Drafting…the door closed and the door open

Drafts...the door open and the door closedIt’s only recently that my drafting process has reached a steady state. I used to not think about drafts at all, or re-draft continually (even worse). I now realize that Stephen King (yes, that Stephen King) has the two best approaches to the drafting process. The man knows.

If you’ve read King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, you’ll know the following. There’s no better book about writing: it’s concise, entertaining, and the advice clearly works. Note to self: read it again. The second half is equally gripping, detailing the story of King’s comeback from being badly injured after being hit by a truck, his personal road to recovery and, of course, back to writing.

The first idea is King’s notion of “two drafts and a polish.”  I was surprised to discover that after experimenting with various approaches, I’ve ended up in the same place. All my stories and novels pretty much go through two drafts and a polish. The first draft is to get the story out, the skeleton, to get from beginning to end, preferably through the middle. The idea is therethe “situation” (another King-ism)and surrounded by the other most important elements, the characters, the setting, and the story. On the second draft, you tighten and expand, but you are also daring: throw out whole sections, or add new scenes. The (reread and) polish is just what it suggests: the rough edges smoothed out, words cut, transitions improved, and the mechanics double-checked.

In conjunction with “two drafts and a polish,” the second idea is to write with the door first closed, then opened. The door is not literally closed (but it helps). This is also King’s idea: to write with the door figuratively closed is to seal yourself off from the world. The story is entirely yours, with no input. No one is looking over your shoulder. No readers. Just you and the page. The writer’s paradise and nightmare in one…. But then, after you have the first draft, you let the world in. In other words, you find a reader, you seek advice (always a revelation), and you listen to the feedback.

I actually do something more developed, but essentially the same. I allow feedback during a first draftI open the door early. This means I get to test out my idea, ideally strengthen it, before a first draft is complete. It can sometimes create a better idea.

For example, I was stuck with how to continue my story “A Slice of the Adirondacks,” set in the vast Adirondack State Park in upstate New York. My wife is from Ithaca, New York and has visited the Adirondacks her whole life. So I sought early advice while writing the first draft.

A Slice of the Adirondacks” is a story about neighbors and the threat of abduction. Some kids go missing and a creepy old man who swims the lake each morning is implicated. But what really happened? Getting a sense of the geography of the area helped me to finish the story. I needed to know what would happen to Walter (the old man) and Chester (the boy) at the end.

The moral: arguably, drafting involves adapting writing rules. Yes, even those of Stephen King’s. But I still do two drafts and a polish, as Mr. King advises.

What have you guys learned about drafting? First and second drafts? Polishing? What about the writing advice during the ‘door open’ moment? Does that invariably improve the story, or over-challenge the original idea?

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