What does a Rough Draft Really Look Like?

Okay, first things first. I’ve been a bad writer. Not bad as in writing bad stuff, mind you. I’ve been bad because I haven’t been writing much. No blog posts, no books, and little in the way of even marketing the book I do have out there. Isn’t that a cardinal rule or something? Writers write. Ahem.

Although, I have been writing the next Timekeeper book. I’ve got a bit over 11,000 words of the rough draft banged out. Writing it got me thinking about the whole process of creating a rough draft. I have no idea how many posts I’ve seen about rough drafts, but they all say pretty much the same thing. Writing a rough draft is hard. It is akin to banging your head on the desk until blood starts to trickle down your face and drip onto the keyboard, creating magic. Or I’ve heard people say that it’s like hacking your way through a jungle of endless possibilities. The rough draft is the first path you cut through the wilderness.

I’ve also heard people say over and over again that you need to give your rough draft permission to suck. Some even call it the zero draft. It isn’t even good enough to be called the first draft. And all that is true. It really is. Writing your first draft is hard. You write, you delete, and you rewrite. Right now, I have five different versions of my story and each one is longer than the last. My first version is the first chapter and part of the second. The second version has a complete rewrite of the second chapter and a first cut at the third and fourth chapters. You get the idea.

But I was reading a blog the other day about first drafts, and the author talked all about that idea of giving yourself permission to suck. Of course, I can’t find the actual post now, but the author was Chuck Wendig (if you aren’t familiar with him, be warned. He is a little, um, crude). Anyway, he made the point that, while you HAVE TO give yourself permission to suck, don’t go overboard. If you’re just going to write crap, then what’s the point?

All this got me thinking about what a real live, actual, first draft should look like. I mean, what does suck actually mean? Chuck’s right: if your goal is to just get words on a page no matter what they look like, then why do it? All you’re going to end up with is a whole lot of wasted time because the stuff you’re producing is going to be too hard to fix. If it really is a big pile of donkey dung, then you’re going to have to rip out half of it (and that’s if you’re lucky).

So, what does a rough draft look like?

Get the Main Points Down

When I write a first draft there is one thing that is key: the stuff that actually happens. Before I type the first word of a chapter, I should know what I need to accomplish before I can call that chapter done. Now, by happen, I mean story development. For example, here’s the (unedited) outline for chapter one for my rough draft:

  1. Story opens in the car, racing to get to the building
  2. Ryan and Alison fight their way through the building, taking out some guards
  3. Just as they kick open the door to the room, they hear a shot. They recoil, but there is only one shot – and no sound of the bullet hitting anything.
  4. Inside the room, Andy is dead; Sarah is nearly unconscious, bleeding.
  5. A man in the room (Derrick) is standing over Andy. He turns and raises the gun. Ryan shoots him in the chest.
  6. Alison runs over to Andy. He’s dead.
  7. Ryan tells her there is no time. She has to act.
  8. Alison raises her own pistol and shoots herself
  9. Ryan pulls out his cellphone and calls someone. Says something like, “It is finished. Sarah is still alive, but barely.”
  10. Maybe I leave it unknown whether or not Sarah dies. By his hand or from her injuries.

Now, there are a few things I need to point out here.

  1. This is the longest chapter outline I have so far. Mostly because there were a lot of things that I needed to have happen in the first chapter. This chapter is in the present day, and I don’t get to go back there. So, how much longer? It is probably twice as long as most of them.
  2. You’re not writing the novel in outline form. You just need to know what should happen in the chapter – in a big bullet kind of way.
  3. This is my way of doing it. Some people outline like crazy. Some people scoff at outlines. Whatever floats your boat. My point is that you need to know what is going on in your story.  Otherwise, you’re just wandering around in the dark hoping for a story to pop out.

The reason you have to know what needs to be accomplished is so you’re not going back and adding action steps that ripple through your storyline. Those have a way of wrecking things. It is super easy to introduce logic errors in your story, and that’s never good. You can (and should) go back and embellish, but be very careful about adding subplots that never go anywhere or points that contradict stuff that happens later on in the story.

Be Okay if it’s Shorter or Longer than You Want

There are a lot of writers who say you shouldn’t add to your second draft. They say you should only cut. I say nay, nay. When I write, I’m pretty focused on making sure I get the main stuff down. That really is king for me. Sometimes, I don’t really see the scene until I rewrite it.  I think that happens because I’m not trying so hard to just get the story on paper.  That frees me up to really visualize it in my head like a movie. Other people tend to have diarrhea of the keyboard with their rough draft and type way too much. That’s fine. I’m usually not one of those – in fiction, at least. So, whichever way you tend to lean is fine. Don’t freak out about it. Just get the story down.

You Might Have Some Clichés

We use clichés a lot in our speech. Sometimes, that’s the easiest (not best) way to get an idea out. Now, if you can come up with a better way of doing it without a cliché, go for it. That is one less thing you have to watch for in the rewrite. But don’t sit and stare at the screen for five minutes trying to figure out a way of saying something without using one.

Your Descriptions Might be Cheesy or Misplaced

You might describe something in a way that even makes your eyes roll. Or maybe you have a description placed in a way that distracts from the story flow. Or maybe you don’t have enough description. No worries. Seriously.

Your Dialogue Might Suck

On this one, when I say suck, I really do mean suck. You may be going for debonair and get pimply fourteen-year-old trying to get to first base. Again. It happens. I know that some of my dialogue in my early drafts needs work. A lot of work. Okay, fine. Some of my dialog in my published stuff needs work. Dang it.  Thanks for pointing that out.  You’re such a pal.

Your Sentence Structures Might Need Help

When we write, sometimes we use the same patterns. Over and over again, there they are. Often, we might put a dependent clause on the beginning of a sentence. By the way, do you see what I’m doing? Sentence structure must have variety. It can’t be the same structure repeated. It sounds weird when you do that, and it can be distracting. Or maybe that’s just me.

You Might Repeat Words

One of my bad habits in the first draft (and second and third) is using the same words too frequently or in close proximity to one another. I don’t know why, exactly, but I’ll have a word stuck in my head and it keeps popping out through my fingertips and onto the screen.  I wrote a program (that’s what I do in my day job) that searched The Timekeeper’s Son looking for words that were used too often or in close proximity to one another (there’s that proximity word again). This one is my Achilles heel, and I really have to watch for it.

You Might Have Grammar Mistakes

This is one you need to be careful with. Okay, it’s one that I need to be careful with. The more I read a piece, the more blind I become to sentence structure, repeated words, or grammar and spelling mistakes. I can start to see what is supposed to be there instead of what is actually there. So, while you may have some grammar issues, fix them as soon as you notice them. Try not to let them hang out.

And, Finally…

If there is one way to wrap this whole thing up, I would say that you should be mortified if someone secretly published your first draft because it’s so bad. But – and it’s a big but – it shouldn’t be so bad that you are afraid to let people read it at all.  The most important thing here is that you have to love your story – even if you’re not in love with the way it’s written.

OH YEAH – One final point. I use the commenting feature in Microsoft Word A LOT. If I notice something I need to fix (bad description, not enough description, stupid dialogue, etc.) I’ll create a comment so I remember it. My first chapter has half a dozen of them.  You don’t want to forget stuff, but you also don’t want to get mired down in fixing superficial issues.  You can end up with a ton of writing getting done, but your story is no further along.  You still have to get to the other side of that jungle.  Cutting down the same tree six times isn’t how you do that.

The Draft

Now, I’m going to do something crazy. I going to let you guys actually see the first chapter of my new book. Okay, maybe it’s the second draft instead of the first, but it’s in that place where I don’t want it to be published, but I’ll let people read it (even if I do bite my nails while they do). Everything I said up above is true about it. The descriptions and dialogue need work. I’m sure there are some words I’ve used too many times, and I know that my sentence structures need work (I actually do that dependent clause thing a lot). There may even be some clichés hanging out. It is likely shorter than the final version will be.  Etc.

Hopefully, this will give you guys an idea of what “suck” means.  I will try to make sure I post versions of it along the way.  Seeing just the rough draft doesn’t really give you an appreciation for the difference.  You can see the rough draft and think, “Yeah… It has some issues.”  Seeing the cleaned up version should help put things into perspective.  Anyways, here goes…


“We’re not going to make it in time.” Ryan said as he gripped the seatbelt with one hand, pulling and twisting at it impatiently.

“We’ll make it,” Alison said as she tapped the brake, slowing the Charger enough to make the turn onto 39th street. “Listen to you; I thought I was supposed to be the girl in this relationship.” She teased him, but the truth was that she didn’t feel any more confident than he did. It had only been five minutes since they received the call, but it may as well have been a lifetime ago. There was no way to know how much time they really had.

“Very funny.” As they turned, Ryan let go of the seatbelt to brace himself against the door. She had slowed down for the turn, but just barely. The tires squealed in protest, threatening to leave the pavement. “Holy crap. Get us there, but don’t kill us.”

“Girl.” She stomped on the accelerator again as they came out of the turn, the inertia pulling them backward into their seats. They were heading toward an old office building on the corner of 39th and Bellevue. It was only a few more blocks, but Alison couldn’t help but feel the seconds slipping away, ticking in time with the drumbeat of her heart.

“There it is,” Ryan said, pointing out the structure that jutted up into the sky a couple hundred feet in front of them. “Kill the lights.”

Alison dropped a hand from the steering wheel and twisted the knob to extinguish the headlights. The street in front of them was swallowed by the darkness, and she slowed the car to a crawl. It was slower than she would have liked considering the circumstances, but it was faster than walking. Fifty feet or so shy of the building, she pulled alongside the curb, turning the key to cut the engine.

“You ready for this?” Ryan asked, his hand on the door handle.

“Nope. I’m absolutely terrified. You?” She reached down and grabbed her own handle, opening the door to slip out of the car as quickly and quietly as she could. She couldn’t let her own fear stop them. That wasn’t an option. But it didn’t escape her attention that he didn’t respond. There were no words of encouragement in a time like this. Any attempt would have been a lie and they both knew it. There was no way around the task in front of them. And, for her, there was no way for this to end well.

The pair stayed as low as they could and ran toward the building, ducking behind vehicles, mailboxes, and any other cover they could find. From the street, it didn’t look like there were any guards outside or in the windows, but being seen now would end things before they even started. They rushed forward, turning right just before they reached the stairs to the front door and headed toward the back instead.

At the rear of the building, a large staircase ran up to the door, flanked on either side by brick walls. Ryan pressed up against the first wall and scooted toward the edge. He stayed low, curling his body around to look up the stairs. “Clear,” he whispered back to her.

Alison slipped around him and hurried up to the doors, crouching in front of the one on the far side. She gripped the handle with both hands, nodding to Ryan. Ryan kneeled behind the other door and returned the nod.

The latch clicked as Alison pressed the thumb switch on the handle and pulled. A strip of light pierced the darkness as the door opened, revealing a man in a dark blue infiltrator uniform standing just inside the doorway. He barely had time to react before Ryan was on him. Ryan sprang from his crouched position and grabbed the man’s head with both hands. He pulled down violently while bringing his knee up to collide with the guard’s face. As they both fell, Alison swung inside the threshold and snatched the falling weapon out of the air, keeping it from hitting the tile floor or knocking against the wall behind him.

Ryan kept his hold on the man’s head as they came down, doing the best he could to minimize the sound of him coming to rest on the floor. Still, they froze for a moment, listening for the sound of yelling or approaching footsteps. The only sound was a woman wailing. The best Alison could tell, it was coming from up the stairs and to the right. They exchanged nervous glances. It was hard to tell whether the cries were from pain or from loss. Agony was apparent in her cries, but there was no way to tell whether they had made it in time.

Alison took the lead as they climbed the stairs. As she neared the top, she dropped into a crouch and peeked around. It was a blind corner, and it was empty. The short hallway only ran a few feet before it turned. She stepped across to the other side and slid along the wall, pausing to listen for any telltale signs of another guard. There was nothing.

Still squatting, she sidestepped to the edge and twisted her body to stick her head out just far enough to see down the hallway. About twenty feet away, two more guards stood on either side of a closed door. That had to be where they were keeping Andy and Sarah. This seemed too easy, Alison thought to herself. Only three infiltrators and they were all open to attack. These two didn’t even have any cover. Maybe they weren’t expecting company. That didn’t add up, but they couldn’t back out now. She turned toward Ryan and spread her first and middle fingers apart, pointing at her own eyes before turning her hand around to show him the other side. “I see two people,” she signaled.

Acknowledging the sign, Ryan fished in his pocket and pulled out a small silver ball. He pinched it between his thumb and first finger and tossed it in a high arc. It bounced and clattered down the stairs, clacking against the wall and the floor at the bottom.

“Davis? What are you doing down there?” After a few moments with no answer, the guard continued, “What the hell? I’ll be right back.”

As the footsteps approached, Alison readied herself while Ryan pulled his sidearm from its place on his hip. Just as the infiltrator stepped out from behind the corner, Alison pivoted on one foot and brought the other up in a roundhouse kick that slammed into the side of his face. His head jerked and smashed into the wall, dropping his body in a heap.

“Hey,” the other guard yelled. “Come out where I can see you. Hands up.”

“So much for stealth,” Ryan said as he swept around the corner, squeezing off two shots in quick succession. Both missed, and Ryan jumped back just in time to avoid three returning rounds. They tore into the wall where he had just been standing, spitting bits of plaster where they dug in.

Alison reached for her own weapon, but Ryan closed his hand around her forearm. “Too risky.” As much as she hated it, he was right. She had to make it into that room alive. Nothing else mattered. Still, maybe she could provide covering fire so he could step into the hallway and get a clear shot. The guy had nowhere to go. She gestured to him, running one outstretched hand over the other, palms together.

Ryan nodded, and Alison pulled her pistol, pointing it around the corner before firing four blind shots at everything or maybe at nothing. She only hoped it would be enough to send the guard scrambling. With the first shot, Ryan hopped into the hall and fired a couple more times. At least one round must have hit its mark; she heard the sound of the infiltrator sinking against the wall and falling to the floor.

Immediately, they were on the run and sprinting for the door. She had no more than cleared the corner before they heard the woman scream again. This time, there was no question about the meaning behind it. It was pure anguish. It was agony. Almost instantly, another voice cried out along with hers in a horrifying chorus. That voice was male. It was terrible, but it was also relieving. It meant Andy was still alive. There was hope.

Neither one of them paused to acknowledge it, though. There was no time. Ryan stepped in front of the door and swung his body around, delivering a powerful kick. The casing splintered and snapped, pulling away from the jamb as the door burst open. A gunshot rang out, almost in perfect timing with the kick, but there was no accompanying sound of a bullet finding its target. The gun wasn’t aimed toward them.

Ryan pushed through the door with Alison on his heels. Inside the room, a man stood with his back to the doorway. Andy’s crumpled form was at this feet. Blood ran from a wound on his face, pooling on the floor around him. Turning, the man locked eyes with Ryan. It was Derrick Allen, one of Jacob’s protection squad members.

“You’re too late,” Derrick said as he raised his weapon. The two stood like gunslingers in the old West for only a moment before Derrick fired a shot. It missed to Ryan’s left, but it was too late. Ryan fired back, hitting the man square in the chest.

“What did you do?” Alison shouted. “You weren’t supposed to kill him.” She leapt into motion while she was still in mid-sentence, jumping over Derrick and kneeling in front of Andy’s body. It was clear that there was no life in him, but she still had to check. She had to be sure. This wasn’t a time for guessing.

“He’s dead, Alison.”

“I know, damn it. But I need to check before… before… Just give me a second.” She didn’t even want to finish the sentence. As an infiltrator, facing death was a routine part of the job. But you never accepted it; you never resigned yourself to it. No matter how badly the odds were against you, walking into a situation believing you wouldn’t walk out was a death sentence. She would survive this. She had to hope.

Alison pressed her fingers against Andy’s carotid artery, feeling for any sign of a pulse. There was nothing. From behind her, she heard the familiar click of the hammer being drawn back on a pistol. “I’m sorry, Alison. We’re out of time.”

“No,” she said, pushing herself back up into a standing position. “I’ll do it. I need to do it.” She pulled her own weapon from its holster, fumbling with the safety before finally getting it to catch. Her fingers shook like dry leaves clinging to a branch against a cold winter wind.

She glanced over at Sarah as she lie on the ground, her legs pulled up into a fetal position. Her breath was ragged. It came out in short gasps. Her eyes were closed. Unconscious. She was still alive, but barely. “Make sure she lives. At least until… it’s over.”

“I will. Good luck.”

“Goodbye,” she said, a tear spilling over and rolling down her cheek. Alison raised the pistol and put the barrel into her mouth. She only hesitated a moment before pulling the trigger.

He watched Alison rock backwards and collapse and couldn’t hold back the scream. He dropped to his knees, and the sob he had been holding back erupted. This was the most difficult thing he’d ever had to do. He’d been a Timekeeper most of his life, and he’d had to do some difficult things, some terrible things, but nothing could compare to this. But at least this was good. It was right. It was putting things back the way they should be.

Knowing that didn’t make it any easier. She was still his partner. He had spent every day with her for the past three years. She was part of his life. Knowing that they were doing the right thing didn’t change the fact that her lifeless body was on the floor in front of him. It didn’t change the fact that she was gone. It didn’t take away the pain.

Ryan forced himself to tear his eyes away. He looked over at Sarah, very close to being just as dead as Alison. Her eyes were open now, but she wasn’t really looking at him. She stared off into the distance as though she were looking into an abyss. If it weren’t for the sound of her shallow breaths, he would have sworn she had given up. That would be bad. She had to survive, at least for the next few minutes.

He rubbed his fingers across his eyes and then his nose before he rose. “Focus, Wilkins. Get yourself together,” he told himself. Ryan crossed the short distance to where she lay on the cold tile floor. “Sarah, can you hear me?”

Her eyes twitched at the sound of his voice. Her head turned slightly, and her eyes moved toward him, but they had a glassy look that said she wasn’t focusing. She tried to say something, but choked on her words. She coughed, spraying some of the blood and saliva from her mouth before trying again. “Andy.”

“He’s okay, Sarah,” he lied. Andy wasn’t okay, at least as far as she was concerned. “You’ve got to worry about you. I need you to stay with me.”

Another cough. “Dead.”

“Shhh.” Ryan didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know if she had been conscious when it happened, but she knew. She couldn’t give up hope. She mustn’t. Not yet. Not while she had such a tenuous hold on life.

He pulled his phone from his pocket, swiping at the screen to pull up his list of contacts. He found Bob at the top of the list. No last name, just Bob. The number led to a disposable cellphone. Infiltrators were always in the habit of covering their tracks. Especially now, even if it may not matter in a few days. Ryan tapped the name and put the phone to his ear. It rang once and then twice before being picked up.

“It’s done. Sarah is still breathing, and she’s basically conscious, but she isn’t in great shape. I don’t know how long she’ll last… No, I haven’t found it… I’ll be here.” He tapped the screen again to end the call. Now, he had nothing to do but wait. And pray that it worked.


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