How Do You Draft Your Novels?
by Hannah West
When the premise for KINGDOM OF ASH AND BRIARS first struck me, I was sitting in an advanced grammar class in France, staring at the Disney princess pencils my parents had sent me in a care package. I’d already written several opening pages about a kidnapped girl getting dragged through the snowy woods toward her probable death, but the distinct moment of inspiration that occurred in Monsieur Brunot’s grammar class allowed me to connect the mysterious kidnapped girl to a sweeping story arc of politics, war, and fairytale princesses.
As soon as I returned from my semester abroad, I jotted down ideas. Not a rigid outline per se, just a list of chronological checkpoints. I steeped myself in fantasy stories, listened to atmospheric music, and jumped ahead to write the scenes I was most excited about because I simply couldn’t wait. My spirit bubbled with enthusiasm. After all these years of writing unfinished stories with magic and romance and danger, I finally had a commercial premise, a plan, and the will to finish a novel.
But two years passed before I typed “the end” on a first draft.
So how does the middle of the story go? What does the actual day-to-day process of drafting look like?
For me, it looks like typing a few paragraphs, then editing and analyzing them until they’re as clean as I can make them. It looks like lying on my bed and staring at the ceiling while I mentally overcome plot snags, not daring to touch my keyboard until I’ve ironed out every wrinkle. It looks like being an obsessive, unapologetic diamond polisher.
Diamond Polishing vs Mud Slinging
Authors tend to fall into two groups when it comes to drafting: mud slingers and diamond polishers. A mud slinger knows the first draft will be a mess, but it doesn’t matter as long as they splat words onto the page and revise later. Diamond polishers draft carefully, editing as they progress. They can’t stand noticeable errors or plot holes while they work, and they tend to draft for a long time. You probably won’t see many diamond polishers signing up for NaNoWriMo.
I’ve noticed subsets of these two types: discipline-based versus inspiration-based. A discipline-based writer may wake up at the same time every day to write for the same number of hours and meet the same word count goal, regardless of whether inspiration strikes. Bullet journals, accountability groups, and rewards systems may be involved. Some people need to be organized to unlock their creativity.
Inspiration-based writers, on the other hand, find it difficult to follow a schedule. They can’t clack away for hours unless they’ve experienced a light bulb moment or worked through a difficult plot snag. For these writers, inspiration is the key to unlocking discipline.
I’m an inspiration-based diamond polisher. I don’t write unless the ideas are brewing and bubbling. Then I may write just a single paragraph and polish that foggy little diamond ‘til the cows come home.
Most new writers are advised to write and write no matter what comes out, to cultivate the discipline to work each day and worry about perfection later. But when I tried to follow this popular advice, it led me to set unrealistic timelines for my drafting process. I would feel disappointed in myself for falling short of lofty word count goals. I would look at the pages I’d slapped down in a hurry and lose faith in the merits of my story.
Thankfully, through trial and error, I’ve learned to tune out advice that doesn’t apply to me. I learned the difference between being receptive to wise counsel and flat out defying your writerly instincts. Throwing caution to the wind isn’t the only “right” way to draft, at least not for everyone. I write thoughtfully and assess and reassess until I believe in every word because that’s the only way I know how to write.
My methods are still flawed. I’m about to be on my first ever official publisher-mandated deadline, so I’ll have ample opportunity to improve my self-discipline. I’ll need to learn a thing or two from authors who organize their time but don’t mind a little messiness on the page – while giving myself grace for being a slow and painstaking drafter.
By way of advice: just write. You don’t have to write and write and write each day. You can write a little and ponder and write a little more. As long as you love what you’re doing, you will reach that final, glorious page sooner or later.
Hannah West has swooned over fantasy and fairy tales since before she wrote her first story about a runaway princess living on top of a flagpole with two loaves of bread. Kingdom of Ash and Briars is her first novel, which she began as a college junior while studying abroad in Orléans, France. She freelance writes for Modernize.com about home renovation and sustainable living. She lives in Rockwall, Texas, with her husband, Vince, and Robb, their rambunctious blue heeler.
Kingdom of Ash and Briars
Bristal, an orphaned kitchen maid, lands in a gritty fairy tale gone wrong when she discovers she is an elicromancer with a knack for shape-shifting. An ancient breed of immortal magic beings, elicromancers have been winnowed down to merely two – now three – after centuries of bloody conflict in the realm. Their gifts are fraught with responsibility, and sixteen-year-old Bristal is torn between two paths. Should she vow to seek the good of the world, to protect and serve mortals? Or should she follow the strength of her power, even if it leads to unknown terrors? She draws on her ability to disguise herself as a man to infiltrate a prince’s band of soldiers, and masquerades as a fairy godmother to shield a cursed princess, but time is running out. As an army of dark creatures grows closer, Bristal faces a supernatural war. To save the kingdoms, Bristal must find the courage to show her true form.
Building on homages to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Jane Austen’s Emma and the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, Hannah West makes a spectacular debut.
Thank you so much to Hannah for taking the time to write this wonderful piece of advice! Everyone drafts and writes differently, and it’s so important that you find the way that works for you and your book. =)
A huge thank you to all who have participated in this feature. Your words of wisdom are appreciated more than you know!
Have a wonderful rest of your week!