Zero vs First Draft, & Structure – The 3 Basics of A Good Draft

Zero vs First Draft, and Structure

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The concept of Zero draft is not well known even to writers. The zero draft is a distinct stage of writing that precedes the First draft. Rebecca Heyman, a top editor of fiction and famous for “First Line Frenzy,” recently posted on Instagram the text whose screenshot is posted alongside. It has too many things that writers often ignore in their haste to write. It is here that the concept of zero draft comes handy. One can have various characters and scenes going on in one’s head, but it’s possible that they are disjointed and disconnected – which happens often.Zero Draft vs First Draft

Creativity cannot be structured, but the story needs structure to make sense. However, at times structure can be hampering – if we go by pure structure, the finer points are difficult to reconcile.

The biggest error in writing is that we try to write the first draft in the first instance. Even if we have an outline, writing the first draft in the first instance is only a recipe for agony because even if we call it first draft, it has too many inconsistencies to even call it a draft!

It therefore helps to accept that it is not the first draft, but a zero draft. Just because one starts writing it first, doesn’t make it a first draft. The advice is therefore excellent that a zero draft can be creatively very useful. Perhaps, zero draft is like the one we write in the NanoWrimo where we just pour out words. I believe 50k is a very good landmark for a zero draft, though a zero draft can as well be half of that. A zero draft can work like a miniature of the possibilities and practicalities it holds.

My own experience in writing has been that the finer points of the “Synopsis” and “Outline” keep changing as more ideas emerge and take shape during actual writing. Just because we have an outline or synopsis doesn’t mean that it is the final one. Actual writing pushes forth the mind to unknown corners and the unexplored issues, and the unthought perspectives that can have a profound impact on the story. These things cannot be gauged while writing a synopsis and the outline.

“So more or less since then I tend to have a fairly loose approach to plotting in that I kind of know what I am doing but it’s the kind of what you’re doing if you’re starting out in Seattle and you’re going drive to New York in an old car and where you’re probably going to stop on the way but you don’t know everything that’s going to happen you don’t know where the car’s going to die on you and you don’t know whats going to happen with that hitch hiker. And so you try to put that stuff in and that makes it interesting.”

Neil Gaiman

The most influential structures are the Save The Cat (Blake Snyder), and the Hero’s Journey (Joseph Campbell). While the story structure binds a story in a well formed shape, it also gives restrictions and boundaries. There are many who do not advocate rigid structure.

Lisa Cron in her book “Story Genius” is not particularly enthusiastic about the term “plotting”

Developing a blueprint of a novel you’re writing before you tackle page one is essential. The trouble is, they’ve focussed on developing the wrong thing- the external plot-rather than the internal story… Outlining the plot first is like saying, “I’m going to write about the most difficult, life-altering series of events in the life of someone whom I know absolutely nothing about.”

Lisa Cron

She even continues to say…

Here’s the thing: every one of those models is based on tons of finished novels, myths, or movies. Do you think the creators of those original myths were cribbing from external story structure models when they came up with their tales? Sheesh, it would’ve been kind of difficult, since many of them originated long before there was written language, let alone a slew of handy guidebooks. They told stories built on content, not on structure. Writing a novel based on such an outline is like painstakingly assembling one of those exquisitely rendered models of the human heart and then expecting it to start beating all on its own. If only!

Lisa Cron

Every writer must find their own way to write, of being convinced of how they want to do it. My own experience says that while plotting and structure may sound very reassuring, in real terms actual writing means doing many re-writes of the plot and structure also.

There is also a middle path that goes by the name of “Snowflake method” by Randy Ingermanson. It’s a neat method, but may be difficult to apply. The reason is not far to understand. Each change in character / scene may impact many scenes in the novel. Each change has a cascading effect on the rest of the novel.

Also, some authors speak of writing long outlines running into 15k-20k words. While most writers speak of such outlines running to 15-20 pages max.

The words like outline, synopsis, plot, and structure sounds so final in themselves and to new authors, even before they start to write, these words are domineering enough to overwhelm them. I’ve learnt over the past few years that until the story is edited and finished to finality, these words like outline, synopsis, plot and structures are at best “writing strategies” which is used as a convenience mechanism by the writer. After all, the synopsis keeps getting written and re-written until the final Query is sent.

I know, I’m writing these words which shows as if writing is a fluid mechanism, despite being an ardent fan of Story Engineering. Maybe, that’s what evolution in writing is – it’s a continuous process of learning and realization.

But, yes, have to agree with the insight that the first serendipity of creation, for those who follow the mechanism of pantsing, should be considered zero draft. It’s always better to have some foundation to work on vis-a-vis a blank page. And if it gets one started, why not?

As to the question, “Can my idea support full length novel?” Regarding this point, I think every writer has their own way to decide on viability of a story. For that I think, one doesn’t need to write Draft 1. That question is answered the moment one starts to write the draft Query / Synopsis. I for one start with drafting Query to see if the story is worth writing. Sometimes, one can even write a short story of that concept to see if the concept is worth pursuing and if that can serve as a bedrock to decide if they can be written as a full length novel.

(For great insights on writing and first lines, you can follow Rebecca Heyman on Twitter and Instagram.)

You may also like to read Themes in Fantasy Fiction

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