Thursday, July 17, 2014

Writing 101: First Draft Questions

Finishing a first draft is an amazing feeling, and I want you to enjoy it...for a little while. But once that moment of joy is good and done, it's time to get down to the real work. Because up until now, you've been having fun. Now you have to edit your work, and that means you have to ask yourself the dreaded first draft questions. 

Don't have first draft questions? It's time to get some. Otherwise, how will you make sure your story is air-tight? 

That's My Interrogative 

First drafts are meant to be a bit frenzied. You've got a outline but you're not always following it, because the story ends up going somewhere you didn't quite expect. You're not sure if pineapples grow in Hawaii but you think so and you're going to check it later so that's fine. You haven't finished that one scene with the green plate because you can't quite figure it out, but you're getting back to that later so who cares. 

It's okay to do that in a first draft. You've got to just get the story on the page, and the little details will get filled in later if they're missing.

Well, hello -- and welcome to later. Because while it's good to play the part of the free-spirited artist while you're writing the first draft, you've got to get serious and become the boss as soon as you begin editing the very first page. No more playing it by ear or skipping over it for now. You've got to double-check facts, tighten up that sentence structure and become the drill sergeant of the book. Make Chapter 11 do those push-ups, or else. 

But while you're doing all that, make sure you're asking all your essential first draft questions. If you don't, you could end up with plot holes and missing information that will keep your book from being its very best. 

There's no one list of questions that will suit every book, because each book has different plots with different settings and characters. Certain questions will only apply to your book. But I've come up with a few general questions you ought to keep in mind the entire time you're re-reading your work. 

  • Does this make sense? Every line, every scene, every chapter has to make sense. This seems so simple, and yet it's so easy to get wrong. Try to refrain from using oblique references or strictly regional phrases, unless you're also explaining these colloquialisms. If you've got a scene where a character picks up fire and hurls it, ask yourself if that makes sense. If we understand that the character has some sort of power then perhaps it does, but if no one knows about the power but you it's unlikely readers will get it. 
  • How did we get here? If your characters are on the move, make sure we know it. For example, if you have a scene where your character is in the pool and they're in the bedroom in the very next scene, tell me how they got there. You can take care of that with one line. We always need cohesion, unless you've left a gap to create a specific effect. 
  • What happened to so-and-so? Don't forget about the other characters in your books. Supporting cast members can't be at loose ends, either. Unless you're specifically hiding a character for a literary purpose, don't allow your cast members to simply disappear. 
  • What does that mean? If you're using an invented language or made-up names of any kind, make sure readers know what all these words mean. Explaining it once may not be enough, because there's a lot of information to absorb in a book. 
  • What does it look like? Always paint every scene. If you're asking yourself what this place looks like, readers will be asking the same question. And remember to describe landmarks and well-known places, too. Not everyone knows what a Wal-Mart looks like, and we haven't all visited the Grand Canyon. 

Come up with your own first draft questions to make sure your plot is sticking together the right way. Remember that if you've got unanswered questions while you read your book, everyone else who reads it will have them, too.

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  1. I tend to outline in such a way that some/many of the potential first draft holes - pineapples from Hawaii - can be dealt with before the first draft flows onto the page. But I know that is never good enough.

    So these are great questions to ask on the first read-through... and again after the revision. Thanks Jade for summarising them so well.