First Draft in 30 Days by Karen Wiesner

"First Draft in 30 Days"

FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS is a misnomer. Wiesner’s book is not designed to help writers quickly finish a first draft. Following her method step-by-step will only produce a healthy outline. Wiesner insists that a finished outline is as good as a rough draft, but they are not the same thing. At all.

Moreover, Wiesner doesn’t seem to understand that there are two kinds of novelists with very different approaches to writing. “Plotters” love outlines and use them for every story. “Pantsers” prefer to write by the seat of their pants. I have seen pantsers try to become plotters. It’s painful. They feel like they are locking their muses in a cage. Even if pantsers force themselves to produce an outline, they never follow it anyway. I must assume up front that FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS is not for them.

That leaves plotters like me. I love outlines the way Elmo loves his crayons.  To me, an outline isn’t a cage. It’s a comfortable house for my muse to live in. You can imagine how excited I was to try out Wiesner’s detailed method.

I lasted about a week before the worksheets and schedules and character studies and scene notes and nitpicky formatting guidelines sucked every bit of creative joy from my work.

So I tried jumping ahead. I wanted to make a solid outline without color-coding or timelines or other tedious stuff. But by modifying Wiesner’s method, I ended up writing the exact outline I would have written anyway. So why was I wasting a month of my writing time on this?

Even a complete outline isn’t complete in Wiesner’s world. Once finished, it has to be broken apart and “tagged.” Plot, subplot, tension, goal all have to be separated out. Then it has to be broken down by character and then chronologically. Why? Unless the book is a complex thriller that depends on the split-second timing of characters’ movements, I can’t imagine how this would be helpful.

I feel for Wiesner. I really do. She found a method that worked for her and wants to share it with everyone. But we’re quirky people. What works for one writer rarely works for another. FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS does a great job of explaining one outlining method in a clear–even inspiring–way. The flaw is not in the execution, but in the concept. Those who are pantsers won’t be converted by this book and those who are plotters already know everything that’s contained in its pages.

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rating: 2 stars

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pie slices: 8 slices craft

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This book is best for: beginning writers

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I recommend Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder or Plot by Ansen Dibell instead of this book

9 thoughts on “First Draft in 30 Days by Karen Wiesner

  1. You contend that my intention with FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS was to mislead readers into thinking they’ll have a completed novel in 30 days–that they’ll come out of the 30 days required to complete the process detailed in FIRST DRAFT with nothing more than an outline, not a first draft. The term “first draft” was explained in-depth in the first chapter of the book (and most of the chapters afterward, if they were read thoroughly) as the complete framework of your novel. If a complete framework of the novel isn’t the first draft of a novel, I really don’t know what is.

    An outline isn’t a novel in the standard terms defining a novel. Your first draft is in outline form, not yet a fully realized manuscript. The first time you sit down to begin the actual writing process after completing a “first draft” outline, you will create your second—and in some cases, final—draft. (I also call this your first full draft.) The outline isn’t something you could show an editor or agent, even if you’ve been working with them for years. Unless you have critique partners who are willing read something so rough, even they may have trouble seeing your vision as clearly as you will when your outline is complete. An outline won’t contain the polished prose that a novel will, but it is the complete framework of your novel, and that’s why it’s so invaluable to start with one. Polished prose comes in the actual writing. So, yes, your outline is the full concept of your novel, scene by scene, but, no, it’s not a novel since in most cases it’s written in a getting-down-the-basics way—-it’s not written in the same manner a novel is. An outline and a novel are completely different methods of writing, but with my method, the big picture of your novel is achieved without endless revising of hundreds of pages.

    The point of an outline is to get the novel out, scene-by-scene, in as much detail as possible. When using your outline to write the book, you will be more careful about how your words work on the page, but I find myself viewing my first actual draft much more leniently. Because I used such a complete outline and worked all the kinks out of the story during the process, I know everything I need is there. I use the first actual draft as a means of just getting the story written. Once that first draft is done, then I worry about the words and go over my manuscript carefully, polishing and layering the depth of details and characterization.

    Let’s set forth the usual method used by most writers for getting to a manuscript polished enough to send to an editor: Little or no pre-writing on a novel is done. The author has an idea—-an idea that may or may not be terribly well-developed in his head. Generally, there’s a lot or a little brainstorming involved in this process. One day the author sits down and writes Chapter One. Now, if this author is a crash-and-burn type who doesn’t need to eat, sleep or leave the house, he could conceivably finish this novel in a short amount of time—-maybe a month or two, possibly less. But, let’s face it, most of us do need to eat, sleep, leave the house occasionally, not to mention pay some attention to our family. A draft of a novel will take anywhere from 4 months to a year or more to write. What does this author do now that he has that first draft? Well, now he starts on the hard part of this whole writing process most writers use. He got the easy part of the way and left himself with the torturous work of untangling, sorting out, revising and polishing up these 300 or more pages. Many authors who employ this method of working may need to do multiple drafts or revisions to get to an editor-quality manuscript. Also consider that most authors obsess over every word, before they write it, while they write, and after they write it. They’re revising pretty much all of the time! I’d venture a guess that an author like this does 100% more work than he really needs to.

    Now, let’s look at how the process of writing a novel should be in the ideal: The author has spent a considerable amount of time—-maybe, hopefully, even years—-brainstorming on a particular idea for a story. He may have also written quite a few notes on this idea. Now, it’s time put it all together. He starts with the basics of pre-writing (see FIRST DRAFT IN 30 DAYS for specifics on what constitutes a preliminary outline or pre-writing). With these elements, his pre-writing is done. It’s time to put all of that into a formal outline. He writes Chapter One at the top of the page, sets the scene, and writes a draft of what happens in that scene using any of the pre-writing he’s already completed. He writes Chapter Two at the top of a new page, sets the scene, and writes a draft of what happens in that scene. Chapter Three… and so on. He goes as far as he can in the story, working his way chronologically from the beginning of the book to the end. When he can no longer work chronologically, he skips around, working on scenes that will come in at some later point in the book, and so the middle and end of his book begins to gain some structure. As he’s working, all his pre-writing elements are getting expanded on considerably, taking on layers of richness, complexity and depth. He keeps working like this until his outline contains every single scene he’ll have in his novel. Then he goes back over his outline and fills in the holes, fleshes out the scenes with dialogue, introspection, action, descriptions, appropriate tension in all its wondrous forms. You see, this isn’t simply an outline. This is unmistakably the first draft of your novel. This outline is approximately a quarter of the size of the completed novel. An outline like this is includes every single one of the plot threads, unfurled with the correct pacing and the necessary tension from start to finish. All of those plot threads develop and conclude logically. When I write a novel, I never have to face a sagging middle, deflated tension, a poorly constructed plot thread or weak characterization because all those problems are fixed in the outline stage. I revise my outline until it’s completely solid. I work out the kinks in my story in the outline stage, and I secure for myself that the writing and revision of my novel will be the easy part of the process. With a situation like this, you do all your hard work first, and you never need to duplicate any part of the process.
    Generally writers start and finish a story off the top of their heads. That first draft is probably not strong enough to be considered a final draft. In fact, it’ll probably need to be completely re-written and polished multiple times.

    Throughout each of these drafts, the author is obsessing over every little word and creating a considerable amount of work for herself–work that doesn’t have to be so intensive, time-consuming, or duplicated more than once. With the 30-day method, it’s the complete opposite. You don’t waste effort or re-do steps. Everything is done once. What you end up with is a polished, clean novel produced in less than half the time (and certainly with a lot less effort) than previously required. That said, the first couple of times you use this method, it may take you much longer than 30 days to complete the outline. It may seem like a lot of work, but it will get easier. And eventually it probably will shave off a considerable amount of time from your annual schedule once you get into the 30-day flow of outlining on all of your projects.

    As for the “30 days aspect”, all that as well as the schedules were a great hook that my publisher wanted to use, and I think they work very well for that reason and for the reason that I think all authors could use a challenge. Though the schedules weren’t something I originally intended as part of my outlining method, they do give clear direction on what to do and how to progress each day. That said, the 30-day method is very adaptable. My hope is that each author will use it in the way that most benefits him or her. If, after repeated use, you’re still finding them far too hard to stick to, set your own schedule accordingly. You might enjoy the challenge though.

    To those who are seat-of-the-pantsers, you’re really not alone and you can try to be more of a plotter. It’s how I started, and it was horrendous trying to break out of that. I didn’t have any guidelines for it either. I went from 12 start-to-finish overalls of each story, down to about 4 of those over the course of many, many years. I never sold anything or had much interest from publishers or agents during that time. Then I got pregnant, and not long afterward a publisher offered a contract. (I know the beginning of FIRST DRAFT talks about this briefly, but here’s a bigger version that will probably make many of you think you’re not so seat-of-the-pants as you originally thought. How can you do much worse than 12 full drafts per book?) My version of an outline before I started a novel was very rudimentary, nothing like you see in FIRST DRAFT–it took me about 2 or 3 years to get to the point of being able to outline a novel from start to finish without writing a word of the actual novel. At first, I had to do the outlining and writing in tandem just to progress the story. But, as this method in FIRST DRAFT developed, I was able to see the whole of the story so much more clearly than ever before. I think part of it was that, when you don’t write with an outline, you get very focused on scenes. Specific scenes. When you write with an outline, you’re viewing a much bigger picture. It takes time for your methods to adapt to a huge change like this. Remember, I didn’t have a guideline. In FIRST DRAFT you now have that guideline, but you’re also going to be adapting that to your own methods, so it’s going to be that much more easier for you, even if it does take you a couple novels to really get your own strategy down.

    I don’t expect every author to find FIRST DRAFT helpful for them personally. Some authors simply can’t work in a way as organized as this method requires. I fully accept that. If they’ve found something that works for them, I’m happy!

    The pre-writing in Chapter Two of FIRST DRAFT–including character, setting and plot sketches, summaries of the beginning, middle and end–is really designed to get writers thinking about areas that they’ve always seen as part of the whole, but never separately before. In the beginning, I needed to perform all of those steps as I learned how to sufficiently develop each aspect of a book. But I’ve now worked with this method so often on so many different books that a lot of it has become instinct for me. I understand the importance of solid characterization now whereas I really was flying blind in the beginning. I understand now how well-placed descriptions can really enhance all the other parts of a book. I understand plot as separate from the romance relationship, which was something that was so hard for me when I could only write romance novels with little conflict outside of character growth development. Because so much of this has become instinctive for me, I really don’t formally complete setting sketches or plot sketches anymore. I do those things within the framework of my research and then the formal outlining. The same goes for the summary outline, miscellaneous scene notes and closing scene notes. I do these things within the framework of the formatted outline. What you really want to do with the pre-writing is use it as much as you need to until each aspect becomes instinctive for you and you’re able to perform the steps within the formal outlining. That’s your goal with the FIRST DRAFT method.

    If we have some blanks on the forms should we keep forging ahead or hold until we figure out what to put there? Always forge ahead. Don’t stop for any particular step in the pre-writing and if you use the story evolution worksheet–yes, I did say “if” because the story evolution worksheet is not required unless you have problems and/or find it helpful to use early on. If it works for you to use the story evolution worksheet as you plot your novel from start to finish, great. Then it’ll prove to be a valuable tool for you. If it doesn’t work at this early stage in your outlining, try using it later in your project instead. I consider the story evolution worksheet a remedy for when you run into trouble while outlining or after you’ve completed a project that didn’t quite work. This worksheet should help you push forward or to pinpoint exactly where your story problems lie. At that point, it’ll be really helpful. For now, skip it as a step in the outlining process if it’s not helpful here, and try using it later if you run into problems. Even when you’re forging ahead, part of that will be backtracking because it will help you push forward in your outlining.

    I believe you don’t see your outline as a place that you can–and should!–explore new characters, new plot threads, etc. This book might help you change your way of looking at an outline. An outline is an absolutely ideal place to explore new characters and new plot threads. A few years ago, I was working on the outline for one of my series novels. This was actually a book that was with me for more than ten years. While I’d written a couple drafts of it (all before I got into working with outlines), the story was still extremely rough and there were several blind spots for me in it. But I wanted to get going on the outline because the relationship and characters, as well as some of the basic plot, were already in my head and I figured I’d work it all out eventually. I worked over a period of about a week. During that time, I managed to outline the entire book except the very end. I ran into a lot of problems at that point because I was starting to see that I had some possibly extraneous characters who were playing pretty major roles (in one case, I realized I could a use certain character, but I needed to cast him in a whole new role within the story) and my basic plot wasn’t working the way I’d hoped it would. While I was working out the outline during this time, I’d had some vague ideas about different directions I could take with the plot that might make it stronger. After spending a good amount of time brainstorming on how these might work, it became clear that I wouldn’t be able to use maybe a dozen, in the end probably two dozen scenes, I’d already outlined. Everything around these scenes was good–the relationship and characters were solid–so it wasn’t a total loss. The next day, I went in and I deleted the scenes that I knew I wasn’t going to be able to use. Took maybe a half hour to delete just those draft of scenes. Then I started laying in my new plot line, deleting a character I knew no longer worked in the story, and setting the groundwork for the new role the other character I mentioned above would be filling. By the end of the day, I pretty much had the outline back to the same point it’d been prior to realizing that my some original ideas weren’t work. The next day, I kept going over my outline, filling in the areas that had been fuzzy the day before with new ideas. I kept pushing closer to completing that last 1/4th of the book. If I got stuck again, it was easy enough to delete the scenes I suspected were causing the problems and brainstorm on stronger ideas for them.

    Now, after having read this scenario, do you see the huge benefit of exploring new characters and plotlines in an outline rather than writing the book and trying to working these things out at the same time? I lost maybe a day or two backtracking by deleting bad ideas and coming up with new ideas. If I’d skipped the outline and went directly to writing the book, I would have spent at least a month getting 3/4 of a book written and then having to delete over half of it because it wasn’t strong enough. I’d have to re-write probably a good portion of it from scratch. Even then, I probably would revise the whole thing multiple times until the book finally came together. If could conceivably take months, maybe even years, to complete a single book working like this. Keep in mind, too, that writers will obsess over every word, every sentence, every paragraph as they’re writing a novel. So, not only are they trying to figure the novel out as they write it, they’re trying to make it perfect at the same time. Needless to say, this is not very productive.

    An outline is a mini version of your book–it contains every single scene your full novel will on a much smaller scale. It’s a complete snapshot of your novel, which means that if you realize halfway through or even all the way through outlining a book that a lot of your ideas for it aren’t working, it’s just a matter of deleting the offensive scenes and starting again in a new direction. You’re talking a change that should take you days instead of months or years to turn around. The point of an outline is to set down the basic events that happen from one scene to the next. You can worry about polishing the words when you should–after you’ve written the book based on a solid outline and, preferably, you’ve spent enough time away from the story to see it with fresh eyes. This is productivity in the ideal, but it’s within every writer’s grasp if we can change our rigid ideas of what an outline is or can be. Use your outline to explore any angle you want. If new characters crop up, wonderful! Include them. If they’re not right for the story, getting rid of them won’t take you much time at all. Explore a new plot thread–follow wherever it takes you. If it’s a logical thread, keep it! If it’s not, delete it. You’ll only lose a little time, and your story will be stronger for it.

    Finally, I want to say that the goal of all writing methods is get to the instinctive stage in writing when you don’t have to use all these worksheets. The second goal of all writing methods is to find the best way of working for you. If some of the steps in FIRST DRAFT don’t seem helpful to you (the tagging and tracing are only for writers who need to see the elements of their story this way so they can “trace” them from beginning to end), then don’t do them. Do the bare minimum to get the story working, and find the most effective method of getting it done.

    Karen Wiesner
    http://www.karenwiesner.com
    http://www.firstdraftin30days.com

  2. An outline is not a draft. An expanded outline is not a draft. An intense deep outline is not a draft. An outline is an outline. A draft is a draft. I don’t understand conflating the two when they are clearly different creatures altogether.

  3. I confess, I’m a little confused here–possibly not as confused as Ms. Wiesner–but puzzled nonetheless. It appears that while she materially disagrees with the review, her response reiterates and reinforces the analysis within the review…
    I agree; we certainly have everything we’ll ever need about her book from her response.
    [Suggestion for her follow-up: No title yet, but, “Chapter One: Not Responding to Literary Criticism–Sixty Seven Reasons Why It Is a Bad Idea.”]

  4. I have to wonder if the book is even as long as the author’s response to this post. hahaha. Seriously though, wow. I had a hard time reading through all of that.

  5. Could someone please write that book on author etiquette? That would be awesome. Sadly, I don’t foresee the target audience purchasing it for themselves. Perhaps a copy gifted anonymously? 😉

    As a side note, I am a pantser and have completed a fairly decent novel in 3 weeks—while working a full-time job. Thing is, even if I’d outlined the thing, it would still have required several revisions as each time I added a depth to the characters as I got to know the people and world of my book better.

    There are very few (practically none but genius writers) who can churn out brilliant literature by outlining and writing one draft. Writers who use that method are sometimes called “hacks.” There’s nothing wrong with that, and a lot of writers do really well with it, but it’s a case of focusing on plot versus characterization and language.

  6. I read the First Draft in book. I liked her book on series better, it had more useful info. for me. I like outlines, but mine is pretty organic and I don’t detail to death. I expect tangents when I write. I don’t see my characters suffering from the outline, they still do what they please!

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