Creating: Finding out what your story is about after the rough draft
Updated: Jul 1, 2019
When do you send your book off to an editor? What's the purpose of a rough draft? Second draft? Third draft? When do you submit your book to a publisher?
When I look back at the first draft of Strawberry Moon, it was not ready to be published. But no one's rough draft (or even second draft) is ready. And this is important to remember, because far too often writers are sending off these earlier drafts to publishers and/or agents and feeling upset with the lack of results.
The reality is, you might be sending a manuscript that's at the 60% mark. It could use some more time in the oven.
My favorite quote about what a rough draft should be is from fantasy author Terry Pratchett:
"The rough draft is just you telling yourself the story."
A rough draft should be viewed more like a really well-done, detailed outline than a finished story.
Another way to look at it: a rough draft is telling you "What happens in the story." The next drafts are discovering and diving deeper into, "What's the story about?"
Here's the difference. "What happens" is all plot related. For Strawberry Moon, I can easily map out each beat of the story (I'm leaving some things out so I don't spoil too much).
The Patterson family is living in England. Dad gets a new job in France. Family moves to the new job. They show up at a crappy house. Tensions rise as the situation and living conditions are worse than expected. Maisie's brother, Dan, is becoming disenfranchised with everything, wants to run away. Dan goes missing. The police show up and let the Patterson's know the terrible news: Dan has been murdered. Maisie is convinced she knows who did it. The Mom starts drinking heavily. The Dad tries to hold everything together.
As you can see, the "What happens" reads kind of like a plot synopsis or what you might find on the back of a book.
Other examples, for Harry Potter it'd be something like: Harry's living with his adopted parents. He's miserable. Gets an invite to go to Hogwarts. Goes to Hogwarts. Meets Ron and Hermione. They start learning about magic and discovering the scary world of Lord Voldemort.
The Avengers: The bad guy (Thanos) is on a quest to acquire all of the infinity stones, which would give him the ability to wipe out half of the universe. The Avengers are trying to stop him. They have a battle here. Battle there. Thanos gets all of the stones. Uses them. Now the remaining Avengers need to go back in time to stop him.
In the second or third draft, and sometimes halfway through the first draft, you start naturally gravitating to what's at the very heart of the story. "What's the story about." Or, as my favorite English professor in college used to say, "What's the whiskey of the story."
In Strawberry Moon, the heart of the story is about growing up. Joy includes a flashback scene early in the book when Maisie is just a 12-13-year-old kid riding her bike home from school. She ends up being followed and chased by a creepy older man. Her best friend, James, comes to the rescue and it's this first glimpse of the dangers and unknown aspects of adulthood sneaking into the innocence of childhood.
Then there's a move. A new school. Trying to figure out what to do after high school. First crushes and first sexual experiences (both with older men). And then the big one, the murder of her brother. Adulthood is crashing in fast all around Maisie. Then when her Mom goes away to get treatment for her drinking problem, now Maisie is literally the Woman of the house. All of these conflicts are ultimately about growing up.
And a book is usually about multiple things. For example, Harry Potter is about whether people are good or evil, or a mix, or do we have a choice in how we end up. Even from the very beginning with the Sorting Hat suggesting Harry should be in Slytherin and Harry fighting that or being freaked out that he can talk to snakes. But it's also about growing up, a coming of age story. Or not having parents and seeking father figures. Or friendship. Or 20 other different things.
A really good "What's it about" will always trump the most exciting sequences of "What happens." Always. And, for us at Long Overdue, Strawberry Moon's rough draft showed promise because of the main character Maisie. It didn't need a car chase or a series of explosions. The second and third draft was all about going deeper into the heart of the story, which was Maisie's character. We wanted to go deeper with the Mom vs. Daughter relationship. Deeper with her romantic relationships. To heighten things, we encouraged Joy to write Maisie's childhood best friend more involved in the second half of the story and building on this contrast of what was familiar to Maisie vs. this new scary and confusing adult world.
In Part 3, we'll show you the value of a reading group and why you should turn to 5-9 people to help you discover what's the story about and begin reshaping your next draft.