Creative Nonsense

“I’m a fairly undisciplined writer.” – Neil Gaiman

Writing a Complete Draft by Hand: A Reflection

Yeah, you read that properly.

Last October, I was in the middle of taking a break from writing. I’d just finished a manuscript; the first completed manuscript for a project I’d been wrestling with forever.

52k words of a rough draft. Doesn’t seem like much in the wake of what I know some of you can write, but I was proud of myself. However, I needed some time away from it, time to rest and work on some school work.

At least, I thought I did.

And then my inspiration was like, “HEY, HERE’S A COMPLETELY NEW IDEA!”

Little bastard.

So, I let said new idea roll around in my head for a couple days.

Then, the first scene started to play out in my head like a movie. It wasn’t just an idea anymore – it was a story, and I needed to write it down.

I scrambled for my laptop and got to work.

Three months later, I had about 30k words of a new story. I knew I needed to add more than what I had, but remember, I tend to write in layers. First drafts for me are more exploration drafts, where I play around with the ideas, letting them take whatever shape they please before starting to wrangle them into the the forms I want them in.

Once the first draft is done, I do a re-write.

And another re-write.

And another.

And then, for shits and giggles, I might go back through that re-write and do a “heavy revision” just one more time.

AKA, re-write it again.

Yeah, it’s probably insane. But it’s my process damn it, and it works. At least, I think it does.

(This is you guys right now:)

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I’ll mention this was the very first story I’d ever written to completion that had nothing to do with the project I’d just finished, the one I’d been working on for about thirteen years.

Kind of exciting, right?

Not only was this a separate story, it was also completely different from anything I’d worked on before. It was a whole new challenge, a new world for me to explore.

Typing it out, however, just didn’t feel right. I kept losing momentum, and by about 20k words I just wanted it done. So, I slapped an ending onto that horrible rough draft, and moved to another way of recording what I was seeing in my mind’s eye.

When the first draft was “done,” I wrote an outline for the next draft on my typewriter.

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(Because why the hell not?)

Yes, I wrote an outline AFTER I’d completed a draft. It’s okay to do this. Remember, there is no right way to write a book.

And yes, you read that previous statement correctly: I wrote it out on my typewriter.

An old fashioned typewriter with ink tape and super clicky-clacky keys that sometime’s stick.

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A page and a half of typeface with scenes reduced to nothing more than phrases, put together in some chronological order.

It took a full day. I had the rough draft up on my laptop screen, and was re-reading it as I wrote the outline.

Safe to say the outline looked almost noting like the rough draft, which was fine with me. That rough draft had almost no character development, no motivational pull, no sub-plots, no world-building. It eventually had a beginning, middle, and end. Now I needed to fill in the gaps.

While I typed up the outline, I realized this story would take place over the course of two books rather than just one (ugh). It also provoked me into giving names to my antagonists and creating motivational maps for all my character.

Motivational maps are basically lists of all the main characters. Underneath each character name, I write what they want and what they need, at least as the story stands in the current moment. If those wants/needs change over the progression of the story, I write that down, too.

These are susceptible to change as I go through the re-writes, but it’s nice to have something to work with as I go through the first couple of drafts. After all, we writers are literally creating something from nothing, and it’s not easy.

(WARNING: gif contains blood and gore)

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Remember: ALL WRITING IS SUSCEPTIBLE TO CHANGE. Until you’ve published the thing and are holding the hard copy in your hands, you can make changes. That’s okay. It’s your story, you’ll know when and if it’s ready to share with the world.

Typing it on an old typewriter was a different experience than typing it out on my laptop using Microsoft word. Yes, they keys are roughly in the same places, but their spaced further apart and typewriters are leveled. Also, you can only type so many words before the thing goes DING and then you have to pump this little lever on the side and slide the thing over so you can start a new line (isn’t my typewriter lingo fantastic? I’m such an expert *eyeroll*)

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The typewriter was new (to me, thanks to my beloved), and other than a few test lines, typing up the outline was the first time I’d ever really used it.

Like I said earlier, the experience of typing on a typewriter is completely different from looking at a computer screen, and I think the slower processes allowed me time to actually think through what I was typing.

While not being able to backspace over anything was annoying, I think I was able to create a pretty solid outline, one I’ve continued to refer to as I write the second draft (despite all the typos, of course. Stupid old technology).

Once the draft was complete, I realized I still wasn’t ready to type this thing out using Word yet. There was still a lot for me to discover, and doing so at a slower pace felt right.

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Still, I was ready to start the second draft. So I dug out two blank spiral bound notebooks, and got to work.

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My image, please don’t use without permission.

Now, being a writer, I carry a notebook around with me everywhere.

In fact, my desk, purse, and car are all chock-full with half-filled notebooks. I am constantly jotting down ideas, desperate to remember them long enough to get to some place quite so I can flesh them out.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But I try to never ignore an interested kernel of thought, as I don’t think anyone ever should. You never know what it might blossom into should it be planted and watered.

Hand-writing scenes and ideas, in order words, is not unfamiliar territory for me.

But hand-writing a whole draft?

Someone on Twitter told me I was crazy for trying it, and maybe I am.

But, guys, I’m learning so much!

I feel like I’m learning more about writing through hand-writing than I have in the years and years I’ve spent writing (which have mostly been spent on a computer, mind you).

Something about the process of having to think about the shape and form of every word, of having the chance to not only think about the current sentence I’m working on, but also the sentence after that, and the sentence after that.

It’s a form of magic, I swear. The hand cramps are worth it.

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The story is still far from finished. I’m maybe about halfway done and saying that is probably giving myself too much credit. And I’m not going to lie, the process is slow-going. I started back in January, and it’s a chore to drag that notebook out from its drawer and start writing again because part of me knows just how little I’ll actually be writing in that hour or two before my hand completely seizes up.

But I find I’m spending a lot of time thinking about the story itself. I have a clear idea of where I left off, what I’ve explored so far, what I have left to explore.

I’m also learning about all the things I need to add to the story in the next draft to further the story’s journey towards completion.

For instance, the characters who are underdeveloped right now stand out clearly in my mind, and I’m slowly working towards fleshing them out more. I’m also realizing how much more world-building I need to add to not only this story, but in my other manuscript as well (which I’m still taking a break from, by the way).

For example, lore! Both are fantasy stories, and I have no lore, mythos, or religion mentioned anywhere in them. Yikes! Must do, must do.

I’m also thinking more about the linear progression of the story. A lot of times, my drafts consist of random scenes that are in order, but not really. For this one, I’m figuring out ways to connect all the pieces of the puzzle; this needs to happen so that this can happen and then this happens…

Ya know, like how it is in most published books.

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And finally, I’m doing more with each character, working on their actions and dialogue in ways I feel are more productive in getting to know them as people rather than just words on a screen.

I feel like the slower pacing is allowing these new voices to show themselves, to speak true to who they are. They’re thoughts and motivations are coming through the more I write them, and there have been some scenes I’ve actually been pretty proud of.

Now guys, you know me and you know yourself as a writer.

About 85-95% of everything you write you consider to be crap, and honestly, it might be crap. Naturally, this hand-written draft is going to be re-written again, and a lot will probably change. But as this was a completely new project for me – my first one in a really long time – I needed to take this time to get to know it.

I don’t really want to spend over a decade trying to write the damn thing, and by taking this time to hand-write it out, I don’t think I’ll have to.

I’m fairly confident that the next draft I complete after this one will be the one I hand off to my BETAs to review, and after that – who knows.

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Readers, take the time necessary to get to know your story. If pre-writing actives and outlines work for you, then great. But do other things, too. I strongly encourage you to switch mediums if you can.

Yes, it’s slow-going to hand-write a draft, so maybe just do a scene. But moving from keyboard and screen to paper and pen (or pencil of you’re a freak) is like stepping through a veil to a whole new world, and you might just help you discover crucial things about the world you are trying to create.

With technology, our worlds move so fast. Sometimes, you just need to slow down.

So I encourage you, readers: give it a shot. Write your next scene by hand, especially if it’s for a new or fairly new project. Tell me what you discover about your story, your writing, or the general writing processes when you’re done in the comments below.

See you next week. And as always my darlings, keep writing.

R.F.

One thought on “Writing a Complete Draft by Hand: A Reflection

  • Theresa Henige
    May 7, 2019 at 12:10 pm

    Excellent! I totally get this. I write longhand on a sketch pad. And, yes, writing can be magical.

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