A few years ago I told a friend that I’d finished a first draft of a novel and I was starting The Big Edit. She said, ‘oh no you’re not sonnymajim, you don’t have a first draft until every scene that needs to be in the story is in the story’. And I said, ‘what kind of nonsense is this, woman? I’ve written a freakin’ story from beginning to end albeit with bits missing. That’s a good start.’ And verily we back and forthed until we both gave up and went our merry way with our own personal definition of a first draft.
In reality it doesn’t really matter either way. Whether you think the first 20,000 word brain-dump writing-sprint is a first draft or a relatively polished 80,000 word manuscript is, it makes no odds because lawd only knows we’d all rather pop our own eyes out with spoons than let anyone actually read it at that stage.
But wow what a kick in the confidence to be told that the hurdle you thought you’d leaped with grace and ease actually tripped you up and you’re still flailing on the ground like a beached dugong (dugongs do the steeplechase all the time. FACT).
This is one of the reasons that us writerly types at Writers’ HQ like to talk about zero drafts. The trek from ‘hmm I think I’ll write a novel’ to ‘first draft’ feels enormous and unwieldy and, possibly, unreachable. Whack another rung in the ladder and all of a sudden the climb doesn’t seem quite so daunting.
So what is a zero draft? By our definition it’s your first spin around a story. It’s what happens once you’ve planned your story and you’re fleshing it out more thoroughly but it’s not necessarily all prose yet. It’s getting all the ideas out of your insomniac head, putting the fundamental building blocks of your story on paper, having a promenade around town with your characters, and getting from A to Z in a weirdly circuitous route that probably misses out at least half of the alphabet.
The zero draft is that first hurried brain dump of a story, that pile of manure that you can tend and nurture until it grows into a beautiful bloom of a novel.
Got it? Great. Now it’s LISTICLE TIME! Here’s why we heartily encourage you to do the zero draft thang…
1. Take the pressure off
“First draft” does sound rather grand and, for the total newb, maybe a bit intimidating. While we all know that first drafts are supposed to be shit, it doesn’t change the fact that we all feel like they should be maybe a little bit good at least. Zero draft tho? Ach that can be any old balls.
2. Fill in the gaps
The leap from starting out with nothing to having a manuscript in your hands – no matter how shite – is huuuuge. We don’t expect people to leap giant canyons in one go. We don’t expect people to clamber great heights with no support. A zero draft is like a little electricity substation. It gives you somewhere to catch your breath and get a signal boost. Just please for the love of God don’t send Jimmy to get your lost frisbee.
3. Get it done
The single biggest cause of not finishing your novel is, wait for it, not finishing your novel.
It doesn’t matter what reason you ascribe to that not-finishing – too busy, couldn’t work it out, distracted by a tree in my garden that sadly died and I had to cut it down with nothing but a blunt dinner knife and some dental floss.
Ultimately what has happened is you haven’t sat down and splurged the story out of your head. So sit down and splurge the story out of your head in all its messy, confused glory. 20,000 words from beginning to end? You can do it in a month. That’s 666 words a day (THE DEVIL’S DRAFT!). We’re not talking carefully thought out words whose aesthetic you’ve agonised over. These are words that you can bash out without much braining, something like this:
There’s a scene here where Julie and Derek fight over her amazing trip to [where?]. They drink tea and talk in half meanings. Derek doesn’t want Julie to go, ostensibly over health concerns but actually because he’s a bullying, emotionally abusive prick-face. Julie thinks about killing Derek. There’s water and a jetty – foreshadowing? They’re in the living room of their house on the Isle of Wight that was rebuilt after the storm destroyed it in 1987. They hate each other. Why are they still married?!
Or if you’re feeling particularly enthusiastic:
Julie walked in to the room and saw Derek was sitting there and they looked at each other like wtf? They both slowly made tea and drank it and then looked at each other some more. The silence was [deafening? Annoying? Very quiet?]. Derek cocked his head and Julie wanted to punch him in the balls.
He said ‘dearest, there is no way I’m letting you go on that amazing adventure to [UNDEFINED COUNTRY] to fulfil your lifelong dream. What about your [diabetes? Other illness? Has her leg fallen off?]?”.
Julie sighed and wanted to ask him when he became such a colossal arsehole but instead she nodded sadly and reluctantly agreed, even though she didn’t believe him at all, but what could she do? [why can’t she do anything? What is wrong with Julie?]. Outside the clouds closed in and the sky was overcast and Julie looked longingly out over the water. That jetty, thought Julie, I should push him off it.
4. Reclaim the fun
Occasionally us writer types can get a little… earnest. It’s not that we’re necessarily serious by nature, it’s just that sometimes we can feel overwhelmed by the act of creation and the drive needed to get to the end and the fact that we’re WRITERS, DARLING. The zero draft is a whistle stop, hyper speed zip to the end in all its rip roaring, rollicking, joy riding, ridiculous, hilarious glory.
5. Lay solid foundations
Excuse the mixed metaphors but the zero draft is also akin to that joyous moment of solitude before the bustle begins, that time you get to set everything up – just so – to make sure everything else runs without a hitch. It’s running round the field alone with the little cones to set up the rounders pitch. It’s hiding the eggs for the Easter egg hunt. It’s preparing the ingredients for a glorious family dinner. It’s the quiet before the café opens, where you set the tables out and prep the coffee machine and listen to the quiet tinking of the building before it fills with noise and laughter. It is, in a sense, the purest form of your story and the ideas that you will come back to time and time again as you gradually grow it into a complete novel.