The Zero Draft

Writing The Zero Draft Of Your Novel

The Zero DraftAt a Sell More Books Show Summit I attended author Rachael Herron used a term I hadn’t heard before: the zero draft.

By this, she meant the initial very rough draft–so rough you’ll never show it to anyone–of a novel.

That phrase fits my first draft of a novel perfectly.

My zero drafts:

  • ramble
  • include storylines that trail off to nowhere and others that start mid-stream
  • include incorrect character names and characters who disappear
  • are filled with errors.

And that’s the good parts.

For me, though, starting with a zero draft is the most effective way to get a novel written.

What works for me may not work for you, but if you’d like to write faster or are having trouble finishing your novel, why not give it a try.

The Zero Draft Frees You

Though I didn’t use the phrase Zero Draft, for all the books I’ve published, both fiction and non-fiction, it’s exactly what I write first. (Typically I do a rough outline before the draft, but you can write the zero draft on the fly if you’d rather.)

Allowing yourself to write a draft that makes no sense and has all the faults I mentioned above shuts off the editor side of your brain.

It’s the best way I’ve found to write and finish fast because you know the draft will be bad and unreadable. You know you won’t show it to anyone. Ever.

So there’s no reason to go back and fix anything as you write. And there’s no reason not to keep writing all the way to the end.

Plot And The Zero Draft

For me, the zero draft revolves around the plot. I want to get my story on paper so I can see how well it works and improve it later.

This draft is where I see if my rough outline truly works.

Usually the first half follows the outline very well, though I often realize there are gaps I need to fill in so that it makes sense. The climax also usually remains as I expected, at least from a big picture sense.

I know who wins and who loses, so to speak, and often where the climax will happen.

Typically I change what happens from the mid-point to the three-quarter point. Sometimes that’s because my feel for the story and characters changes as I write. Or I realize what I thought would be a dramatic turn doesn’t truly grow out of what came before it or feels dull–like merely more of the same.

On the fly, I try out a new three-quarter turn, making notes in brackets about what might need to change in the pages before.

Because of these changes, the last third of the zero draft is often what I think of as thinner than the first two-thirds.

But that’s okay.

Later I’ll rearrange and expand. My changes to the first two-thirds when I rewrite almost always require that and guide me when I revise the last third.

What Not To Worry About In Your Zero Draft

You can write the zero draft fast because there are a whole host of things that usually slow the writing process that you can ignore:

  • Continuity

This is a big one.

When I write the zero draft, I don’t worry about changing a plot line in the middle of the book. If I’m concerned I’ll be confused later I write a note in brackets and bold, something like: [change so Cyril stalks Tara before she meets him].

This approach saves you from going back and revising the early chapters, or perhaps the first half, of your novel each time you have a new idea.

Skipping those on-going revisions saves you a lot of time if you reach the end and realize you don’t need that character after all, or you’re dropping that sub-plot that seemed so brilliant when you were halfway through.

  • Character Development

To love your story, your reader needs to be engaged with your characters. But the zero draft isn’t the time to worry about that.

If I know the character well and the words flow about that person, I include as much about the character as I want.

But if I simply need a character to fill a certain role–sidekick to the antagonist, alternate suspect in a suspense novel, protagonist’s boss–and I haven’t worked out who that person is, I simply write that character doing whatever it is I need the character to do.

Some characters don’t even get names.

I just finished a zero draft of The Charming Man, Book 2 in my Q.C. Davis series, and I’ve got characters “named” Neighbor1 and Neighbor2.

  • Line Editing

Now and then in a zero draft I’ll craft a sentence or paragraph that does exactly what I need and has a nice ring. Those sometimes survive to the final novel.

Most of the time, though, the lines will be rewritten for one reason or another. Many of them will be cut.

So as long as you’ve got what you need so that you understand it, don’t worry about things like perfect grammar, ideal sentence construction, or using the same word too often.

Just write.

After The Zero Draft

Once you have your zero draft on paper, you’ll probably feel two things:

(1) Happy you finished (so celebrate!)

(2) Overwhelmed about what to do next

Rachael Herron suggests going through the zero draft and writing one sentence on an index card or sticky note for each scene. (You can also do this using Scrivener or some other software that allows you to write the digital equivalent of index cards or post its.)

This process gives you an overview of your plot.

I love this method, as it gives me a chance to see the gaps, the disconnections, and the lack of logic. (Did I mention my zero drafts are awful?)

I then rearrange and make notes on what I need to add.

After that, I revise the zero draft, again focusing mainly on plot but also on adding the characters I need and dropping the ones I don’t. I don’t try to write in depth scenes. My goal is for the story and the cast of characters to make sense.

Once that’s done, I set the book aside for at least a week before I start the real revision process.

Which is a subject for a future article.

Until next time —

L.M. Lilly

P.S. If you’d like to know more about the five-point plot structure I use, or want to try applying it to an outline or rewrite of your novel, download these Free Story Structure Worksheets.

5 thoughts on “Writing The Zero Draft Of Your Novel”

  1. I love the ideas of zero drafts. Your advice is great. I would also like to know word counts of zero drafts. For instance; is it possible to turn, let’s say, 10,000 words into into a 80,000 to 90,000 word novel?

    What is your experience with word counts? Is 10,000 words to low or is anything possible? I guess the latter would be the wishy washy advice.

    1. Some writers do a mix of zero draft and outline where they basically write out what will happen in detail but minus dialogue and with very limited description. In that case, you might then expand 10,000 to 80,000 or so words. If you’re writing scenes (though they may lack much description or need expanded dialogue), and you’re at 10,000 you might be more in the novella territory rather than a full novel. It does depend somewhat on genre, though, as in some genres 40,000 or 50,000 words is considered a full-length novel. (Young adult and some romance categories come to mind.)

  2. So, I just discovered that I was writing a zero draft without knowing it – and this actually makes me feel better because I was like…this has got to be the absolute worst first draft e-v-e-r 🙂

    The zero draft does help with plotting and you can zip through an outline to test things out in longer(ish) hand. I do summarize dialogue as well – brief back-and-forths or saying what they are talking about. My biggest issue, and probably why I’m in this zero draft instead of draft 1, are the characters. Beyond the main chars, I can’t seem to name them or even identify all that I will need along the way. I’m pretty far along in the outline and zero draft but still refer to some chars as ‘gang boy’ or ‘elf leader’ or simply ‘girl’ with a note (need a name here). I get a feeling of the chicken or the egg that drives me insane…do I need to get the plot out there or do I first need to know all of the characters before I can flesh out this plot. This is what stops me on some days…on others I just push forth and use those placeholders for what I think are necessary chars – but it is frustrating and cyclical.

    1. As frustrating as it is, it sounds like you’re on the right track. I hadn’t thought of the chicken/egg comparison to plot v. characters, but it is a key reason I like the zero draft concept. It allows me to go through the plot as I imagine it but not spend too much time if I get to know the characters better and discover something major needs to change. As to which comes first, while I find plot easier to sort out in some ways so I use that as my framework for the zero draft, I sometimes grab a notebook and separately scrawl thoughts about the characters. Then I come back to the zero draft and plot. It’s definitely cyclical. And up and down. Good luck with your novel!

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