Last week, I finished the first draft of a new suspense novel. I’m happy about this for a couple of reasons: 1—Maybe I do actually have a prayer of getting this book finished in a reasonable amount of time and 2—I love revising even more than I love writing, so it will be fun to plunge into the second draft. I’d much rather revise a screen full of words than fill up a blank screen.
My first drafts are something I’d never inflict on anyone. I start with a rough outline, so I do know where the story is going, but I don’t know the ins and outs and details of the plot until I actually write them. This means stopping for a lot of brainstorming along the way, it means making mistakes that I need to change later, and it means leaving myself notes about things I need to add. For example, in this manuscript, I got near the end and realized I wanted a character to play a larger role, which would set her up to play a pivotal role at the end. I left myself a note about enlarging her role in the book, then wrote her in the pivotal scenes I wanted near the end. I didn’t go back and fix things, inserting her where I needed her earlier in the story—I prefer to save that kind of revision for the second draft. I want the first draft done, not perfect, and coherency and consistency is not required at this point.
The book doesn’t have a working title yet; I usually look for a working title when I hit draft three. Right now, I haven’t the faintest idea what to call it, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be a sunshiney happy-dance sort of title (Butterflies and Sparkly Unicorns: A Mystery). True to form, I was awfully mean to my main character in this book. I’m hard on my protagonists, to the point that they all need medical care by the end of the book, and most of them need therapy. Being one of my characters is not an easy gig.
Why be cruel to characters? Why put stress and strain and trouble and conflict and peril and injury in their paths? In Orson Scott Card’s book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, he discusses selecting a main character, and one of the test questions he offers is:
“Who hurts the most? In the world you have invented, who suffers the most? Chances are that it is among the characters who are in pain that you will find your main character, partly because your readers’ sympathy will be drawn toward a suffering character, and partly because a character in pain is a character who wants things to change. He’s likely to act. Of course, a character who suffers a lot and then dies won’t be a productive main character unless your story is about his life after death. But your eye should be drawn toward pain. Stories about contented people are miserably dull.”
In real life, I hate conflict. I can’t stand it if I think someone is mad at me, or if I’ve done something to offend someone. Honestly, who wants conflict in her/his life? Wouldn’t we rather have everything go happily and smoothly every day? Yep. But in fiction, we need conflict. Buckets and heaps and mountains of conflict. You don't have to be as mean to characters as I am, obviously, but throw trouble at your characters. (And one bit of advice: the trouble and peril needs to feel organic within the story—not like you’re just tossing in anything you can think of and pretty soon the character will get bonked on the head by the kitchen sink, because you threw that in too. Weave problems out of the characters and circumstances of the story; don’t just chuck random problems at the character like she’s hit a new level in a video game).
On to the second draft!