Writing the Developmental Draft

Writing the Developmental Draft

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.


Writing Links from December 2016

Writing Links, December 2016

Hello all, and happy new year! Here are some of my favorite writing-related links from last month:

Book Production Prep Begins Before You Write the First Line! – Myra Johnson, Seekerville (If you like this link, check out D.D. Falvo’s Writer Unboxed post, linked below.)

How the Writer Fits into the Christmas Story – Katy Kauffman, The Write Conversation

7 Misconceptions About Revision – Matt Bird, Writer’s Digest blog

It’s All About the Face: Creating Character Images That Work – D.D. Falvo, Writer Unboxed

Working Titles – Lance Schaubert, Writer Unboxed

Writer Unboxed Conference Wrap-Up, Part 1 , Part 2 , and Part 3 – Various, Writer Unboxed

The Joy of Hindsight – Jennifer AlLee, Novel Rocket

Have a good one, and see you next week!

GBC: The Inheritance and A Beauty So Rare

The Inheritance, Tamera AlexanderGreat Book Covers: The Inheritance and A Beauty So Rare by Tamera Alexander

I’ve been keeping a Great Book Covers board on Pinterest for a while now, and that’s how I found The Inheritance. (Though for some reason I had to repin it yesterday because it wasn’t there. I may have accidentally pinned it to another board.)

It took me a while to figure out what makes this cover so stunning, but I finally realize it’s more than just that vibrant purple dress. It’s the yellow grasses and the purple dress together. A beautiful complimentary color scheme, but it looks so natural that I didn’t even pick it out until I’d looked at it a few times. It makes this cover stand out while at the same time being instantly recognizable as an inspirational historical romance.

Now, while I was first jotting these observations down, I got to thinking about the book itself. Cover art really does attract readers. I read this book because when I encountered it out in the real world, I recognized it instantly and snatched it up.A Beauty So Rare, Tamera Alexander

Anyway. The Inheritance was good, but as I wrote these cover notes, I got to thinking about how I liked another of Alexander’s books better. And I remembered that this book also has a beautiful cover.

Then I realized that the book–A Beauty So Rare–features complimentary colors, too! It’s even more subtle than in The Inheritance. It’s not straight-up red and green, and there’s not even a lot of green, but the green plants positioned just behind the cover model make the pink dress really pop. Just like the yellow background in the other book does for the purple dress.

Since I’m shooting for traditional publishing, I won’t have much say in my cover art–which is definitely one of the cons of this choice. (There’s pros and cons to everything, right?) But if I did, I’d be sure to discuss such a design choice with my cover artist. I love the idea of a complimentary color scheme!


You Don’t Always Get What You Pay For: Online Writing Classes

Online Writing Classes

(This post originally appeared on the blog formerly kept on my Mary-Kate Valentine site. Digital recycling!)

Earlier this year—knowing that I wouldn’t make it to a conference in 2014—I decided, “Hey, I’m saving a lot of money. I can afford to spend a little on an online writing class.” One RWA chapter was hosting a class (there are always a bunch of chapter-sponsored classes) that I was interested in, so I paid the $25.

It wasn’t the first online class I’d taken. I’d taken two of the free classes from RWA University; one was fantastic, the other pretty decent. But this was the first one I’d paid for, and I expected it to be comparable to the RWAU classes—maybe even better. Imagine my surprise when each lesson was smaller than this blog post, several were just a paragraph or two long, and some had excerpts from the author’s books which were longer than the lesson itself. Moreover, I leaned not a single thing that I didn’t already know ten years ago, when I was still new to writing as a business.

I don’t want to bill this as a how-to post, since I’ve not actually taken the plunge and paid for another online class. But I will someday, and when I do, I’ll be keeping these things in mind before I shell out the cash:

1.) Is the presenter’s name familiar? If you follow lists that feature online writing classes, such as the ones published by RWA, you might recognize a few names over time. If a workshop you’re interested in doesn’t list someone familiar, look through some back issues (or that’s my plan). With RWA chapter-sponsored classes, at least, the workshops and presenters tend to rotate around. If the presenter keeps being asked to teach, chances are better that they offer something worthwhile.

2.) Does the presenter have a history of teaching? Maybe they’ve never taught an online class, but have they taught writing workshops at conferences or chapter meetings? Do they write for a group writing blog like Writer Unboxed, or do they offer useful insights on their own writing blog? In other words, do they have credibility as a teacher, not just as a writer? There are lots of published writers—just like the one who taught the $25 class. That makes them authors. It doesn’t make them teachers.

3.) Are you sure you know what you’re getting into? I was under the impression that this workshop wasn’t a beginner’s course—and I don’t think I was the only one; only two or three questions were asked the whole two weeks. Next time there’s not a clear indication of knowledge level, I’ll email for clarification.

I would gladly have paid $25 for either of the free classes from RWAU. If the class I paid for had been free on somebody’s blog, I would have stopped after the first paragraph, but I didn’t, because damn it, I paid for it! I kept hoping it would get better. It never did. So you don’t always get what you paid for.

Another myth put to rest.

* (I do have to say with RWA University, you actually do pay for the free classes—with your membership dues. This occurred to me after this post was already written. Still, to pay separately for a class rather than being offered it free with membership dues implies value.)

Writing and Social Media: Do What You Love

writing and social mediaAt RWA Nationals in 2013, I attended a workshop on marketing. (Yes, I’m putting the unpublished cart before the publishing horse, but an author I once met and liked was on the panel, so I went to the workshop.) There was a lot of discussion on different venues popular with authors for promoting their brands and their work—Twitter, Facebook, blogs, street teams, in-person events. But the most valuable thing I took away from that workshop was this: if you don’t enjoy it, it’s not worth your time. Stick with the marketing tasks that you love.

How does that apply to unpublished authors?

More and more, unpublished authors are feeling the pressure to build an online following. Maybe it’s because more of them are planning to self-publish and need an audience to sell to; maybe it’s because some agents are now saying they consider this when deciding whether to take on a new author. (I’ve read quotes from four such agents this year.) Whatever the reason, it’s easy to let that pressure get to you, easy to end up biting off more than you can chew. Deciding what to keep and what to cut depends on what you love. Here’s why.

First of all, let’s be realistic. Even if you develop follower numbers that you’re proud of, how many people are you reaching in the grand scheme of things—you, an unpublished author? Sorry to sound cynical. Obviously, I believe online activity has value, or I wouldn’t be here now. But blogging well, using Pinterest well—these are time-consuming. You need to get something out of it if you’re going to let it eat up your time. Accept the fact that your loyal followers will be few, and you’ll see that by using an online venue you don’t like, you’ll waste hours which could have been spent on writing and gotten nothing from it—not even enjoyment.

Second, using social media and such is hard. Let’s just accept this up front. Companies dedicate entire departments to these tasks, and it is those employees’ job to use the internet for effective promotion and marketing—just as it’s your job to write great books. Let me ask: how hard is your job? How long have you spent honing your craft? Using all the many forms of promotion well takes that same effort, and you do not have the time.

Published authors may be able to afford hired help in that department, but as an unpublished author who sees value in being online somehow, you need to spend time on what you’ll get the most out of, because you can’t be everywhere. (And as we’ve established, you’re unlikely to build a high number of loyal followers, so it’s not worth it to be on all these venues, anyway.) You’ll get a whole lot more out of a venue you enjoy than one you don’t—even if the one you hate is “what all the other authors are using, Mom!”

Finally, let’s talk about all those followers I said you wouldn’t get. I’m talking meaningful followers. It’s actually not difficult to rack up a thousand Twitter or Pinterest followers; you just have to follow everyone who follows you, and follow a bunch of people knowing that some will follow back. But people aren’t a commodity. People are people. The idea of writing fiction is to connect with people…so shouldn’t our online media do the same?

Not all the venues will appeal to you. You’ll get far less value from the ones you don’t connect with. Give less value, too. But in a media that speaks to you…You may not have thousands of followers, but if you love what you’re doing, you’ll connect to your handful of followers. Isn’t it better to connect to all 20 of your followers than to none of your 1000?

Besides, passion breeds interest. I, for example, am totally in love with Pinterest. I have over 200 followers there–not that this is a lot. But on Twitter, I have less than 10. I think the fact that I don’t like Twitter shines through.

My conclusion: Don’t try to develop a following just to build an audience for your books or impress an agent. Build an online presence that is a continuation of your passion for the written word, the things you write, and all the little things that make you who you are. When an agent says they want authors who already have a following, they may mean just that—in which case, that’s probably not the right agent for me—or they may mean they want an author who’s passionate about books, writing, and life, and they like to see that author sharing their passion online.

There’s a quote—can’t remember from who—that says, “Life is too short to read bad books.” There’s another—from Jane Austen—that says, “Let other pens dwell on grief and misery.” These are good principles to translate to our use of the internet for marketing and promotion—especially for unpublished authors. Let other pens dwell on the misery that is Twitter—pens which don’t consider it misery at all! Stick with what you love.