Thursday, 13 September 2012

Zero-Drafting the Sanity Saver.

Awhile back I offhandedly mentioned zero-drafting and said I would do a post on it later. Well, that time has come. 

More years ago than I would like to think possible, while I still had hopes and dreams of being an academic, I was reading about how to improve my thesis writing for my PhD (rather than actually researching for my PhD, which might be one of the reasons I'm not now a doctor). In true Buffy style, I have now completely forgotten the name of the book which the idea of zero-drafting came from. However, it was a very useful and interesting book as they presented the concept of zero-drafting as a means for overcoming thesis block (it's a bit like writer's block, but with a much greater feeling of inadequacy and that the world might end). It was also particularly aimed at helping to transition from research to actually having a thesis.

The concept is pretty easy: everyone understands the concept of a first, second... final draft. A first draft is basically everything you want to say, the second and subsequent drafts is actually making that comprehensible, and the final draft is to make it all shiny. Well, the zero-draft is the first draft, minus any structure. It is a place where you can do stream of consciousness writing, put in notes to self, keep a list of things you want to change, etc. 

The book suggested that from the very beginning of research you should start your zero-draft. For at least fifteen minutes a day you should put away your reading and notes, and just write all the ideas you have been thinking for that day. (Now I come to think of it, the book might have been called something like: How to Write a Thesis in 15 Minutes a Day). This was your zero-draft. After months of research, you would then go through your zero-draft pulling out the bits that were good and ignoring the bits that were not. From this you would find that you had a large part of your first draft already waiting, just needing to be ordered and joined. It was actually an amazingly useful tool.

I have adapted the idea slightly for creative writing. For every series I work on I have a zero-draft (I started off with every book, but you will see why I moved to every series). The first page is usually my attempts at summarising the series which I play around with as I write. This is very useful for when you want to put together query letters or proposals. 

The second page currently has four sections:
1. Names of characters. Here I list every character I give a name to and a brief description. This saves SO much time when I'm writing sequels.
2. Things I want to add in. As I am trying to write first drafts rather quickly, I don't have the time to go back and add in things as I think of them, as some ideas will be three books back. Instead, I just put a dot point under this list, and when I edit the book I can chuck this in. 
3. Research I need to do. This is for just general things I think I might need to give a scene more detail. For example, I might have: description of sleeping quarters on average merchant vessel 1800's. Yes this will add flavour to my book, but no it is not necessary to stop right now and research it. 
4. Individual References. As I write things keep popping up where I need a specific bit of research. So instead of stopping and finding it, I just put in the first draft [REFERENCE 1, 2, 3, etc.] and then put a note of it in the zero-draft: [REF 1] name of ambassador's wife for Portugal in 1810. Then I can look it all up in one session, and go back and add them all in. 

The pages on from that are where my true zero-drafting begin. It's for all those times that you look at your first draft and can't think of anything to write. The first draft somehow feels official and should only have stuff in it that you know is good or will be part of the story. My zero-draft on the other hand has no such rules. I often start it by talking to myself. I ask myself questions about the story, character motivations, what might happen in certain situations. I also talk to my characters and ask them to explain themselves or what they might want to happen. If I get a really wacky idea which seems too experimental to put in the first draft, I try it out in zero-draft first.

And after all that, anything that works gets copied and pasted into the first draft, and anything that doesn't gets ignored. I keep it open in a word document along side my first draft and flit between the two.

So, if you are doing a lot of research, I would recommend using zero-drafting as suggested by the book and spending 15minutes a day (at least) writing up how the research you have done could apply to your story, a sample scene it might be used in, etc. 

If you are trying to just complete a first draft, use it like I do as a note taking place for things to work on later and a testing ground for various ideas. It is often very helpful to start a writing session by sitting down and just talking to yourself for a bit to get yourself back into the swing of your story. 

So, that is zero-drafting as used by me. I hope some of you might find it useful.

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