Friday, September 17, 2010

Don't Rush to the Finish Line

As I approach the end of my current WIP's first draft, I can't help but feel as though I have been sprinting through the scenes toward the final page. Part of that is due to the whirl of character activity and the rush of events in the story itself (and--for those familiar with my work--all the killing going on). But part of it is just me, hurrying my way through the writing. Last night Mighty Reader told me that I was moving so quickly just so I'd be done with this first draft. I told her she was wrong, but of course she's right. I have been hurrying just for the sake of hurrying, or for the sake of my self-imposed end-of-September deadline. Hell, if I really tried, I could finish the book up in a couple of hours tonight. There aren't that many actual events left to narrate. The trouble is, it would be a crappy, rushed narrative.

I look at some of the scenes wrote this week and I realize that they were not much more than sketches of scenes. A final act that I thought would take 10,000 words to tell looked like it was going to be written in more like 4,000 words. That's not economy of style, but stinginess with the narrative elements. I felt less like a writer of careful prose than a guy running down the aisles at the supermarket, throwing ingredients into the cart and promising you a good meal at some point down the road. That's no way to write a novel. Or to feed a dinner guest.

During the last few Designated Writing Periods (that is, lunch breaks) I did not move forward with the story. What I did instead was go back into the last scenes I wrote and fleshed them out more, slowing them down and beefing them up, putting in things to ratchet up the tension and madness of the story. I've thought of a nice event (a handy bit of violence, as it happens) that will fit neatly into the end of one scene, an event that will boost the tension and conflict and will also manage to dramatize the change in one of my character's personalities. If I had not stopped to consider the idea that I'm moving too fast, that I am presenting only the bones of the story in an effort to simply Get To The Last Damned Page of the Novel as fast as I can, I would not have had any of the cool ideas I'm now working into the story. So it's all win, and maybe I would've fixed this sketchy finale in the revision stage, but maybe I wouldn't have and then my agent would be saying, "I liked it until the end, and then it got sort of suck, Mr. Bailey."

I long to print the final pages of this MS, place my hands on the stack of paper and say, "Done! Done! Bring me cigars and champagne!" But I want to be done writing, not just done typing. If you know what I mean. So is it just me, or do the rest of you run headlong through the endings of your first drafts as if you were escaping a house on fire?

Got stories? Share them! Talk about the final stages of a first draft, no matter what the experience is like. It will be educational for everyone, I promise.


  1. Yes, I've often done that. Current WIP I am editing, I wrote the first draft for NaNo, and wrote 90K in one month. Now, editing also includes a lot of fleshing out.

    I wasn't against rushing first draft as sometimes it's just good to get the story out. But I am thinking about slowing down for the next first draft, and see how that works out. Perhaps less editing.

  2. Scott, maybe it depends on the "point" of being done.

    I had as my deadline the last day of school (June-kids) to finish the first draft of a novel I'd been working on. I knew I was taking the summer off from all things writing, and I somehow felt that if I didn't have a complete draft by then, I would never finish it. I wrote much more quickly during May and June than I had all year--two parts motivation but a good solid part rushing.

    I did it, but now that I've read through the entire draft, there are passages that are exactly as you describe--sketches. And parentheticals.

    That being said, the entire story is there; it's just that some of it needs to be filled in or made richer or fuller. Or researched more carefully. The end is actually the end and I think the very end will survive intact. It all feels very "do-able" now, notwihtstanding the six thousand orange sticky notes with which I have plastered it this week--but that may be because I knew I'd be coming bck to it in three months and still expected a significant amount of work.

    I sense that you're looking for a more honest "done" than I was at the beginning of the summer, a practical versus pychological goal. In which case, the slowing down seems wise.


  3. I thought the sprint to the finish line was the way all first drafts were supposed to be completed. At least, that's the way I finished all of mine.

  4. Scott, I like what Jennifer says about the point of being done. My first drafts have often been a pile of crap, but they are first FIRST drafts. This draft of yours is based on something you've written before, and I think that makes a huge difference. However, when I wrote Cinders, I was really careful, and no matter what book I've done, I get to 2 chapter before the end and usually take an unintended week break to think about how the end should really end. I've done this with every novel. It's like I just stop sprinting to catch my breath. I think that's a good thing.

    I, for one, am very excited you are almost finished. :)

  5. I haven't done that in the past, but I've not been working with a self-imposed deadline like I am this time. I can see myself doing that, though, so hopefully your bringing it up will help me keep it in mind so I can fight that urge.

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  7. Yep. I've done that, too. Now I'm going back to fix that. Sometimes when I do it, the story becomes more of a synopsis and less of a fleshed out piece.

    I love the way you put it about rushing through the aisles of a grocery store. It does feel that way. Zipping through like that doesn't help though because then when you get home you missed so many of the things you need that you end up having to go back to the store. That's where I am now.

  8. I think I have the opposite problem: I don't want to be done. Why? As long as it is still "in the working stage" I don't have to put a stamp on it. Anything that is not good, well, it's only because I am still working on it. If I call it done, then I have to stand behind it and take all the rejections that I know in my bones will greet my baby.

  9. Been there. I've definitely rushed through an ending or two. I'll fix it in the second draft, I'll say. But usually I wind up scrapping everything and starting fresh.

    One time I broke one of my own rules—only ONE first draft at a time!—because I knew I was racing toward the ending. Instead, I started plotting a new novel, which made me slow down my thought processes. It also helped me to feel less frantic. And the more I tried to analyze the new wip, the more I thought about the old one, which helped me to slowly finish.

    Strange logic, I know, but it works. Like when I turn the tv on to help me concentrate because the act of blocking something else out helps me focus. ;) Sounds counter-intuitive, but it helped in the past!

    Good luck slowing that runaway train down!

  10. I was rushing, just like you, and although not sketching, the writing I was doing was wrong. It wasn't where I wanted it to go, so I had to scrap three scenes and rewrite them this morning. My lovely word count went back down but at least I know I'm headed in the right direction now.

    A rehearsal dinner, a lovely summer wedding and a good-bye and my ms. will be complete. Monday, here I come!

  11. I rushed through the last half of my first draft like the speed of light, but the thing is, I got all the main points down, so I was happy with that. Of course, on the second draft I had to trash 90% of it and rewrite. Hell, saying only 90% is optimistic as best. :)

    Congrats on being close to finished!

  12. I have the same problem as Yat Yee.

  13. There are stages of writing. For me, the rough draft stage is - get the idea out of my head and on the paper. The next stage, what I call first draft stage, is where I go back and fill in the details I left out and fix whatever gaping plot holes I find.

    The rough draft is the skeleton, and the subsequent drafts are the organs and muslces, the circulatory system, the brains, the epidermis, etc. It's a process.

    I'm always proud when I finish the rough draft, even though I know there's a heck of a lot more work to do on the project.

    The editing phase, at least for me, is about the fleshing out of characters and the tightening of the story.


  14. I'm going to reply directly to Scott (because I like his name, oddly enough) and through that reply, indirectly to others who've said similar things. Lame, I know, but I'm busy today at work and I'm stealing a few minutes to comment here.

    Scott, I understand about how the rough draft is just to get the skeleton of the story onto paper, to have something in hand that can be shaped and molded and polished. My latest modus operandi, however, is to try to use all I know about writing and storytelling during the drafting stage, and to make my draft as solid and finished as I possibly can. That means that if I catch myself skipping details I know should be there, or just sketching in a scene or writing--as Lois said--more a synopsis than a story, I will make myself slow down and write what needs to be written in full. So I'm trading off--or delaying--that moment of triumph-at-the-finish-line for what I hope will be an easier time during revisions. As Jennifer said, it's about having a different idea about what it means to be "done." We'll see how that works for me.

  15. I always rush the endings. In everything. I just let myself do it because I feel a sense of relief. Then, I can revise the ending with a renewed energy. It's all about mind games with me.

  16. With my last WIP I found it took a few revisions for me to even start to feel like it was really wrapping up. I think in that initial draft I captured the essence of the book, then brought it to fruition with the next several layers.

  17. I just finished my 3rd draft today (woot! will blog about it soonish)

    So I know what you mean.
    My first draft was 80K
    My 2nd was 117K
    I cut out a bunch down to 97K.
    Now guess what? My 3rd draft is 117K.
    I did not add anything...I just fleshed out scenes.

    So I don't know the answer to this...except that you shouldn't sweat it. Just make sure you end the first draft short enough to allow for bloat.

  18. Andrew: Congrats! Woot for you! If that's a real expression, and I doubt it. Usually what happens in my books is that the first draft is skimpy but I cut a bunch out in revisions anyway. Even so, they somehow end up 10% or so longer after revisions no matter how much I cut, because I think of new scenes and expand the stuff left behind after all the cuts. I will be interested in how revisions go with this book ("Killing Hamlet") and with the book I drafted before it (also just a first draft right now). I did a lot more prep work with these books than I've ever done before. My hope is that the revisions won't be excessive because I knew the story and characters better going in this time around. We'll see. I expect to have a second draft of "Killing Hamlet" by the end of October.

  19. Because of how I write I’ve never had that problem. My whole purpose in writing is to get to that end point as quickly as possible, to get the bones of the story down on paper. Then I go back and start fleshing it out. It’s how I’ve written every book and I’m quite close now to the skeleton of my current work in progress. It’s not exactly a skeleton, there’s some sinew there and a beating heart but it’s far from finished. I still don’t have an exact ending but there are only one or two options and it’s simply a matter of picking one. Then I can do what I really enjoy, the editing, grafting in paragraphs, tweaking sentences, and finally adding in commas and taking them out again until the whole thing flows from beginning to end. There’s finished and then there’s finished.

  20. I find that if I don't write in a rush and gallop to get a first draft finished then I won't finish the thing full-stop. I was absolutely astounded when I participated in NaNo last year and actually came out of it with a 70k manuscript at my side. I'm still polishing it now (fourth draft) but the speed helped me cleanse all the rubbish from my mind. The number of times I rolled my eyes at my obvious laziness as I worked through the second draft are more than I can count.

    But learning from that I did the same with another work: wrote 55k in six weeks and then tried to look at the consequences. It doesn't have literary merit but it's a start... and a true start's better than a false one.

  21. I had to do this for my last novel. I was going to school and computer science classes really cut into my creative writing. So I sat down and forced myself to finish writing the damned thing even though I had no clear idea where it was supposed to go. The good thing is that once it was down I had something to edit, which was useful in this case. It took two weeks for me to have a satori moment as to what the book was about and how it should have ended, which wasn't so different from how it did end, just a few bits of text needed to make it work.

    My usual technique develops the story as I go, and I know where I intend it to end, even if I don't know how to get there. In the case of my werewolf-on-the-moon story I didn't have any of this.

    Marc Vun Kannon

  22. I actually rush through the entirity of my Works in Progress, getting the main plot down on paper.

    The plan is to leave that draft to mature with non-interaction before starting with refining. At that stage I'll get to the details.

    I do this because I'm an ex-self edit addict. If I do careful constructions on my first draft it will never get done...

    Good luck with finishing your Work in Progress! :-)

  23. I've actually written the last scenes about two thirds of the way through the story in both my finished novel and my WIP. They underwent/will under go some revisions, of course, but the structure was there. That allowed me to go back and write the chapters leading up to it in a way that would free me from worrying about what was going to happen next.

    I'm not averse to changing it up if a better idea presents itself though. I'm flexible. lol

  24. Mary: Optimally, I have the last pages written well before I get to that point of the MS, just so I won't be in a rush and rap out a crap ending just to have ended the work. But for my last two novels, I knew what the final image in the book was going to be, but I had no idea how exactly the story got to that image. My next book (to be begun officially early next year, I think) sort of starts at the end of the story, so I won't have this problem.


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