From Zero to First

Get the corpse ready for viewing

Hey, we survived NaNo! Awesome!

Now we have, let’s see… a hangover. And a chunk of… text. Great.

So, you’ve finished a zero draft. You made it to the end, you celebrated, you let the dust and noise die down and the inside of your head feels a little less like a cement corral packed with a herd of very loud, very stinky chimeras. (Or maybe I’m projecting, that’s how I feel after a zero.) Now you have a chunk of mess chock-full of notes to yourself, plot holes, repetition, passive voice, and assorted other sins against art, good taste, and reader comprehension.

Don’t panic. This is entirely normal.

The good news is, the old canard all good writing is rewriting is largely true. You might find some nice passages or scenes that fell out of your head pretty much whole, when you’re in the zone and everything’s working at peak. The bad news is, well, even those beautiful bits are few and far between, and what separates a great many published writers from the unpublished is the willingness to take this raw diamond you’ve wrested from the bowels of a monster and polish it into a gem.

There’s other good news, too! Nobody’s seen this zero draft, it’s still all yours to play with, to shape and sculpt and refine, and since you’ve taken that good advice about letting the zero rest for at least a week you’re seeing the holes in it with clear eyes. You’re ready to get going and turn this zero into somewhat of a hero, or at least less of an embarrassment.

But since it’s always a balance, the bad news is this isn’t the only time you’re going to rewrite this bitch, especially if it goes in for publication. You’re going to be sick of this story before you see it on the shelf, my friends. And it all starts with revisions. So here’s three things that will help you turn a zero into a respectable first draft.

Keep it top-level.

This isn’t the last time you’re going to go through this book. (Not even close, my friend.) So, when you’re going from zero to first, keep your focus on the forest, not the trees. Look for plot holes large enough to drive trucks through, renamed characters, the ever-famous changing hair and eye color, and egregious instances of repeated words.

Every book I’ve ever written has picked a word it likes and tried to sneak it in everywhere. A global search for instances of the word that just wouldn’t leave you alone during the zero phase is a good idea; that’s one of the reasons I finally bit the bullet and started working in Scrivener. (Along with the ease of inserting chapters, when I started writing more structurally complex works.) Being able to look at the histogram of most-used words has been a godsend.

Other things to look for: passive voice, long chains of prepositions, and “that.” I hate the word “that” in text; nine and a half times out of ten, it’s not necessary. When I go through a zero, I step on it wherever I can.

Make notes.

Sometimes I keep a stack of notebook paper handy while doing the first revise, but more often it’s a mess of Post-its and 3x5 cards. It’s a way of loading my short-term memory on paper so I can use that RAM for other things, so to speak.

What type of notes do I make? Hair color, eye color, distinguishing characteristics, timeline notes, foreshadowing that needs to be inserted, plot threads that need to be woven in later. The first revise is the most note-heavy one; later revisions tend to happen all in my head because they move down to the sentence level. (We’ll talk about that, and the Holy Trinity of Sentence Work, later.)

Of course, if you’re truly ambitious, you can also take those notes and type them up into Scrivener or a spreadsheet, but honestly? I never do that. Sometimes I file the notes in a binder, but most often, I (gasp!) throw them away once they’ve served their purpose.

I know, I know. My agent probably goes green every time she thinks about that, and certainly I curse myself for throwing them away when I go back to write other books in a series. I think it’s a holdover from my teenage years, when tossing my diaries into rubbish bins meant they’d be buried in a landfill somewhere, safe from my abusers’ prying eyes. My method of problem solving has always been disconcertingly direct.

Don’t be like me, though. Keep your notes.

Be ruthless and gentle.

Or, to revise and expand, be ruthless with the work and gentle with yourself.

Finishing a zero draft is not easy. Getting it into first-draft shape isn’t easy either. Follow-up drafts, general edits, line edits, copyedits, proofs—by the time the book goes through all these quality control steps, you might be forgiven for wanting to set fire to the whole thing and never write again.

Be absolutely ruthless with your work’s quality. Take the time you need and kill however many darlings you must. But be gentle with yourself—don’t stint on recovery time, and remind yourself that you have, after all, finished a book, which places you in a very small subset of people who call themselves writers. It’s a Considerable Achievement, and one you can be proud of. Each time you get down on yourself because the zero draft isn’t perfect, remember: that was never the point. The point was to get it finished, and then to polish it.

The point of moving from zero to first draft isn’t to make it perfect either. It’s to make it better, and to make it readable. Perfection, while the goal we always shoot for, is not the goal we are ever going to achieve. If you’re not looking at stuff you wrote six months ago and cringing (or, alternately, making a face and thinking huh, let’s just polish this up a bit because it’s a little clunky) it means you’re not growing as a writer, and growing is the name of the game.

It’s fine to aim for perfection. It’s not fine to beat yourself up because you think it’s achievable instead of just a targeting mechanism. Perfection is a moving beast, the best we can hope for is to constantly refine our aim.

There are other things to do in a zero, but these three bits are a good roadmap. Your zero, of course, will require some personalized TLC. Generally, each zero finished doesn’t teach one about writing novels, it only teaches one about how to write the particular novel you’re working on. You have to finish (and revise, revise, revise) a few before the ins and outs of your own personal process start to become clear, like shapes under a sheet. And personal processes are complex things indeed, changing over time and with the shape of each particular project.

What, you thought this was easy? My friends, a zero draft is only the first part. But don’t worry, you’ve got this. Next time (possibly Christmas Eve, if I’m extremely ambitious this upcoming weekend) we’ll talk about characters in a zero draft.

Until then, remember: Just keep writing.