Writing Process #3: Zero Draft

This is the third in a series of blogs about the way I write books.

So assuming my publisher didn’t hate my synopsis, it’s time to start writing. For me, this initial draft is the hardest part of the process. I can easily talk myself into doing a bit more planning or a bit more research. Eventually, I put the first words on the page. It’s painful. (And yes, I use a computer. No one can read my writing. Not even me.) I make myself write 1000 words a day. It doesn’t matter if it’s dreadful writing (and it often is), as long as I’m making my way through the story. I cringe at what I’m writing down. I really don’t like this part of the writing process, but I keep going. Sometimes it takes me three hours to write my 1000 words, sometimes it takes all day.

Along the way, ideas in the synopsis change. Not the big things usually. But often things I’ve imagined will work, don’t. It might not be believable or the timeline of the story might not work (too much happening or not enough) or I just come up with a better idea. Almost every day there are decisions to make. Big picture ones: How will I make that bit of the story work? How will the character react? Or small detail ones: What is in her suitcase? Why did they decide to go to the beach? (These are actual questions from the novel I’m writing now). This happens every day. Every day, I write up the questions I need to answer on my whiteboard.

I answer the questions first thing in the morning, which is when my brain is at its sharpest.  I write as many different ways as I can think of to answer each question. (Yes this is a Robert McKee technique!) I write them on the whiteboard, not on my computer. Sometimes I get to 15 options, sometimes I only get to three. Then I stand back and see if there is a good, fresh, interesting, non-cliched solution among them. Sometimes two ideas put together solve the problem.

Every couple of weeks I print out what I’ve written and reread it. I write corrections all over it in red. I add bits, I cross out bits, I move bits around. Occasionally I can see a theme starting to form and I make a note of that, so that I can work on that later. I reread and correct again and again.

An example of me correcting my own work
An example of me correcting my own work

I stole the term “Zero Draft” from YA author Scott Westerfeld. I think it’s a great way of describing that initial draft. I wouldn’t show it to anyone. It’s too rough. I can hardly bear to read it myself. I suppose it’s a bit like a rough sketch for a painting. Except it takes ages to write, six months or longer. I’ve just about come to the end of this process with the book I’m writing at the moment.

Eventually I’m ready to show it to someone else—my publisher if I think it’s ready to show him, or my daughter Lili if I’m still not happy with it. It has now evolved from a Zero Draft to a First Draft. By this time I have reread and corrected it at least ten times.

23 responses to “Writing Process #3: Zero Draft

  1. sometimes i write my zero draft and it looks really good to me, but after a little while, i reread it, and it is very bad. does this happen to you?

  2. sarah,
    No, I never think my zero draft looks really good! It always looks bad. But it is a great ideas to have a reasonable break before you reread a draft. Then you are having a fresh look at it.

  3. i have been qute impatient with my novel and started a second draft befre the first one was finished, now i had changed my plan. shold i abandon my first draft altogether or continue with it?

  4. Hi Carole

    We met in Perth earlier in the year.

    I saw you really briefly at Reading Matters and then you disappeared. Or I did. Not sure.

    I linked to your site from William Kostakis’s new Gamers Quest website. He’s done interesting things with the site.

    I was going to ask you a question about research and I read your research post. Do you have any tips on how to contain and manage research materials? I’m researching a couple of things at the moment and I find I’m extremely unwieldy in the way I log the important research. I never come back to anything.

    Any thoughts?

    Hope you’re really well. And I like your site a lot, and its integration with your blog.


  5. Tristan,
    Good to hear from you. I can’t imagine why I get a mention on a Gamers’ website!.
    How to keep control of research materials would make a good blog post. I will do one!

  6. sarah,
    I think what you are talking about is a second version.
    I always work on the same document. I save the story as “first draft” when I’m happy with it. Have a rest from it for a week or two, get feedback from my editor and publisher. Then I start working on the same document again, making changes, only now I save it as second draft.
    If you start all over again, that’s a different thing altogether. I suppose it’s different if you hand write your stories.
    My advice is make a plan first. Do a detailed summary and then start writing. However if you get to a point and you think there is something really wrong with the story, sometimes it’s better to just start again. However, always keep early drafts, just in case.

  7. thanks for the advice, i think i’ll keep writing both and just use my first version/draft as a referance. anyway, it’s easier to write the second version of something, because i have something that i can fall back on.

  8. congrats on the awards.
    i was wondering if could answer some questions of mine for an assignment.
    Have you always had an interest in dragons?

  9. Cassie,
    No I have not always been interested in dragons. I became interested when I wrote a script for a telemovie about dragons.

  10. hey carole
    i was wondering if you could answer some more questions.
    How did you think of the characters names?
    Do any of the characters relate to any of your friends and family?
    If you could be friends with which character? Who would it be and why?

  11. HII!are you currently writing a new book,Carole?hope u r.ur books rock!!I absolutely LOVE dragonkeeper tri.

    P.S,did u noe Liu Che’s birthday is on 27 Aug??

  12. Cassie,
    The characters’ names all mean something in Chinese. Apart from the few characters who were real people.
    No I didn’t base characters on people I know.
    I am friends with all the characters. They were my companions as I wrote the books.

  13. nicole,
    yes I am always writing something. The book I am currently writing is for teenagers and is set in 1970s. I don’t like to talk about the books I am writing in the early stages, though. It’s a sort of superstition that they won’t turn out right if I do.

  14. Hi Carole
    Are you going to write any other books about dragons or Ancient China?? I love books about both, and when I read the dragon keeper trilogy I loved the books 9they are my favourite books and I have read the at least 5 times)Also, are you going to write anything else about Ping?

  15. Katie,
    I have a couple of ideas for other dragon books, but I won’t be ready to write them for a year or so. I have no ideas about any other books in ancient China. And I definitely won’t be writing any more books about Ping.

  16. Hi Carole,
    I’m doing a literary review on your book “Dragon Dawn” and I have enjoyed it a lot!!
    I just want to know when you were exactly born and what research was needed to write your book Dragon Dawn?

  17. Shanal,
    Glad you enjoyed Dragon Dawn.
    When I was researching the book, I read some of the history of China at the time. I learned about the different states that made up China and I found out what weapons soldiers used then.

  18. Wow, I really like the zero draft. Because when you sell your book the people can say : “ooo thats wrong I can write it better. It does not have sense!” some thing that this . well is a great idea.

  19. natalia,
    I hope that’s not what people say when they read my books! That’s why I rewrite my books so many times. People still might not like it, but at least I know I’ve made it the best book I possibly can.

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