Three domains for awesome reading: good characters, good plot, good prose.
I would contend that truly stellar writing excels in three domains: it has excellent characterization, the plot keeps you coming back for more, and the prose itself is to die for.1
I would also contend that generally writers tend to have a comfort zone–one of these three domains is easier to write and comes more naturally than the others.
When I was just starting to write, I got really hung up on trying to nail all three domains right out of the gate every single time. Because that’s what it took, right?
Well, yes and no. Yes, that what it takes for a finished piece of writing to succeed. But that will pretty much make it impossible for me, personally, to get through a first draft of anything. So, in order to have something to polish, something to finish in the first place, I had to stop overthinking it. I had to get that first draft done, get it out, on paper, all the way through.
The way I see it, you’re not going to get to what I call “optimal writing,” or that primo grade-A book-hangover read-until-way-past-your-bedtime stuff until the polished final draft anyway. By then, you already know what kind of book you’re writing. See how in that graphic up there the optimal writing is buried deep in the center? That’s because it’s hard to get to. You have to chart a path.
My advice is this: in the first draft, play to you strengths and write fast by starting in your comfort zone. In the second draft, when you have a better idea of what you’re actually doing with the piece, fill in the gaps with the thing you’re second best at. Save the hardest for last. That’s the the part you wait until the endgame for. That’s the polish. You do that third, very hard thing while you’ve really nailed down the other two. By then you know the book like the back of your hand. You’ve got the rhythm down, the themes laid out. You know what you’re doing with it. Your writing isn’t exploratory anymore, so with this last piece it’s more targeted revisions.
An Example: How I Wrote Ariah
The B R Sanders: Start with characters, take a sharp right at plots, just barely squeak into good writing. BAM! That’s how I wrote ARIAH.
I’m a very character-driven writer. Virtually all my narratives start first with an idea of a character, then with a complication in the form of a relationship. The cast forms, radiating out from one or two key characters who I understand in minute, intricate detail. I often don’t even have notes about these central characters. I just know them. Ariah, Sorcha, Shayat–I never had to write anything down, or plan anything out, or keep anything straight. I just, weirdly, knew them.
But all the other characters in Ariah had dossiers as I started drafting the book, because they were fuzzier and needed filling in. They were less organically alive, less vibrant (which is maybe why it wasn’t their story) so I made those notes.
I didn’t really get the plot of Ariah right until the second draft. I didn’t really know what the book was about until then, but I sure as hell knew who was in it. I wrote it, let it sit for a while, and re-read it. I made notes to myself on the re-read about plot stuff. Again, it happened naturally–I think of the three domains plot building is my second best. And I outlined a better, stronger plot for the book, which I followed almost to the letter in the revisions.
And then there was description. Not my strong suit. I…punted. I do not consider myself a stylist. I would say I have a sturdy, workable prose style. I tend to read my own writing for grammar and comprehension. I do not fiddle with my sentence. That way, for me, lies madness. They will never be perfect enough. So, I made sure the draft was coherent (in that the action seemed descriptive enough, and the dialogue was easy to follow, as it had tags that told you who was speaking–things that my first draft lacked in places), and subbed the book. My truly excellent editor was wonderful at pointing out which places needed more description and which needed a little less. Where my writing hit the Optimal Writing Zone instead of lingering in the murky green good characterization/satisfying plot wilderness, she probably had a hand in.
Ok, So What Does This Mean For You?
The Raymond Chandler: You start with the plot (a wicked detailed outline, mayhaps?), then branch out into characters. Polish up that prose, then head straight to the promised land.
But lo! That is just one way to get to the Optimal Writing Promised Land. Your route might be different. The technique–start where it’s easy, and push through to where it’s hardest–might be the same, but your starting point and ending point are likely different than mine. I’ve come up with a couple of alternatives in the graphics here, but really, the possibilities are endless.
The beauty of writing–of any art–is that there’s no one way to do it. There’s as many ways to get the art done as there are artists. But getting started is always hard. Writing a book is a daunting process. Breaking it down into those general steps–First Draft, Second Draft, Polish–makes it more manageable for me. And assigning a general skill to each one to focus on and get right in the draft–Characters, Plot, Description–helps make it even more manageable.
The Anne Rice: You write very long descriptions of furniture before venturing into Prairie of Plot. You edge into Optimal Writing picking up characterization almost by accident.
It’s made me a better writer in the long run. I trust my characterization more with each first draft I crank out. I know, with certainty, that’s my great strength as a writer. I know I’m getting better at plotting: it’s easier to manage every time I do it. And I’m growing as a stylist, too. I’m getting a knack for knowing what to include and what not to include. I am sometimes impressed by my turns of phrase when I read my own first drafts. The reason I’m improving is because this system helps me write more–get to the finish line and cross it. It exercises all three skills, which means everything gets a little better every time.
1Your mileage may vary as to what each of these actually consists of, but good writing generally has all three present for it to work.
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