Writing Advice of the Week: The Craft is in Drafts

Reading Time: 11 minutes
A whimsical house made of books paper pens and ink in a clearing surrounded by water
(Image by Fallon Clark via Adobe Firefly.)

Have you ever heard “the first draft is for you, and the next drafts are for your readers?”

For many writers, storytelling is iterative, the art of which is revealed over revisions and drafts.

When you write your first draft, you’re telling yourself the story, as you need to hear it, to make the best sense of it. That first draft is typically when you learn about your main character’s goals and motivations, the barriers or villains that hinder their success, and what the ultimate stakes are if they don’t succeed. You also meet the rest of the cast and get to know them, understand them, see them moving about in your story world.

And your first draft will be full of details you needed to include to get from beginning to end.

But when you tell your story to your reader, you begin to uncover what the reader needs.

Drafting reveals the true shape of your story. As you mold your manuscript — refine your scenes and characters, kill your darlings, polish your prose — you confirm your reader gets enough but not too much.

And it’s easy to get ahead of yourself, to start editing before there’s really anything there to edit.

So, how do you approach drafts as you refine your craft?

Know When to edit

Kicking off this week’s writing advice is a handy post about knowing when to edit, and this is an important bit of information.

When To Edit And How by Joyce Audy Zarins for Writers’ Rumpus provides a high-level overview of self-editing, including when to call in your beta readers and when to get serious about grammar and style.

Zarins also recommends Strunk & White as a style resource, a book I’ve recommended, too. Some of the commonly confused words in Strunk & White appear in the Commonly Confused Words list I added to my custom exclusions dictionary for copyediting.

But before you go too deep into word-choice analysis and syntax construction, it’s important to see how your story develops from the first page to the last.

Determine your story driver

Each story contains a main question thread that moves the story forward. Simplified, they are:

  • Milieu – What is this place, and what can I learn about it?
  • Idea – What was that, or who did that?
  • Character – Who am I, and what do I need?
  • Event – What is happening, and can I stop or fix it?

These four basic story drivers, are known as the MICE quotient, which comes straight out of Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction: How to Create Out-of-this-World Novels and Short Stories by Orson Scott Card, Philip Athans, Jay Lake, and the Editors of Writer’s Digest. While it’s important to know, at a high level, the differences between these drivers, the lines between them in stories are far more blurred than you may prefer.

The most commonly used story drivers are character and event (or plot). And if you don’t already have a clear understanding of the differences between these two types of drivers, head over to Mythcreants for What Is The Difference Between A Character-Driven And Plot-Driven Story? by Chris Winkle.

Be aware that Winkle, like me, sees character and plot as two co-dependent sides of the same bookish coin. But also be aware that it’s not uncommon for stories to use several drivers, to ask a few questions. However, one driver must stand out as the main thread so that the ending of your story satisfies the promise you made to your readers at the beginning.

When elbows deep in that self-edit, look for your main story driver by examining the question or questions you posed to your reader, directly or indirectly. Then, as you read back through your manuscript, make sure you answer those questions or provide a reason why the questions cannot be answered yet, so your reader isn’t left with an unfinished taste in their mouth.

Smooth your Perspective and Distance

When you’re done examining your story drivers and asking and answering those main-thread questions, it’s time to analyze your narrative perspective and distance for consistency and hone your character’s voice for reader immersion.

This week, I had the pleasure of writing a piece for Writers Fun Zone titled, At, Through, or To: Point of View & Narrative Distance in Fiction. And though it may sound a bit like tooting my own horn, I’m told it was a great article for those who struggle with point of view (POV) or those who struggle to see the creative control you may wield by choosing a specific POV for a specific reason.

And if you’ve gotten stuck haggling over whether the story is best told using first- or third-person POV, for example, check it out to see the merits and functions of both to make sure you’ve made the right choice for your story and its readers.

When you’re certain of your chosen POV, it’s time to go deep into that POV character’s head.

5 Tips To Create A Deep Character Voice by Hope Ann for A Writer’s Path moves through character voice creation using the character’s immutables and experiences to do it.

You’ll need a solid understanding of your character’s relevant backstory, occupations, emotional landscape, and their growth arc so readers can see how their personality and goals help them achieve their desired outcome . . . or not.

So move through the exercises and collect whatever information you need about your character to best understand why they think the way they think and speak the way they speak.

Sprinkle in the magical mood dust

Now, answering promised questions and turning your 2D characters into real people is great, but readers crave conflict and tension to keep turning pages, and the most successful writers are often those who have learned to wield tension and conflict like the mighty literary swords they truly are.

To understand what conflict, tension, and suspense mean, as well as how the trifecta work together during storytelling, check out Beguile Your Readers with Tension, Suspense, and Conflict by Lynette M. Burrows for Writers in the Storm.

Burrows provides examples from popular stories like The Little Mermaid (the Disney version) to show you how these elements come together to frame the story and keep things on track.

But even horror stories and psychological thrillers benefit from a bit of levity.

When you need a joke to land well to illicit the chuckle that stops your reader from slamming the book closed in grief or abject terror, check out What Makes It Funny? by Gabriel Valjan for Career Authors.

Valjan makes the case that serious writers know how — and when — to be funny to create a pleasurable experience for readers. You know, like Bradley Whitford being eaten by a merman in Cabin in the Woods, or basically all of Welcome to Nightvale.

Then, Pull it all together

And when you reach the ending of your manuscript, it’s probably a good idea to take a break to avoid feeling creativity drained. But after that break, look again at your ending to make sure it answers the main question you posed at the beginning of the story. And while you’re looking, listen to the podcast episode, The Game: Why Endings Are Important by Valerie Francis and Melanie Hill for Story Nerd.

Francis and Hill dissect the movie, The Game (1997) to figure out whether or why it worked (or didn’t). And the pair of podcasters differentiates between left-brained hooks (intellectual hooks) and right-brained hooks (emotional hooks) when examining a story’s appeal.

While I won’t malign the passive protagonist here because I do think passivity can be powerful when used well, and while you may or may not agree with all the points made about this movie, especially if it’s a movie you like, the podcast episode explains how you can learn about good storytelling techniques by acknowledging the not-so-good stories — inconsistencies in characterization, lackluster plot events, improbable circumstances — and figuring out why they don’t work.

By the time you work through these resources, your manuscript will be of a higher quality than it was when you started. And since the art of the craft comes while you draft, rinse and repeat these steps as needed.

If you’ve ever looked at the collection of advice links we collect each week, you know there’s more than I could possibly include in a single advice article always, so check out the links below to find what you need.

And I’d love to hear your thoughts on this week’s curated advice. What resonated with you? What questions do you have? And what was missing?

Leave a comment below and let me know how we can help you meet your writing goals.

Happy writing!

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Fallon Clark is the book pal who helps you tell your story in your words and voice using editorial, coaching, writing, and project management expertise for revision assistance, one-on-one guidance, and ghostwriting for development. Her writing has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine. Check out her website, FallonClark.com, or connect with her on LinkedIn or Substack.

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