Not long ago I finished a draft of a novel. It felt thin in spots. It’s hard to describe perfectly, but rereading it, I found myself thinking, “There should be more there” about some pages and scenes. In some cases, I’d written dialogue but it wasn’t revealing a character’s thoughts. Or, the dialogue lacked context in the form of setting or actions that the characters took while they were speaking. The draft was also shorter than I wanted it to be. It was under 50,000 words.
I decided that the main goal of the next draft would be to address both the thin spots and the length. Happy with the plot, adding a subplot or another character seemed like a bad idea. Instead, I think I was influenced by the Oulipo group’s larding exercise.
If you’re facing similar concerns with a complete draft of yours, try this:
- Determine the number of words you’d like your final draft to be. This number is your goal.
- Subtract the number of words of your current draft from that goal. This is the number of words you lack.
- Divide that lack by the current number of pages of your draft. The resulting number is your target number.
- Read through the draft again. Add—in some way that helps your draft—your target number in words to each page.
For example, let’s say you’d like a draft to be 50,000, but it is currently 45,000. The difference between those numbers is 5,000. Your 45,000-word draft is 85 single-spaced pages. Divide 5,000 by 85 and you need to add about 59 words to each page to reach your goal.
The crucial thing is finding ways to add those sixty words that help the draft. For example, I reviewed ways of making setting interesting and my characters’ backstories before I started. The words I added improved characterization and setting as a result.
Here are some steps toward a quick rough draft. Pick one or two from the quick beginning section, several from the quick middles section, and any option from the quick endings section.
- Start with an interesting bit of language
- Something you overheard eavesdropping or
- A phrase that is stuck in your head
- Start with a character’s name and with that character doing something
- Put something you like in the story
- Put a thing or situation that makes you nervous in the story
- Start with an accusation or an interdiction
- Make things
- Complicated for the main character
- Worse for the main character
- Show power shift as a result of a character’s action
- Let characters think about
- Their actions
- The events of the story
- Another character
- Show power shift again as a result of an action
- Show power shifting once more
- Coincidences and dreams
- Can get characters into trouble
- But never out of it
- Show power shifting irrevocably
- Always with the main character as a primary witness
- As a result of the character’s action
- Show at least one of the following
- A process begun earlier in the story is completed
- A restatement/return/echo of language from earlier in the story
- Clearly show a change in the character or a reversal of roles
- Resolve the question of “what’s going to happen” in a brief summary
Include many, many images. Be willing to revise extensively and repeatedly.
I’m not sure where I first heard of it, but creating a “shrunken draft” can be a way to get to know a long draft.
- Ask yourself what specific element of fiction writing would you like the next draft of your narrative to focus on.
- Highlight that specific element of fiction writing in an electronic copy of your rough draft. For example, highlight scenes in green. Points of view, descriptions, different “times,” foreshadowing, even specific words could be highlighted. However, highlighting more than one or two elements at a time can be confusing.
- Reduce the font to the smallest size you’re comfortable with.
- Reduce the margins.
- Find and click on the View Multiple Pages feature of your word processing program. Continue making these and similar adjustments until you can see as much of your document as possible.
- Consider the ratio of highlighted to not-highlighted text. Perhaps contrasting colors reveal long sections of description and few scenes, for example. Or, a narrative you thought shared points of view evenly between two characters does not.
- Do the ratios your shrunken draft reveals please you? Do they fit into your expectations for the draft? What do you need to do to address differences between what you’ve got and what you’d like to have?
One way to characterize is for your character to make a plan. The kind of plan the character makes, the level of formality with which it is made, how the character responds when things go according to their plan, how they respond when things do not, what they do when their plan is criticized, who they share their plan with, how their setting influences their plan, how they think about and enact it, and how they revise it, all these things characterize. They also provide a plot.
The plan does not have to be to destroy or save the world. It could be to cross a room for a drink of water, but it ought to be important to your character for reasons your reader can understand.
Try drafting one.
This exercise has its roots in Benjamin Percy’s excellent Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, specifically the “Get a Job” chapter.
Characterize by writing about the character’s job. Address at least the following prompts:
- How did the character get the job?
- How does the setting/dress of the character change as a result of it?
- Describe the character’s relationships with at least three people at work.
- Describe/contrast these relationships with at least three people not at work.
- How does the job change/shape/impact the non-job relationships?
- Given this job, what point of view makes sense? How is the character likely to see the world?
- List three metaphors this character would use.
- What new language/jargon/jokes does the character learn as a result of the job?
“You might address the letter to your children, if you have a few lying around, or to a niece or nephew, or to a friend. Write that person’s name at the top of the page, and then in your first line, explain that you are going to tell them part of your story, entrust it to them, because this part of your life meant so much to you.”
from “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life” by Anne Lamott