How do you build a novel? Beginning to end? Most people who are serious about writing have at some point been able to scrawl The End on the last page of a first draft. Some are still striving to reach the final words of a draft they keep reworking as they schlep slowly forward, progressing by mere paragraphs every month. Certainly all serious would-be novelists have spent a fair amount of time studying craft and reveling in the beautiful, messy processes of character creation, worldbuilding, and all the wonders of painting with words.
Whether a complete novel sits under his belt or he nitpicks his way slowly forward, every writer has faced utter befuddlement at the prospect of revision. Some gaze at the gaping chasm between their first draft and the distant final manuscript on the other side and wonder how they’ll ever bridge the gap. Others try to revise even as they write the first draft, wondering when they’ll be satisfied with the chapters they’ve written and when they’ll be finished, perennially exhausted from trying to do too much at once. I have been both of these writers, desperately needing to understand how to make my rough sketches into masterpieces.
Both types of writers need to understand something critical about revision, something they may not want to hear. The truth is that just because you have a first draft doesn’t mean you’re ready to revise. Your first draft may not have fully unfurled all the things a novel needs in order to grow from seedling to tree. It may not have all of the foundation laid or framework built. Even worse, its foundation may be weak, and the whole thing needs to be demolished and hauled away, making room for a foundation that can support the weight of a grand story.
This may sound like depressing news, but this information can be freeing. If you’ve ever slogged through draft after draft and never seemed to bring your story to the point where it sings, you may feel like a failure, like you have no talent, like maybe you weren’t meant to be a writer. But what if you’re a great writer? What if your revision drafts failed because you were building on a weak foundation?
I firmly believe that anyone who works hard enough, studies craft diligently enough, and wants it badly enough will have what it takes to be a writer they can be proud of if they just hold on, keep trying new ideas, and stay open to new ways of doing things. Have you ever seen Disney’s Ratatouille? Anyone can cook. Or in our case, Anyone can write.
Knowing that multiple revision drafts will always end with a weak novel if the foundation isn’t sound, knowing that no chapter built on an incomplete framework will ever lead to a complete building—these truths can put the confidence back in a downtrodden author…and show them what’s holding them back and how to bridge that gap to success.
Not only that, but once an author knows how to build a foundation and frame that’s strong enough to hold up a story, they’ll be less likely to build the sub-par ones in the first place. No longer will they build, demolish, and build again. They’ll build it well the first time. That’s a much more efficient way to write!
Imagine installing a sink on bare ground, then laying a foundation around it. Or expecting drywall to stand on its own while you erect the frame. Imagine building a house and then having the foundation buckle under its weight or having one whole side of the house collapse inward because of a weak frame. Revision without a solid premise and developmental draft is like that. You can’t revise you your story’s foundation and framework are nonexistent or weak. Stories need a source—the first key to successful revision. Premise and developmental draft are this source.
Now let’s explore how to build a strong premise and answer the question of what exactly is a developmental draft.
In writing, foundation is called premise, and according to Donald Maass, a premise exists to do four things: provide plausibility, inherent conflict, originality, and gut emotional appeal.
But a premise isn’t enough to support a story, just as a foundation alone cannot support a house. In building, houses next need a framework. In writing, the next step is a developmental draft.
The difference between a first draft and a developmental draft is subtle. A developmental draft is a first draft. The difference is that a developmental draft is a focused, sometimes frenzied expansion of the story’s premise, while other first drafts may be frenzied, but can also be unfocused collections of random frantic thoughts the author had in their quest to hit upon all their snippets of inspiration and the good-craft tenants drilled into their heads. One method ends with a tight, imaginative, and logical sequence, while the others ends in a meandering and sometimes dull collection of vaguely-connected people and events.
So how do you build a foundational premise with plausibility, inherent conflict, originality, and gut emotional appeal? How do you expand, expand, expand on these elements to build a framework developmental draft?
I’ll talk about that in the future.
* This post is the product of my writing journal musings, where I explore ideas about the writing process (among other things). It’s mostly for my own personal benefit, but I’m posting it in case it may prove useful to others as well.