Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Begin Again – Why Your First Draft Isn’t A Novel

Blown Glass Flower by S. R. Karfelt

Glassblowing is a hobby I’ve picked up. I’ve yet to make anything completely on my own, so I’m a novice however enthusiastic. There’s always an expert gaffer at my side giving instruction. Sometimes the gaffer will use the blow tube to create a small version of what we’re going to make together. It gives me a visual of the process. After they’ve masterfully made a miniature glass flower or such, they’ll immerse it into a pail of water to cool it and then heartlessly smack it into a bucket, breaking the glass into pieces.

They don’t even mind throwing away their little masterpiece. It’s just a tool, a rough draft, practice.

That is where you need to be as a writer too, because your early work isn’t a book. It’s a draft. Ouch, right? I’m not saying it isn’t brilliant. I’m saying it isn’t ready to show the story you want to tell.

With some work writing can be made ready. If I put the time into glassblowing that I put into writing, I think I could change my novice status. It’s a matter of how much work I’m willing to do.

Yep, writing is work. Welcome to the real world.

First drafts are some of my favorite writing. They contain too much information but its information the writer needs to know, not the reader. They might meander, and have too many characters and detail, or they might be bland and basic, and detail needs to be painted in later.  They’re sure to be full of errors, and telling instead of showing, an important distinction.

After writing my first draft of Warrior of the Ages, and doctoring it quietly for a couple of years, I gave a version of it to someone to read. I waited impatiently for their astonished praise. It didn’t come. “Ah,” they said, “You can’t have thirty pages of backstory.” WHAT? What are you talking about? They didn’t like it. The story didn’t say to the reader what it said to the writer. The work came in when I started to make that happen.

I had to learn how to write a novel by today’s standards.

I’m attaching the beginning of Warrior of the Ages from a few years before publication. If you can make it through the end (feel free to skim) you’ll see the beginning of the published book. There’s a bit of a difference.

Warrior of the Ages by S. R. Karfelt
An Early Version

He actually tried to make it a point not to complain about it.  It's not like he had anyone to talk to about it anyway.  But he didn't allow himself to even think negatively.  If he ever did it could spiral down into darkness in an instant.  Into madness even.  It wasn't like he opened his eyes at birth and thought "Oh damn, here we go again".  He didn't usually even remember until he was about five or six, or if he was really fortunate later.  Once he'd been nine, but that time his Clan had been so chaotic that he probably just hadn't had enough time to think about much more than survival and food.  Of course every Being of Earth had Shades.  The dark ending memories of random Beings who had gone on before them.  They came unbidden to everyone's mind during dreams and sometimes even when they were awake.  No one liked their Shades, but they were useful.  It was a shortcut to learning languages, or facts of life - like war or danger or consequences - and most especially Shades taught you that life was short, very short.  They taught you that life could end in the blink of an eye.

            Yet Kah'tahr's Shades were different, very different.  They weren't random moments from other Being's last moments on earth.  They were real memories, his real memories.  Because Kah'tahr didn't stop.  Oh he died.  He'd died countless times.  He couldn't think of a way he hadn't died - well no - there was one way he hadn't died and he was kind of hoping that he'd go that way sometime.  He had died in every awful conceivable way a man could die, and many dull ways and some that actually made him laugh when he remembered.  He could remember every single death if he'd ever taken the time to go through them, and he could remember every single life too.  It was just that Kah'tahr certainly knew how short life was and he definitely didn't waste time going over the past. 

            The memories came in handy of course.  Like with all Beings of Earth he used the past to determine his current actions.  Still he tried to hold from the knowledge of his past as long as he could.  He tried to immerse himself in childhood, especially if he were lucky enough to have one where he truly could be carefree.  Those were his favorites.  His reality would start to intrude in flashes once he reached the age of consciousness of course.  Still as a child that simply meant he was a bit brighter than most, a bit more talented, at first anyway.  Then it usually came when something familiar stirred it.  A deja vu that even a five year old couldn't deny.  Then the memories would come flooding through like a tidal wave, like a hurricane, his reality.  Oh, I am again. 

            His name was not the same of course, he had whatever name his parents had given him.  His Clans were usually as diverse as any Clan of Beings of Earth, though he had often been in the same Clans.  He'd often had the same names too.  He wondered if anyone, anywhere really realized how many different ways the name John could be used.  One thing NEVER changed though, and that was the way he looked.  At seven feet tall he'd stood out in a crowd for eons.  He almost never looked at himself, not in a reflective surface and not in a mirror.  He didn't have to, not even to shave.  He knew that face, every curve and dimple and divot on it.  He knew his body, knew exactly what his strengths and weaknesses were.  He knew his talents, he knew his giftings and he knew his duty.  For no matter where on earth he was born or to what Clan he knew what he would become.  Warrior. 

            For the last few centuries he'd been Warrior of ilu, before that it had been called  a variety of similar names, before that Warrior of El and on and on and on.  His duty was to protect, to protect his Clan and if he were fortunate to do whatever was necessary to ensure the survival of his kind.  That is what he did.  He tried.  While he repeated time after time, always looking the same, he was not completely alone with the awareness of that repetitive anomaly.  There was inevitably recognition.  He starred in many Beings Shades - at least physically.  He recognized the look as he'd come to think of it.  Sometimes it was just a pause and a stare and sometimes it was more pronounced, "I have a Shade where this Being looks EXACTLY like you" to even the times when he'd been put to death for it.  Usually by a warring Clan, but occasionally by his own.

            Always looking the same had drawbacks.  He'd been born into countless clans where he surely did not look like anyone else.  As a grown man he had dark blond hair and steely eyes and towered over most of his Clansmen.  It kind of caused a stir when his parents were Asian, Indian or African.  He wondered if he and his parents were often put to death for it.  Especially a mother.  The times when he had no Mother and was never told what had become of her, he worried that she'd been punished for having a son that didn't belong physically.  If that was the case, or if there were times when he was killed as a babe for that difference he never remembered it.  Most Clans would never kill a babe.  Most Clans would never kill a woman.  But some did.  He never lasted very long in those clans, he never lasted very long in general.  That wasn't much of an anomaly.  Most Warriors of ilu didn't make it to their hundred birthday.  A few times he had lived to be fifty though, and he remembered those times fondly.  Usually twenty or thirty was as good as it got.  It didn't really matter how talented or skilled you were, when your life was battle it was all a matter of math in the end.  Sooner or later your number was up, right or wrong, good or bad, all were born and all died.

Warrior of the Ages
By S. R. Karfelt

Immortality probably made a man patient. Part-time immortality, the kind that Kahtar had been inflicted with, didn’t. Crammed inside his squad car in what was possibly the hottest May Day in his existence reminded him of being locked inside an iron maiden. Except those weapons of torture had been wooden coffins, not metal, though if memory served they had better ventilation.
Across a clearing framed by spindly trees, his rookie sat inside a second patrol car. Kahtar watched Honor Monroe gaze at himself in the rearview mirror, both hands twisting his spiky hairdo to perfection, and paying no attention to his surroundings. The kid had no idea how close he was to being shaved bald. Not that there was anything dangerous around for miles, but still.
Closing his eyes to shut out the visual of Honor now picking at his teeth, Kahtar gripped the steering wheel and stilled. Military crew-cut almost flush with the ceiling, it brushed against the fabric with each breath. His mind sharpened and focused, flying outward like a stealth aircraft, scanning with a precision beyond the capability of any man-made radar. The beating wings of buzzing insects, larvae crawling through rotting wood, the clear air rife with invisible particles filled his senses. His scan moved up through the blossoming trees before plunging down, far beneath the mulch of last year’s fallen leaves. Kahtar forced his mind through the forest floor. It took years to learn to identify what was in the ground, but he’d had plenty of time to perfect the skill.
Abruptly pulled from the depths of the earth by another warrior’s scan crossing into his, it felt like a shard of glass plunged deep into his brain. Pressing his fingers against his skull he tried to ease the dark shadow. The interfering scan lifted as the culprit approached.
“Hoy!” His entirely too enthusiastic rookie rounded the patrol car, hair artfully arranged, teeth apparently picked. “Sorry about that! Not used to being around my own kind anymore!”
A tour of duty in the Middle East might have made the man forget his manners, but it hadn’t dimmed his chipper demeanor. Honor Monroe approached police work with the same animation he gave a game of stickball. His hand smacked against the windshield, and the kid peered at him, shouting through the glass.
“Chief? We’re partners today. Real cops sit in the same car with their partners.”
Kahtar glared into Honor Monroe’s bright eyes. “Monroe, I doubt your own mother would sit in a car with you all day.” For emphasis Kahtar rolled the window up. Honor wisely hurried towards his own squad car. The kid had a lot to learn. It was very tempting to scan right through his head, but Kahtar resisted the impulse to make him cry on his first day playing cops.
Closing his eyes to focus, Kahtar’s scan resumed, moving down the country road. Scanning asphalt felt almost poisonous, he could practically smell it, taste tar on his tongue. Simultaneously, he shoved his mind east and west, following the road in both directions at once. From one edge of his scan came movement, a vehicle from the west. It blew through his mind, instantly engulfed by his mental radar. He digested every minute detail: 3,109 pounds of metal and synthetic substances, one 140 pound human being, vehicle speed fluctuating between 65 and 70 mph. For today, barely speeding was still speeding because Honor Monroe’s scan still hovered dangerously near, and Kahtar was in no mood to have it bite into his head again. Besides, the more unpleasant he could make a trip to the village of Willowyth, the less likely people were to want to return.
Turning the key, Honor’s second voice, somehow as enthusiastic as his real voice, sounded in Kahtar’s mind. “Chief? I feel it too! The car’s yellow!”
Ignoring Honor, he edged the patrol car to the roadway. The speeding car appeared atop a little knoll, a bright yellow Saab convertible. Honor Monroe insisted he could scan color, and although often wrong, he did seem to have some sort of extra gift. Honor’s annoyingly enthusiastic second voice sounded very faintly as Kahtar pulled onto the highway behind the Saab. “I was right, wasn’t I?”
“Just stay out of trouble. I’ll be fifteen minutes, tops.” He wondered if his second voice sounded as annoyed as he felt.

S. R. Karfelt - Blown Glass Paperweight

The delta between my first drafts and my completed novels has grown closer. I understand how to show instead of tell better. I still have a fondness for my stream of consciousness writing, and someday I’ll find a way to incorporate that into a novel in an acceptable manner. In the meantime I write on, and continue to learn.


  1. Well said, though I still have such a hard time reminding myself that my first draft isn't certainly feels like a beautiful masterpeice!
    Oh wait...commas don't go there?
    What do you mean I use "was" too much?
    Is "that" really THAT bad of a word?

    *Tosses first draft in bin of fire*

    Okay, I'm convinced.

    (PS for humor purposes - my "captcha" word is "was")

  2. I needed this. It's important to remind myself that the first draft is for ME and what I do with it in editing is for the readers. It's okay if it sucks now. It will be better. LoL