“Sit, Stay,Write!”: Writing the Ruff — um, the Rough — Draft

by jeanieransom on September 15, 2010

That first draft of a story can be rough going – maybe that’s why they call it a “rough” draft.  The sheer act of facing a blank page can be daunting enough. Sometimes it’s tough to write that first sentence. And once you do, how should you proceed?

Should you, as Randi Rivers, Jeanie’s editor at Charlesbridge, says, “Write the hell out of your book” (meaning just get the story down on paper and then go back and edit.  (P.S. We’re not allowed to use the “h-e-double-hockey-sticks “ word, but in this case, it’s a quote!)

Or should you edit as you write? We decided to put these questions to Alison Hart and Kristin Wolden Nitz, two children’s authors who have published many novels, meaning that they’re pros at writing not just rough drafts, but very long rough drafts. Think of Alison and Kristin as the long-distance runners of rough drafts.

The first question we posed to our two authors was:

How do you go about doing your rough draft?

Kristin likes to start her rough draft by doing something called “café writing.” She takes a journal and pen to her favorite café (such as Panera Bread, Starbucks, or other coffee shop) to write. Kristin says, “As Natalie Goldberg observed in WRITING DOWN THE BONES, there really is something to that mind hand connection.  I’ve found that I can usually bury myself deep in a scene when I do this.  While I record snippets of description and action, I typically focus on the give and take between the characters.  Often, whole sections of dialogue make it intact from the rough draft to the final one while tag lines and descriptions continue to evolve.” After a café writing session, Kristin goes back to her office to “tap the bones” (how we love that word!) from her written pages into her computer.

Alison, on the other hand, does all of her writing on the computer. But she doesn’t even start her rough draft until she has spent weeks, and even months, on research. Alison says, “Research is key for me–setting, characters, story and details can’t come alive on paper until I know enough about them. For example, in my YA mysteries Shadow Horse and Whirlwind, it was crucial to understand the juvenile court system as well as spend time on an animal rescue farm before starting to write.” Alison says that often the plot and characters for her book are developing in her mind while she researches prior to that first draft.

The second question we asked Kristin and Alison was:

Do you edit as you write, or do you try and write the whole story all the way through, not worrying about anything more than getting the story out?

According to Kristin, “I tend to edit as a write.” One time when she tried to “write the whole story all the way through” as part of NaNoWrite (where participants sign up to write an entire novel in a month – see www.nanowrimo.org to find out about this year’s event) she quit halfway through and had to spend the next three months, as she says,untangling what I had.”

Kristin generally prefers to do what she calls “a semi-polished rough draft” before she moves on to writing the next chapter of a book.  She says, “If I tie things up too tightly, it’s hard to pick things apart in revisions.  But I also find it hard to move forward with characters and plot if I don’t know most of what happened to my characters before I move on.”

However, Kristin says when she is on a writing streak, she “tends to be less picky.” No matter what, though, she starts every writing session “by combing through what I’d already written to get rid of tangles and burrs.”  Kristin says that for her, “it’s easier to start with revising than with filling in more fresh action and description.  Sometimes the lines that gave me fits one day will write themselves on the next.”

Kristin revises her rough drafts on the computer, but she’ll also print pages and revise by hand. Kristin says, “If one mode of attack doesn’t work, another one usually does.  The key for me is to dedicate time to working.” (Well said, Kristin!)

Alison says that she constantly edits as she writes.  Each day, she rereads “at least the chapter before I begin writing again.” This means that before she gets to the end of a book, she has “probably edited the manuscript two hundred times (or more).” Alison says that she has to “constantly edit as the story progresses to change details that don’t fit or fill in information that needs to be woven into earlier chapters because of changes I have made or twists I have added in later chapters. My mysteries especially are always evolving.”

So, there you have it. While Kristin starts her rough draft with pen and paper and Alison always writes on the computer, they both revise as they write, but in different degrees. But just like any writer, they can get “stuck.”

When a scene just isn’t working, or that perfect sentence is eluding her, Kristin says that “it can be a good idea to give up and move on.” She often finds that when she returns to that problem scene or sentence another day, she’s able to see how to fix it. Alison says, “Sometimes I’ll be walking my dogs and an ‘ah ha!’ moment comes into my head on some clue or scene that needs to be fixed or added. Yet, I didn’t even know I was thinking about my story!”

We’d like to thank Alison and Kristin for taking time out from their busy writing schedules to answer our questions. To find out more about Alison and Kristin, visit their websites: www.alisonhartbooks.com, and www.knitz.com. As always, if you have questions, suggestions, or an author you’d like us to interview, you can email us at ransomink@pobox.com. Now it’s time for us to take to break – and maybe a walk. See you next time!

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