I was having lunch with a writer-friend recently, and she mentioned a great term that helped me put NaNoWriMo into sharper context: Draft Zero.
I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month since 2011. In each case, I’ve cut the majority of the manuscript once November passed. I wrote more than 56,000 words for the initial round of my third novel, Whiskey and Rue, and only 6,000 of those words made it into the final version that was published. Some writers panic at the thought of extensive revisions. I used to as well.
The value of a 30-day freewriting session became clear while reviewing Whiskey and Rue. Carefully thinking out each scene can be restrictive. Any online writing forum, be it a group on Facebook or Google+ or elsewhere (I miss you, Scribophile—I hope to come back soon!), will have debates between “plotters and pansters,” i.e., those who plot out every detail in their notes and those who just sit down and write. For most of my works, I’ve had detailed notes and chapter outlines. Whiskey and Rue is the first instance in which I didn’t. I attribute it to the wonders of NaNoWriMo.
During that 30-day frenzy, scenes came to life that I doubt would’ve appeared if I had stuck to my meticulously crafted chapter outline. Some of the inspiration was from my own Muse; some of it came from prompts from the NaNo Sprints Twitter account. Their often funny prompts spawned a handful of quirky ideas that somehow fit right into the novel. A writing challenge on Chuck Wendig’s blog provided me with the last three pages of the story. It’s a puzzle that formed in sections. If I ran out of ideas for a chapter, I moved on. I leapt ahead whole chapters to capture a scene that would fit in sooner or later. But the end result of NaNoWriMo—not really a first draft.
My friend’s concept described it perfectly—you can’t read draft zero through as a complete arc. It’s a series of ideas that eventually coalesce into a real draft. For me, it takes three real drafts before I feel ready to show it to beta readers and editors. Draft zero is shown to no one.
Draft zero is a mess.
You pick through the pieces—finding the gems among the dross—and save them.
It isn’t wasted time. None of the discarded words are. All practice is beneficial, even when you don’t save much of it. It’s the same with sketching for me, though I (regrettably) practice that much less.
Draft zero can be the source of the best kind of inspiration; it just needs work. Veteran authors implore, admonish, and plead for new writers to be patient and work through several revisions before self-publishing. And I have to admit, when I see the special offers for publishing newly scribbled works right after NaNo is over, I cringe. Better to focus on the special offers for editorial services. A manuscript critique. Something that shows the process of the writing life for real.
For me, there are always works in various stages of development. There is at least one draft zero to pick up when it’s ready. A manuscript in full form, going through a first deep edit. There’s always something to work on, and it’s great to be able to shift gears and work on another novel when I realize it’s time to give a work a time-out for a while.
Draft zero may need to live in your desk drawer—okay, old phrase—may need to live in the cloud—for a long time before you can work on it again. Like a barren planet being terraformed, or a peaty single malt scotch (I’m looking at you, Lagavulin!), draft zero needs time to reach the perfect state of being. No matter what, whether you hit that 50K or not at the end of the month, draft zero has the potential to be a winner.