The Dreaded Backwards Draft

OK, so I wrote this thinking it would just sound weird, but then I realised it sounds more like some kind of strange, writerly urban legend.

“Remember to back up your work or you may be visited by … the dreaded BACKWARDS DRAFT!!!

Maybe not.

So where was I?

Last time I talked about where I was at with the draft of tKC, that is, changing up some pretty important character choices. And I brushed on the idea that even if I have to redo a lot of my timelining along the way, in the end, it’s going to make it a better story.

I also brushed on the fact that that’s not always true. And I actually want to share a story of a previous draft of tKC, and a little bit about how it’s going, partly, yes, in a shameless bid to get people to relate a little to the title before its release so I can convince you to read it (I’m not proud, but I’m also not ashamed). But also in the spirit of Edit Pass Live, and in the hopes that it makes the concept of a draft actually getting worse rather than better a little less daunting.

After all, it’s not a small thing to edit a novel, especially if you have to rewrite the whole thing. That represents months of work, and I’m not going to pretend that months of work coming out in the negatives feels great.

But here’s what happened. A few years back I wrote a first draft of a novel. I can’t remember exactly when the title of the draft happened – I think since it was a NaNo piece I would have titled it approximately a week before the first of November. Anyway – that was the first draft of tKC. I finished it over the next few months, because although I won NaNo that year I have never in my life actually written a novel that’s even close to as short as 50,000 words.

I put it through a few drafts. I thought it was pretty decent. I gave it to a few friends. Most of them said it was good, though there were a few things that they pointed out.

One of my friends gave it back to me and said, “Can we meet for lunch and talk about it?”

His critique boiled down to: “It’s pretty good … but your character arcs lack context, I can’t get a feel for how magic and technology actually work in this world because you never bother to explain it, and there’s a lot of history that would be very important to the plot that you just never mention.”

And every single word he said that day was totally correct. What I’d done was I’d put together what at that point was a first in my career: A serviceable story with good pacing, that carried multiple character arcs from the beginning right through to the end. For the first time, I’d actually written a story that didn’t lose steam halfway through, or have character arcs left hanging, and that actually delivered on the story all the way through.

But I hadn’t yet written a good fantasy novel. I still needed to learn to balance between writing the story and writing the world.

So I did a rewrite. I left it for a while, while I wrote another first draft and did another few rounds of edits on other things, and I gave it enough time that I’d decided how I wanted the timeline to change. I decided that my main character didn’t have eyes on enough of the plot and the world to actually convey all the worldbuilding information I needed, so I gave POVs to some other characters and rewrote everything.

It had a much richer look at the world. Having more POV characters let me introduce some really interesting new aspects to the plot, as well as some diversity into the story, in a way that I’d tried to add before but is just hard to do when you have to follow the plotlines of three separate groups through the eyes of only one character and only just under 100,000 words.

It was also much, much, much worse.

It was confused and confusing. Plots went all over the place. Characters appeared and seemed to have no purpose, and a few of the plot mysteries just went entirely unanswered because I had no natural place to put the endings. I cleaned up the draft a bit in editing, mostly by cutting those things out, but it never sat well with me. That rewrite and edit was pretty much an unmitigated failure.

But at least I’d failed upwards.

Because the more complex a piece of writing is, the less wiggle room you have to confuse the audience. In a relatively simple story, the reader can generally stumble and get back into reading once they get a little context. In a big story with multiple moving parts and a lot of information that has to be conveyed very quickly, a small confusion, or one plotline that doesn’t gel with the rest, can quickly send the whole thing out of control. My first crack at the story was, in a technical sense, worse, but it was also much simpler, so it turned out merely unsatisfying. My later draft had much better writing, but it was also more ambitious, and had a much smaller margin for error. Therefore, it turned out nigh unreadable.

Hopefully I’m fixing that now. I’m not going to lie – I’m definitely hoping that the story doesn’t go backwards again.

But I am hoping that if it does, it’s only because I tried to do something even cooler this time.

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