(This picture comes from my writing board on Pinterest. Source: Buzzfeed)
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.
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!
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.
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!
(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.)