My debut novel, Red Soil Through Our Fingers, is one step closer to publication! Thanks to the excellent feedback I got in response to Draft Alpha, I was able to implement a number of much-needed revisions. Draft Beta went out last night with several structural changes, a more streamlined set of character arcs, and over 6,000 words of “deepening”… character backstory, fleshed out relationships, more windows into emotional reactions of POV characters, and higher stakes for scene-level character motivations.
At every stage of the novel writing process, I’ve learned something new about the craft and about the nature of my own writing. One of the main things I learned about my approach to writing during the last revision cycle is that my stories are very idea-driven. I have a message or statement that I am trying to make, and in the early stages of drafting the story, that idea or message takes precedence over all else. I think this is fine for a Draft Zero — whatever it takes to get the first draft done. But for later drafts, this approach presents me with specific challenges when trying to make the novel into something worth reading.
Most people don’t read a story for its ideas. They read a story for… well, the story. Relate-able characters, who they are as people, how they suffer for what they want or believe, and what their success or failure teaches us about the human condition. A character-driven approach to writing would insist that the story needs to be primarily about the characters, not about the idea. Otherwise, we might as well read a nonfiction essay about the idea. From the reader’s perspective, the book must give the impression that the events of the story are a direct result of the characters living out their lives and making decisions consistent with their internal motivations. Character motivations first, with the plot and themes arising as a consequence.
While I certainly agree with the philosophy of character-driven fiction as perceived by the reader of the final product, I do not actually write my stories in that order. I start with a premise and message that I want to send, write a first draft based on those ideas (which tends to be “plot driven”) usually based on placeholder characters. I then deepen these characters afterward, giving them motivations and stories that will result in the storyline I want. In a sense, it is reverse engineering the plot to arrive at characters with motivations that would arrive at the desired outcome. To the most loyal adherents to the character-driven approach to fiction (including my wife), this approach may border on blasphemy. However, I would (and do) argue that a careful approach can lead to the same experience for the reader as stories written from a purely character-driven approach.
My method does mean I have a lot of character work to do in later drafts. Every single reader of Draft Alpha included as part of the critique a request for more character backstory, deeper and more nuanced relationships between characters, and heightened personal stakes (for all characters, but especially POV characters). In propagating those changes forward, many aspects of the plot were affected, and did change in response to the deepened characters.
Most books on writing that I’ve read suggest that revision and editing should be mostly a process of removal. “First draft – 10% = second draft” goes one rule of thumb. Certainly, I cut out a lot of excess words (and even whole scenes) between Draft Alpha and Draft Beta. But Red Soil actually grew by a net of over 6000 words despite the cuts, reflective of the intense investment in characters I’ve had to do in revision.
I don’t have the experience to know which approach is really better for me, since this is my first time going through the process for a novel-length story. I hope to document the process as much as I can, and perhaps compare to other approaches I may take in the future.
Can’t wait for Draft Beta feedback!