Tuesday, April 24, 2018

First Draft Questions - Insights as a story takes its first breaths

If I can, I wait a month to six weeks before reviewing a completed first draft. As tempting as it is to get right back to work and fix things up, I benefit from the distance I get from the story. It makes me notice things I’d never notice without fresh eyes.

So, the calendar is marked, my schedule is arranged, and I move on to a short story are start a longer work while the completed manuscript ages. Once I hit the date on the calendar for review, I print the whole thing out and let the computer (via text-to-speech) read it to me. I may pause every fifteen to twenty pages or I may let it go through from beginning to end, but I never back up. My purpose it to make quick notes on the manuscript of where I get distracted or confused. I also may mark down an idea for a scene that seems to belong or add a question mark in bold red pen next to a scene that does not seem essential. I’m looking at the story, not the spelling or prose.

In the past, I’ve marched through a multi-step rewriting process that moves from big problems (missing beats) to the smallest (spelling and grammar). Because I was doing an exercise while my current manuscript was cooling, I needed to generate a series of questions. These helped me to respond to some feedback, and made a big difference in developing a new story.

Then because of an accident of timing, I went back immediately to the completed draft of my Work-in-Progress… with those questions still in my head. Once the text-to-speech read through was done, I took on those questions before my usual next steps. I like what happened, so I thought I’d share those questions here. They may be of use to you somewhere in your process, perhaps soon after you return to a first draft.

How can I simplify this story? Here I focused especially on parts where my attention strayed. Often, I’ve noticed, the plot can become a Rube Goldberg device with cheap fixes that complicate the concept unnecessarily. Wherever the list of “what readers need to know” becomes too long, there is apt to be a problem. After reading a piece on how Paddy Chayefsky would cut down characters to the fewest required to tell the story, I decided that was a good step to include in simplification.

Is the premise (often evident in the logline) clearly featured? Can I point to a scene where it takes precedence? There are so many tasks the protagonist must accomplish, the main task can get lost. Or it can be overwhelmed by tasks for subplots. There should be an irreversible decision by the protagonist that stands out and fully engages the reader in the main story. If not, that’s important to fix.

What are the protagonist’s tasks? Do they get more difficult and more consequential as the story proceeds? The protagonist must accomplish things to succeed, and, in a draft, these might not build properly. Any leveling off risks losing the reader’s attention. Explicitly listing and ranking the tasks can help avoid this problem. (Thanks to writing guru Max Adams for directing my attention to  Tony Rossio’s excellent article on The Task.)

What are the obstacles? This actually needs a close look in relation to the task, since the degree of difficulty is a factor. One thing this always forces me to take a closer look at is the goals, motivations, and resources of any adversaries. The more clever and powerful the opposition is, the better the story. And it’s all too easy to create one-note villains. Know the plans and options of the adversaries.

Does the protagonist prepare and take reasonable precautions? What are these? Are they taken at the right time in the story? Getting the balance right between a protagonist with flaws and one who is too stupid too live is harder than it looks.

What goes wrong? As I look back in my stories, there isn’t enough failure. My protagonists tend to succeed too often. Even when the achievements come after struggles and sacrifices, that can be boring… which leads to something I value more and more…

What are the secrets and revelations? What the protagonist doesn’t know can create powerful turns in a story. Surprises and unintended consequences can fiercely (and fairly) challenge the hero/heroine and make him/her change in more dramatic ways.

Is the protagonist betrayed? If not, why not? There are few things more heartbreaking than betrayal. A protagonist who can rise above faithless acts that make trust in other seem foolish is one readers are likely to remember and love.

How does the protagonist need to change? I always think I know the answer to this before I begin writing. I rarely have a clear understanding. Asking the question after a first draft can be revelatory.

Why am I writing this story? Why do I NEED to write this story? I routinely write a note to myself early on (about 30 pages in, usually) that includes reasons for writing the story. These are intended to argue my future self into finishing when the urge to quit at about 3/4 of the way comes (as it always does). But there is a real value to asking these questions before major revision begins — both in terms of focus and in terms of personal commitment.

None of these questions were new to me. In one way or another, I’ve used them to analyze every novel or screenplay I’ve written. But I’m not sure they always have come at that right time, and I found real value in repeating them at this stage, right after fully reviewing the first draft. And, though I may tweak the order, this is not a bad to run through as listed. To me, it feels like the answers build and create a perspective on the work that deepens my understanding and appreciation of what I have, and what I COULD have if I stick with it.

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