Foundations of a Dirty Draft

Foundations of a Dirty DraftWorking hard to complete Book Three, I’m building on the foundations of a Dirty Draft. But what exactly do I have to work with? And how do I get from ‘dirty’ to ‘clean?’

What is a Dirty Draft?

As many writing coaches tell you, the Dirty Draft is the attempt to power through and pour the ideas onto the page. As long as it has a beginning middle and end, everything else in this draft of a novel is negotiable.

Plot, characters, setting; you can play fast and loose for the sake of getting something close to the idea of your story down in words. Forget about grammar, syntax, even complete sentences; the Dirty Draft can read like a fever dream, as long as it points at the bare bones of the story:

  • outlines of scenes
  • bits of dialogue
  • snatches of character and setting description

If you’re writing by the seat of your pants, that is, with no outline, the Dirty Draft is your discovery phase. If you’re a plotter, the Dirty Draft is the first structured attempt to turn your outline into prose.

Work Fast and Break Things

The rules of the Dirty Draft are ‘work fast and break things.’ Editing is strictly verboten. The Dirty Draft is a write-fast phase. Editing comes later.

The Dirty Draft won’t make sense to anyone but you.That’s fine.

There’s no metric of success or failure for a Dirty Draft; only whether it is ‘complete’ enough to move on to revising and editing.

‘Complete’ is itself a relative measure that doesn’t necessarily mean complete. The Dirty Draft of Book Three came in at 50k words. The target length is 80k, so a lot to fill in. Other writers might splurge 150k words into an initial draft with the aim of trimming down to 100k or less. More important than the word count, does the draft contain enough of the plot, characters and setting to move ahead?

Moving on Up

So you have a Dirty Draft. Now what? Revising or editing?

First up is story structure or plot. Does the story hold up? Are the plot points and turning points in the right order? Do the story beats land in about the right place? Do the character arcs rise and fall in the right rhythm? Is there a path to transformation from the opening to the ending?

Playing all the right notes

“I’m playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order.”
Eric Morecambe.

This punchline from the legendary comedian stayed with me as I shuffled and re-shuffled scenes and chapters for Book Three. The structure needed a lot of work before I moved on to the detail of character development.

The plot is packed with incident, but the original sequence made no sense. The stakes didn’t rise consistently through Act Two. So I re-ordered much of the plot. I didn’t change what happened, just when. I moved important revelations later in the plot for maximum impact.

This gave me some continuity issues where scenes no longer flowed from one to the next; intros and outros clashed. Action and sequel scenes broke apart. Following the changes, the plot now moves along much faster and with escalating stakes.

Foundation and Empire

Yes, I do cheesy sub-headings. Stay with me.

My Dirty Draft is the foundation of the finished manuscript. I get this right, I have something solid to build on. I know I can usefully spend time expanding incomplete scenes, refining dialogue and description. I can insert interiority and introspection where the characters react to certain events as they work to topple the Evil Empire.

Ta-da; that’s what you call a payoff. That’s what I’m setting up in my Dirty Draft; promises, progress and payoffs. I can start to see these emerge as I re-work the Dirty Draft into something more complete.

Without a solid story foundation, I’m wasting my time doing detailed editing. Here be the first lesson.

It’s still broad-brush work. I’ll expand placeholder text into full sentences, if it’s easy and it flows during the session. I’m not above adding more placeholder text to capture important keywords, thoughts and feelings at relevant places within scenes. Revising and editing isn’t a one-shot deal. There will be plenty more passes after this.

I also don’t work in linear order.

Returning to a Dirty Draft after a break, I know that Act three is light; a big chunk of my missing 30k word count belongs in Act Three. That’s where my plot lines resolve and where I have a firm idea in my head how to achieve those payoffs.

Act One and Two demanded attention for setup and meaningful progress. There’s a new setting to introduce; place, people, culture, institutions and beliefs. There’s also a whole bunch of new characters including new antagonists. I also have to insert a wagon-load of foreshadowing to raise the tension for Act Three.

Different Each Time

The process of working up a Dirty Draft is different each time. Some drafts are dirtier than others. Book One had a difficult beginning until the plot came together. The pain came in the fine editing passes. Book Two progressed reasonably smoothly, the overall tone of the narrative proving most difficult.

Book Three is a different kind of construction; a different kind of adventure. It also wraps up my protagonist‘s character arc, so all those threads from the first two volumes have to come together.

By all accounts, authors have different ways of moving beyond the Dirty Draft. It’s not uncommon to employ a different process for each book. Which is reassuring; the thought of a production line process hints at a very dull set of cookie-cutter books.

Six Weeks In

I’m six weeks into refining the Dirty Draft of Book Three. It’s still dirty. I’m still building upward and outward from the foundations. There’s another 18k words of infill to go before I hit target. But that’s fine. I know some scenes are ‘thin.’ There’s plenty of description to add in to achieve the richly detailed setting. Action and sequel scenes have yet to pair up. And there’s a lot more inter-play between characters to find. The plot provides plenty of external conflict, but there’s more to conflict in story than that.

How long will it take? That’s another question entirely.



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