with a calculator and a spreadsheet and tried to figure out just how much space there was. I came up with 3.3 million cubic meters of space.[5] That is a lot of space. I put everything I needed to put into the ship and couldn’t fill half of it. So I made the ship smaller.

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My final realization came right at the start of the final sprint. I had this idea in my head of what would happen. Then I modified that idea a bit. Then I actually put it into the book. And a thing happened that would require a decision. So one of the characters asked, “Why don’t we [do this other thing] first?” And I realized that I did not have an answer to that question. I realized that the most logical thing to do was the thing that the character asked and also that would completely and totally ruin everything. So I deleted a chapter and a half and made sure that the question didn’t and couldn’t come up.

That change set the rest of the book in motion. All of the sudden everything snapped into place and I knew exactly what was going to happen between that point and the end of the book. So from that point out I didn’t have to think. I had my characters. They all had a series of jobs to do and a collection of motivations and everything was laid out.

But some things were still in flux even from the halfway point of the book. Some things didn’t really make any sense. Some characters did things that kind of came out of nowhere.

And that is when I learned what a first draft is for. See, I once believed that the difference between a first draft and a second was that you went through the first draft and made sure all of the words were spelled correctly. But that sort of editing is a third or fourth or fifth draft thing.

The end of the first draft is where the real work begins. Once you finish the first draft you then have to go back and make sure it all makes sense. A lot of stuff that goes into the first draft doesn’t make any sense until it’s all over and everyone has done all of the stuff they’re supposed to do.

One of the other things I realized was that sometimes, especially during the first draft, you just have to write something. Anything. I wrote some paragraphs and realized that they were just placeholders to get me through that and on to the next thing. Hell, there’s at least one chapter that I’m pretty sure won’t survive the first revision.

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The weirdest thing about this first draft is that it isn’t actually the first first draft of Nightwind. It’s technically the second draft. But it’s so far removed from the original that it might as well be a first draft.

I also know that I absolutely became a better writer over the course of writing the book. One of my tendencies as a writer is to see characters as a collection of scenes. Shortly after Kat Silas introduced herself I saw her in a scene that I knew would happen in the book, but almost at the end. I wrote it anyway, since I didn’t want to lose the scene.

When I finally got to the scene I copy pasted it in and gave it a quick edit just to put it in the right context and make sure that the right people were involved. As I did the edit I realized that the scene was not nearly as crisp as the bits that surrounded it. It was shocking to see this scene I thought was great a few months back and realize, “Wow, I’m going to have to revise the hell out of this one.”

But that’s why the second draft exists.

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[1]This is now a series that I hate read more than anything else. It’s a weird hybrid of hard core SF and hard core Mil SF. The first three books were actually quite the education, since he spent a lot of time discussing how combat would work in space and endlessly articulating how things like the speed of light would be a hard limit on tactics. He also put tons of work into making his aliens alien. It made me completely re-think how I, as a kid who grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars and Babylon 5 where most every alien was just a human with weird makeup and a universal translator, thought of human-alien interaction.

That said, his humans are all paper-thin caricatures. And he posits a universe where humanity is alone, pitted against an impossibly huge alien empire and the brave Americans lead the fight while the French keep trying to sell the brave, self-sacrificing Americans out. Also, for some reason, it’s a functionally post-scarcity society where the big political issue of the day is, “Yay capitalism!” and the brave, brilliant, not-at-all-sellout-asshole Americans just randomly go on anti-Socialist rants. As you do. So it’s basically Iraq War propaganda, but where Saddam Hussein is in control of a galaxy-spanning empire.

[2]A lot. The answer is, “A lot.” For the record, I absolutely loved the TV show. There are some things about it that genuinely annoyed me. They set up a wholly unnecessary conflict at the beginning for reasons I don’t understand. I’m still not happy about Chrisjen Avasarala’s appearance in Season 1 even though she was nowhere to be seen in Leviathan Wakes. Don’t get me wrong, Shohreh Aghdashloo was amazing and absolutely blew the airlocks open. But re-reading Leviathan Wakes the most striking thing about it is just how isolated the main characters are. They exist in their little bubbles with no view of the larger picture at the beginning and slowly piece it all together while Mars and Earth are in the background and the biggest war in human history happens off stage. I prefer seeing it that way.

Otherwise, while I was not at all on board with Thomas Jane as Miller when I saw the cast lists he was just about perfect. And Wes Chatham was spot-on as Amos. Chad L Coleman did a good job with the more limited Fred Anderson of the show. Dominique Tipper and Cas Anvar as Naomi Nagata and Alex Kamahl obviously did their homework. I only just realized that Athena Karkanis played Octavia Muss. I thought that was a wholly original character they created for the show. She certainly wasn’t the Octavia Muss of the book. Jay Hernandez played a stock character from central casting that they slapped the name Detective Havelock on.

The biggest problem with the whole endeavor was Steven Strait as Jim Holden. I don’t think it was Strait’s fault, either. Holden’s character in the book is repeatedly described as “righteous.” He sees the world in black and white terms and always strives to be one hundred percent on the right side of the line. That’s a difficult role to play and Strait did it as well as anyone. The problem is that they undermined him within a few minutes of his arrival in the first episode and that kind of broke everything. It’s especially problematic since Thomas Jane wore Miller like a comfortable coat and so much of the book is about what happens when someone like Holden and someone like Miller are forced to work together.

The other interesting one was perennial That Guy Jared Harris as Anderson Dawes. Harris so completely stole the show that when I re-read the book I was shocked at just how much Anderson Dawes wasn’t an important character. He shows up, like, four times in the book and mostly exists to hand over some key information and kick the plot in the ass a couple times.

Speaking of that, the one episode where perennial That Gal Frances Fisher shows up to go toe-to-toe with Shohreh Aghdashoo was amazing. Chrisjen Avasarala is basically an amoral force of nature until that one episode where she becomes, if not quite human, at least sympathetic.

[3]Which is not to say I’m copying them. Because I’m not. I’ll get to that later.

[4]With the exception of Cat Valente. Or, at least, Cat Valente’s Dirge for Prester John books. The average sentence in those books is on par with the best sentence I will ever write. And then, every few pages a sentence that makes everything else look like garbage just lights up the page with supernova intensity. I kind of hate Cat Valente for being so fucking good at putting words together.

[5]It was basically this: the ship was 1 kilometer long. The forward 20% was unusable. The rear third of the rear 80% was (and still is) a blank space called “engineering.” So that left me with a not-quite cylinder 540 meters long with a 100 meter diameter. The area of a circle is figured with pi * r squared. Multiply that by the height and you get something like 4.2 million cubic meters. But the ship isn’t a perfect cylinder, so I cut that down by twenty percent. It was a lot of back-of-the-napkin stuff.

Eventually I tried to visualize that. I basically realized that I had a structure with half again the footprint of the Sears Tower and that was as tall as the measurement from Wacker Drive to the tip top of the antennae. That’s just a huge amount of space. And also the actual length of the ship was another Sears Tower on top of that. Give or take.

One thought on “Thoughts on a First Draft

  1. Writers are often divided into “planners” and “pantsers” (as in seat-of-the-), but in practice most of them fall somewhere in between.

    Do you read Pat Wrede’s blog? Much good advice there. I may have mentioned this before.

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