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From Rough Draft to Refined Outline: Lessons from Draft 2's Revision Process
Polishing the turd, tracking the right metrics, and finding focus
I finished Draft Two!
I did it. It's done. Draft 2 of my manuscript is complete. My mind is mush and my printer is out of ink. We are almost to November, which marks the one-year mark since I started writing this story.
In this newsletter:
Behind-the-scenes of Draft 2
What's next? Revisions.
Thank you for your support!
Behind the Scenes of Draft 2
109,500 all-new words
351 focused hours of writing
I tackled my first draft last November during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) with nothing but a faint idea of a freediver girl discovering an underwater station. For 30 days, I forced out words and made the story up as I went- tucked away into a deserted meeting room at the end of the workday for an hour or two. If you want a good forcing function to make you write, I recommend checking it out. Nothing better to jumpstart a new project than an aggressive deadline! And it's free.
After November, I put the story away and went back to work.
Fast forward 4.5 months.
On April 17th, I finished my 3-year project and left LinkedIn with the goal of pursuing this book full-time. Starting the next Monday, April 20th, I sat down at my desk and opened the story back up. Every minute of writing / revising / outlining was logged with Pomodoro or Focusmate (more on those below in Lessons Learned) and recorded in my Book Tracking spreadsheet. Because of course I had a spreadsheet.
Draft 2 in Numbers
(Daily Words on left- black line, Hours on right- blue bars)
From April 20th to October 16th. How did I do in 130 work days?
My initial goal was 3 hours of writing per day. (I just picked a number). And three hours meant fully-focused, no distractions. If I started to text or clicked open a website tab, I paused my timer. If I researched articles, I didn't record.
So a goal of 390 hours and I completed 351. That's 90%. That's an A.....
I was going to make a joke about Harvard grade inflation, but I'll just show you this t-shirt instead.
"If I wanted an A, I would've gone to Harvard."
What happened with that orange and yellow in your chart?? We moved from San Francisco to San Diego end of June, so I took most of June off to pack/move/unpack and since David didn't start work till August, we used July to travel. Well, "travel". The original plan had been Italy. HA! Instead, we explored California: scuba diving in Catalina, trailrunning in Santa Barbara, whitewater kayaking in Kernville, exploring our new home San Diego.
It was worth it.
So what if I exclude those pesky summer months? Then, I averaged 3.5 hours/day. Look at that 116%. That's gotta be an A++. Extra credit. And if I were to chart my average hours of writing per day, I'd be pleased with the positive slope. That's called character growth, people.
What? This is my self-evaluation. I can handle the data how I want to. I'm "finding insights."
Okay, self-congratulations aside. Where did I mess up? I spent too much time in the first few months rewriting the early chapters- polishing the words like a line editor- when really I should've focused on the larger picture... my plot needed restructuring! Hence the spike in words for May. It was still helpful though. I focused on reading craft books and finding my writing voice.
But then I hit the Act 2 opening, where I knew it needed a new storyline, and I came to a screeching halt end of May. There were no more fun words for me to rewrite. It was time to brainstorm.
Brainstorming was not fun. Those 40 hours in July with no words written? Brainstorming. I would sit for a full day freewriting in a notebook and have 1-2 ideas. In the moment, it felt tiny. But a week of small ideas led to a handful, and then the next week's ideas built on those, until one day- yowza, I had a full spreadsheet outlining every chapter.
I now had a clear path forward.
But even then, I dawdled. I would write a scene, then spend hours tweaking it the next day before I moved on to a new one. If I was going to send out scenes for feedback (just to my sisters, don't get your feelings hurt), they needed to be perfect.
But this meant my brain was constantly switching between revising and writing. Between critically evaluating words and then shutting off that same filter in order to capture my brain's thoughts on paper.
"Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open"
- Stephen King
I switched back to speed writing. Sorry, sisters. No more chapters for you. 50-minute sprints with a 400 word goal. If I stopped writing to look up a fact... NO, back to work. Just put in a placeholder. [ ] became my friend.
[NAME] entered the room.
Maria had done her hair in [SOME COOL STYLE].
It was like a game of MadLibs. But you're playing alone. Despite having a super cool spreadsheet, I tracked my sprints on paper to really feel my progress.
So here we are. Draft 2 is finally finished. A full reworking of the plot. Not even the original character names survived. Instead of celebrating, I was grumpy and tired and emotionally spent.
Some days I feel like Pinky & the Brain and I'm going to take over the world, other days I want to print out my words just so I can crumble them into a ball and throw that fist-crunched paper in the trash.
Ah, the highs and lows of writing.
I've taken a week to clear my brain and now it's time to revise. But before jumping into the next phase, I would be remiss if I did not put on my Project Management hat and find some lessons learned.
1) Don't polish the turd
I tinkered with my opening chapters for a month. And now they have been banished to a folder titled Unused Writing #2.
40,541 words. Time spent fixating on grammar and sentence structure and word choice when I needed to focus on the novel's global issues. I was formatting my slides before I'd decided the presentation I was giving.
Going forward, I have to let the little things slide. Allow myself to get to them later. Build the foundation, then make it pretty.
2) Don't edit while writing
It felt so natural that I didn't even realize I was doing it. Reread the last day's writing, get excited that it's better than I remembered, and start improving it. NO! So many of those scenes are going to be rewritten now that I've finished the story. Things changed. Characters made different choices than I originally intended.
Writing is a creative process. The characters' voices take over your body, speaking through your furiously typing hands. You are teleported to a different world, experiencing the scene. What do they see? smell? touch?
If I switch to Google to start researching "smells in an underwater station", I lose my flow. (If you were curious, according to aquanaut Fabien Costeau, grandson of dear Jacques, "With greater air density, voice patterns change slightly, the sense of smell is subdued, and people lose their sense of taste.")
Whoops. See how distracting that was?
Editing, on the other hand (/other side of the brain), is methodical. Precise. A surgeon with a scalpel. I think. I've never held a scalpel. Slicing away extraneous words, cutting back those info dumps. Finding that overly-repeated word and banning it from your lexicon. There's a time and a place for the Reaper of Words, but it's not when you're still trying to write the story in your mind. Get it on paper first.
3) Always have a metric, even if it changes
For writing- Word Count. It forces the words out.
For brainstorming and revising- Hours of deep work. Butt in chair.
4) Keep improving upon your process
I started with a Pomodoro timer. 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off. A great tool for short sprints and for building your concentration muscle. But I found it was interrupting me mid-flow, and I was celebrating a false sense of progress when I'd only done two hours. I also could pause it whenever I wanted. Tea, bathroom, phonecall. Press pause.
I switched to Focusmate, an online platform that pairs you with a partner over video for a 50-minute work session. This was great when I was writing and brainstorming. When I would hit a wall and suddenly decide it was time to make more tea or water my plants, there was a person on the screen working away. They would notice if I left. And I'd book back-to-back sessions with 10-minute breaks. With a person waiting to meet, this meant my breaks actually stayed ten minutes.
Since starting it in August, I've done 151 sessions. Now, I feel pretty darn good about focusing and maintaining my own schedule. For revisions, I expect I'll use FocusMate less. Now even 50 minutes interrupts my flow! So don't be afraid to try out new ways of working.
"If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly."
What's Next? Revisions.
Here's the plan: The plan is to make a plan.
I have my printed manuscript and my colored pens. This week, I am reading it from start to finish. I haven't done that yet since I first started rewrites.
I will read things I love that I forgot I wrote, and I will read things I hate and want to fix.
But I won't make edits. I will only identify problems. A long-running list of changes categorized by Plot, Character, Setting, and Other.
Next week, I will create my revision list, ranking issues from global to local and assigning them deadlines. Transforming this revision into managable tasks, starting with the big meaty ones, not the shiny grammar.
Once I have my plan, I'll share it.
Execute like a Business:
1. Focus on the Wildly Important
2. Act on the Lead Measures (deep work)
3. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard
4. Create a Cadence of Accountability
- Deep Work by Cal Newport
Thank you for your support!
Since I left LinkedIn in April,
+77 people joined my newsletter
+116 people sent me a virtual tea on Ko-Fi to show their support
+ lots have shared articles, encouragement, and well wishes :)
Time to crawl back into my hole. These chapters aren't going to read themselves. Thanks for reading and have a good week!