Monday, February 14, 2011

Weeding through the Mess: How to Make Sense of Your First Draft

A reader from New York has been working hard on her first draft of a novel for over a year.  First drafts aren't easy.  Initially they require sitting down and writing a lot.  Not necessarily from chapter 1 to The End, but a lot of scenes need to accumulate.  This is the benefit of writing classes, writing marathons, and writing practice.  This is why Nanowrimo is so popular.  You can accumulate pages toward this first draft.

But after all the pages are written, you don't really have a book yet.  To take the mess to first draft, you have to find a pathway through it.  Something a reader can make sense of. This is where the writer from New York was stuck.  

"I'm on the edge," she told me.  "There is almost a ream of paper with different chapters.  There are different beginnings.  There are different endings.  How do I weed through all this?"

How to Create a Map of Your Book
In my online classes, we're learning to create maps of our books.  We divide our weekly time between writing (accumulating those pages) and assessing where the pages might fit within a first draft.  To help this map-making process, I created a video of something called storyboarding.  Storyboarding is the easiest way I know to figure out the map through the mess.

Some writers don't like maps.  When I was younger and newer to book writing, I didn't either.  I didn't use maps for my travel, so why did I need them for my writing?  Wasn't it better just to let it flow? 

When I was exploring Europe one summer at nineteen, I only took along a good train schedule and my Eurail pass, a little bit of money, and my love of adventure.  Lucky I didn't know I was ignorantly hitchhiking in Greece during the anti-American protests.  Luckily, a German woman helped me out when I was trying to pass through East Germany without having the right stamp on my passport.  I was too innocent to know the danger I was narrowly avoiding, because my ideal was travel from a casual, unplanned perspective.  

I went to France a few summers ago and much of the adventure came in planning where to visit.  I found good maps.  I used them.  I had just as much--probably more--fun.

My early books were mapless too.  But when I began publishing back in the 1980s, my publisher assigned me an in-house editor.  He had a map, a good one.  

I use the W storyboard as my initial map when I am trying to make sense of reams of writing.  In a W there are five points, one for the beginning and ending and three at the end of the W's legs.  You first need to find these five points.  Once you discover them, you can build your map.  This week's exercise takes you through the steps.

Weeding your way to a good first draft takes time.  Set aside a storyboard retreat weekend, if you can.  You may come away with a map that will serve you well the rest of your book journey.    

Your Weekly Writing Exercise:  Map-Making
 1.  Watch the video from last week (scroll just below this post to see the link).

2.  Get a posterboard or large sheet of paper.  Draw a big W on it. 

3.  On a separate page, list all the key dramatic points in your story so far.  What has a real dramatic effect, with something happening outwardly?  What have you written about? 

4.  Read through these and see if you can choose the 5 most dramatic moments.  Place them on the 5 points of the W in logical order.  Review the video for the triggering event and ending event's requirements. 

5.  To see if you've chosen well, ask yourself if they follow the rising and falling action of their position on the W.  (See the video for more information on this.)  Begin to flow the other scenes you've written.  

6.  Place them between the 5 points on the W, using Post-It notes. 


  1. Great post! Thanks for sharing this.


  2. Glad you enjoyed it, Martina. Thanks for commenting.

  3. I like the map metaphor, and not just because my hobby is studying and collecting antique maps! It's kind of a left-brain approach for writing, which may be why some resist it, but I think it makes a lot of sense to take that burst-of-creativity first draft and craft it into something more coherent and cohesive. Thanks for the post.

  4. Thank you! I love maps too (not just this kind).

  5. Number 1 : done.
    Number 2 : done.
    Number 3 : Ho! ho! Not done. But I know what are the five key points of my book.
    Number 4 : done. My five key moments are on the storyboard. But I'm not realy sure about my end.
    Number 5 and 6 : I'm there. It will be done soon.

    I have a question : Can I use the storyboard with shorts stories ?

    Thanks, Mary, for this wanderful technique. :-)

  6. Bravo, Annie!

    Yes, the storyboard works with all kinds of writing.

  7. Really really amazing blog and great articles. Thank you very much for sharing all this. Nice Design!