Zero Drafting

It’s amazing how many words one can put down when one is trying not to care about them.

It’s impossible for me not to care at all–on a computer, I am constantly making small changes in word choice or in small additions or deletions that I might not even consciously notice. But the goal with “zero drafting” is to get the words down as fast as possible by focusing on the story rather than the crafting of the prose. The psychological aspect is that calling it “zero” instead of “first” helps me to ignore my inner editor.

Of course,”story” and “prose” are inextricable in a way I’m not sure I can explain; it’s just something I feel is true. But at the same time, “story” can be pared down to mean simply “things that happen” and “characters they happen to.” For zero drafting, I write scenes that I think ought to have happened to my characters, in order to see if their behavior in those scenes seems consistent and interesting. I think of zero draft as “figuring stuff out on the page.”

The important bit is that all of this zero draft is subject to change. If it doesn’t work, out it goes, no harm, no foul. Some things might linger in the manuscript for a really long time, only to be cut when I’m almost done. That doesn’t matter. Those words will have served their “figuring out” purpose.

I normally cut thousands of words, possibly as many as fifty thousand, over the course of writing a novel of maybe 100,000 words. So I might as well not stress too much over wordcount while I’m figuring things out.

At the same time, attaining large wordcounts every day while drafting gives me a sense of accomplishment that’s hard to beat. Part of this is “figuring out” seems to take more words than refined, edited prose. I’m stopping action scenes in the middle and writing down infodumps, made up on the spot, for my own information. I’m describing things that might be peripheral to the scene going on, because I realized I know what something ought to look like and I don’t want to forget about it. And I’m writing scenes that I might not need to show in the final product; they might be backstory, or irrelevant except to my backbrain.

It feels wasteful. But if I don’t struggle through the zero draft, the story won’t get written at all. You can’t revise what you haven’t written.

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About Victoria Janssen

Victoria Janssen [she, her] currently writes cozy space opera for Kalikoi. The novella series A Place of Refuge begins with Finding Refuge: Telepathic warrior Talia Avi, genius engineer Miki Boudreaux, and augmented soldier Faigin Balfour fought the fascist Federated Colonies for ten years, following the charismatic dissenter Jon Churchill. Then Jon disappeared, Talia was thought dead, and Miki and Faigin struggled to take Jon’s place and stay alive. When the FC is unexpectedly upended, Talia is reunited with her friends and they are given sanctuary on the enigmatic planet Refuge. The trio of former guerillas strive to recover from lifetimes of trauma, build new lives on a planet with endless horizons, and forge tender new connections with each other.
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3 Responses to Zero Drafting

  1. Jenna Reynolds says:

    I’ve never heard the term “zero draft”, but the concept is intriguing. I just did a post on my blog about writing first drafts and how much I hate writing them, but the idea of calling it a zero draft instead of a first draft is interesting.

    But you are so right. You can’t revise what isn’t written and that’s what I tell myself as I write that initial draft, painful as the process is for me.

  2. Victoria Janssen says:

    I got the name from someone in my workshop, back when it first started around 2000; she had it from a previous group, and nobody was sure where the name originated. But I love the concept. Weird that calling the draft something else makes such a difference.

  3. janni says:

    I call it the exploratory draft, but the principle is the same …

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