Drafting

[“Drafting” is updated from an earlier post, from February 2015. While in residence at the Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center, Borrego Springs, California, I used the method described below to draft a novel.]

Out the window: Mojave desert bajadas and mountains in sun and heat. In my apartment: a cool refuge. On my computer screen: a draft of a second novel, 49 North. In my heart: an eight-syllable wish ala Noelle Oxenhandler’s The Wishing Year: “may I draft this with speed and skill.”

The speed-draft method is described well in James N. Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Mystery (see the chapter “Drafting, Rewriting, and Polishing Your Damn Good Mystery”). It goes something like this:

Are you writing a first draft of something—anything?

Are you okay with the notion that a bare-bones draft is a fine way to start? I am. I recommend the speed method of writing the skeletal beginning of your project.

In writing first drafts, speed is good. It’s exhilarating. It’s like skiing a mountain and dodging a rock here, a tree there–all while keeping your momentum and relishing the gravity as it pulls you along. Speed-drafting is about sticking with the pull of a story, using the creative part of your brain before engaging the nitpicky internal editor who can sometimes stop you cold.

In situations where to hesitate may mean total abandonment of a project, speed is of the essence. It’s easier to go back and fill in the sketched-in parts than to create from whole cloth. 

The speed method works something like this: allow yourself a minimum time, and perhaps even a maximum, to lay down new words of whatever you’re working on. Try setting a page-count or word-count goal. Maybe you’ll roughing out one chapter per day. Maybe you’ll do less, or more. Then, face a blank page. Keep your typing or writing hand moving to the end of a first section or chapter, as if you’re doing free-writing exercises. In those, remember that you keep your pen going, even if it’s by writing shopping lists, platitudes, or the same sentence over and over.

Don’t stop to tinker or analyze. Don’t take a break mid exercise (unless your room is on fire or you’ve broken an arm or severed an artery). The physical act of putting down words stimulates creative flow. You’ll soon see the framework for your current piece taking shape on paper. Sometimes full sentences or paragraphs come in the speed draft phase; sometimes only placeholder sentences or phrases emerge. Whatever happens, go with it.

Below is an example from my first novel, Junction, Utah (van Haitsma Literary, 2013). A speed-draft of the opening pages of Chapter One might have looked something like this.

Chapter One

The Yampa River WAS VERY BIG AND EXCITING. SOMETHING ABOUT THE RIVER LEADING UP TO WARM SPRINGS RAPIDS.

“Warm Springs has killed before and will kill again,” our lead guide, Michael, had warned during guide training. When I asked what my mom Ruth would call a clarifying question, he replied, “Boats flip, Maddie. People swim. And sometimes end up way, way downstream.”

MADDIE QUESTIONS HIM. HE ANSWERS,

“Last year one swimmer actually floated past take-out. He turned up two months later in the town of Green River, belly up and bloated.”

DESCRIBE WHAT THE IMAGE OF THE CORPSE DOES TO PROTAGONIST MADDIE.

Eventually, with writing and rewriting, the opening pages of Junction became this:

The Yampa River roared and rose up with teeth. Newly thawed in Colorado and coming into the high desert of northeastern Utah, the water flowed swollen and ice-cold, running bigger than it had in years. This was nine—no, ten—years ago, 2003. I was rowing the brown river for the first time, thrilled by its oceanic volume and giddy as I punched my eighteen-foot raft through its house-sized waves. Their muddy peaks broke brown and viscous, casting thick chocolate droplets as different from the crystalline flow of my Oregon rivers as the moon is from Earth. Even with my lifetime of boating skills, I needed all my strength and focus to stay in control. The three other guides were hanging in, too—there’d been no flipped rafts, no swimmers, and no lost bags, oars, or boxes. At least not until the third day and Warm Springs Rapids.

“Warm Springs has killed before and will kill again,” our lead guide, Michael, had warned during guide training. When I asked what my mom Ruth would call a clarifying question, he replied, “Boats flip, Maddie. People swim. And sometimes end up way, way downstream.”

“How ‘way’”? I pressed him.

“Last year one swimmer actually floated past take-out. He turned up two months later in the town of Green River, belly up and bloated.”

The floater’s face as I imagined it—puffy and hollow eyed—drifted in and out of my vision as I tried to sleep the night before reaching Warm Springs. Replaying mental tapes of the unfortunate corpse, I spun like a roast on a spit until nearly dawn. When I finally slipped into sleep, paranoia filled my dreams. The body took the rapids, which churned and foamed with pounding ferocity, seventy thousand gallons pouring past shore every second. Dark and silty, the river rocked heartlessly fast. The lone corpse never quite executed its runs correctly, never finished, never pulled out. In my dream, my fate was tied somehow to its success getting to shore, and it didn’t make it. It stayed river bound. I woke up tired from ghost-boating, feeling hopelessly groggy, knowing the rapids lay in wait downstream, as open and patient as a steel trap.

Create the speed-draft as you’d design an ideal whitewater run in a river. Maybe you’d start by putting in all the big boulders first. Then you’d figure out where to set the little rocks. Eventually you’d add the water with all its currents, creating a flow and energy that propels readers toward chapter’s end.

Don’t be afraid to go fast during the first draft. Sometimes speed kills, but not in this case. Speed outruns the internal, dogged naysayer. Speed allows you to release your brakes and go. Speed liberates!


Find my recent book of essays, Oregon Book Award Finalist The Oasis This Time: Living and Dying with Water in the West (Torrey House Press, 2019), at your local bookseller, Indie Bound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

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