Thursday, March 06, 2008

Craft: The First Draft

I’m offering a potentially embarrassing post this week, two blocks of text that illustrate the first-draft writing process, at least as it works for me. I use the procedure in Karen Wiesner’s FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS, in which the initial “draft” is actually a very detailed outline, a scene-by-scene summary of all the action that will comprise the finished novel. Since I enjoy outlining (just call me weird) and suffer from considerable blank-screen anxiety with the first draft, which always goes much slower than I think it should, this method has proven wonderfully helpful for me. I can fool myself that I’m still outlining quite a long way into the process. Here is the opening scene of the werewolf romance I’m now working on, in the “formatted outline” stage:

The glint of a pair of green eyes shone among the trees at the edge of the parking lot. From his observation point in the shadow of his car, Raoul watched the she-wolf slink, step by cautious step, into the open. With the park closed for the night, the lot was deserted except for his vehicle and an economy compact with a rear door ajar and interior lights off. Having watched her from a distance many times before, he knew why she left her car in that condition.

Because even in human form he had superhuman night vision, he could easily see the auburn-pelted wolf approaching from the wooded area of the park. Her eyes, hazel in normal light, glowed green in the dark. He thought about how he'd been watching her for years, but this would be the first time she'd ever seen him. Kevin had asked Raoul to keep an eye, from a discreet distance, on both of his children. Raoul had met the boy a few times but had kept aloof from the girl. Still, from what he'd seen, he couldn't help marveling at the way she had mastered her condition to the extent she had, with no help at all.

He stepped out of his hiding place with the sealed envelope in his hand. Her scent came to him, even in his human shape. It reminded him of his friend Kevin, yet with overtones of femaleness that tantalized his senses. The she-wolf stopped short and shied at the sight and smell of Raoul.

“Wait. I don't mean you any harm. I know what you are. I'm a friend of your father.”

She stared at him, her nostrils flaring and lips curling back from her fangs. He sensed her fear and suspicion.

“I have bad news. Your father is dead.”

(end of excerpt)

Now here’s the completed first draft (or, as I think of it draft 1.5) as it currently stands. Since all the plotting work has been done, at a preliminary phase in which a false step doesn’t require major tearing apart and rebuilding, the second draft (ideally) should entail only cleaning up inconsistencies, refining language, and elaborating on scenes that prove to be too sketchy, especially as regards emotional and sensory detail (which I always catch myself skimping on at first):

Green eyes glinted among the trees at the edge of the parking lot. Shielded by the bulk of his car, Raoul watched the beast lurking in the shadows. Even with the floodlights turned off for the night, he had no trouble spotting the auburn-pelted she-wolf in the glow of the half-full moon. Having tracked her many times before, he knew her routine. She visited this park regularly. The patch of tame woods gave her space to run. After she'd luxuriated in the freedom of her animal body long enough for one night, she would return to her car, transform, and dress. She believed she'd found a safe way to live with her double nature. He hated knowing he'd have to shatter that illusion.

He froze, leashing his eagerness to shed his clothes, cast off his human form, and dash toward her. He couldn't risk scaring her away. He'd watched over her from a distance for years, but tonight he would reveal himself for the first time. If he rushed into the meeting too abruptly, she would flee. He watched her glance from side to side and sniff the air. Did she sense his nearness? He prayed the wind wouldn't shift and waft his scent to her.

Any minute, she would summon the courage to lope away from the shelter of the trees. Across the lot, her compact car's back door stood ajar with the interior lights off. As usual, she'd left her clothes on the floor behind the driver's seat with her wallet and the ignition key wrapped in them. Tonight Raoul had placed a sealed envelope on the front passenger seat.

The noise of an engine with a shoddy muffler cracked the quiet of the night. His gaze shifted to the dark blue sedan slowing down at the entrance to the lot. Damn. Jason!

Raoul sprinted toward the patch of woods. He couldn't risk letting the man in that car catch a glimpse of the she-wolf.

Erin, wait!” he called when she tensed her muscles to run.

She paused, quivering with uncertainty, her lips curled in a silent snarl. No doubt his speaking her name alarmed her.

He joined her under the trees and raised his hands, palms out. “Don't run from me. I don't mean you any harm. I know what you are.”

A ridge of hair stood up along her spine. His nostrils flared at her clean, wild scent, a blend of curiosity and fear. It reminded him of his oldest friend, Kevin, yet flavored with lighter, sweeter female overtones, like citrus and cinnamon. Raoul had served his friend all these years by keeping an eye on both of the children, but he'd never met the girl face to face, only the boy.

Children? This young woman had long since grown out of childhood. Her feminine aroma proved that as obviously as the curves of her human form did. Now, still in a wolf's body, she stared at him while he edged closer to her.

“Don't be afraid.” He lowered his voice almost to a whisper. Behind them, he heard Jason's car slowing to idle speed. “I'm a friend of your father.”

Now she snarled aloud. He couldn't blame her if she bristled at any mention of the man who'd sired her. She must feel Kevin had abandoned her and her mother without explanation or excuse. Not for the first time, Raoul marveled at how well she'd learned to control her condition with no guidance at all.

“Quiet. There's a man following me,” he said, pitching his voice as soft as her animal hearing could register. “You can't let him see you. We have to get farther into the woods.”

Another pace brought Raoul within arm's reach of her. He stretched out a hand. Saliva gleamed on her bared fangs. Though he longed to touch her and rub her thick fur, he decided indulging that desire wouldn't be worth the risk of her sinking those teeth into his flesh.

He lowered his hand to his side, hoping the gesture would calm her. “Let's go.” He tiptoed away from their exposed position at the edge of the parking lot, careful to avoid twigs that might snap underfoot. To his relief, she crept after him.

When he thought they'd retreated far enough, he stopped and placed a finger on his lips. The car's motor had stopped. The other man's footsteps crunched on gravel. Now Raoul dared to lay one hand on the wolf's back. Her muscles vibrated with tension under his palm, but she didn't growl or bite. He allowed himself the pleasure of stroking her ruffled fur. She edged away from him but not quite out of reach.

The footsteps circled the lot, paused, probably next to Raoul's car. With luck, the follower would assume Raoul had stopped there for the same reason Erin had, to hunt in the wooded park. Raoul held his breath and heard the wolf doing the same. His chest ached by the time the other man jogged back to his car and started it. A minute later, the vehicle accelerated and drove away.

“I couldn't let him see us together,” Raoul whispered. “It would be dangerous for you.”

She gazed up at him with a challenge in the glow of her green eyes.

“I can't explain now. I hope you'll give me a chance later. But that's not why I tracked you down tonight.”

He lifted his hand from her back and stepped away. What he had to say next would upset her enough without making things worse by invading her space. “I have bad news. Your father is dead.”

(end of excerpt)


  1. I love to outline, so I don't think that's weird at all. I was struck by the difference in tension between the two excerpts. Your post demonstrates how much work goes into just one dang scene!

  2. I get this. I'm Slashing & Burning one novel into a comprehensible first draft right now.

    What I don't get is how to juggle that with previous novels. Besides MANIC KNIGHT, I've got two other novels still cluttering up slushpiles across the fruited plain.

    I know Real Authors write one novel while editing another and promoting yet another. How do you juggle all that?

  3. I can't claim to do intensive enough promotion to take up significant time or energy, so for me it's just two things at once. I have no trouble working on the edits for one novel while writing the first draft of another, because they are two very different mental activities. By "edits" I mean minor polishing before submission, or responding to editorial revision requests. The major second draft work couldn't, for me, be combined with first draft writing on a new novel (though it could be combined with writing a short story). I could, however, start outlining a new book while doing major edits on another. As long as each work is in a distinctly different phase, it's okay. The "easier" tasks of minor revisions offer a welcome break from the heavy-duty task of producing raw material, so to speak. I can't imagine working on two first drafts at once!