There Ain’t No Road Too Long

Everything I need to know, I learned from Follow That Bird.

Everything I need to know, I learned from Waylon.

I had never heard of the concept of a zero draft before I started hanging out with The Confabulators. It is a nice idea. The zero draft  gives you permission to write garbage and worry about sorting it into recyclable materials later. However, I’ve never had an issue with my willingness to write garbage. The term isn’t that helpful, and honestly, I find it to be a bit cutesy.

Personally, I don’t ascribe numbers to drafts. There is no first, second, third, fourth, etc. There is only “in-progress” and “completed.” Think of it long the lines of a Claude Levi-Strauss binary opposition (come on, linguists, I know you are out there). How do I know it is in-progress? Because, it isn’t completed. But, how will I know when it is completed? Because, it won’t be in-progress anymore. Numbering drafts just makes me self-conscious if the number is too small or two large. I don’t like giving my writing a stigma just because one story took me twelve drafts and another was finished with a spelling check. The journey determines the road. Sometimes you are just going out for a drive. Sometimes, you pack a lunch.

So, how do I go from in-progress to complete? I begin by thinking about characters. Are they three dimensional? Are they who I want them to be in order to serve my overall vision? If not, I think of how to bring them up to snuff. Why start with characters? Characters affect plot. I will have to utilize my plot in order to show my characters. If I don’t have them right where I want them, I won’t know what needs to happen in the plot. My first read through will address characters.

Once I have the characters nailed down and squealing, I address the plot structure. Are the scenes or events ordered and structured in the most effective and efficient way? If they aren’t, I change them around. I want the least number of scenes to do the most amount of work.

Next, I concentrate on dialogue. Do my characters have their own voices? Does the dialogue sound real? Now, here is a warning on realistic dialogue. Dialogue should be realistic in the way that Monet painted water lilies. They are obviously water lilies. They look like water lilies, but you are going to have to make some aesthetic adjustments. Real people talk ugly.

Last, I break down sentence structures, eliminate needless words, and fix that damned spelling that has glared at me through four readings. There was a time when I burned through words like a Hummer does gasoline. I got over it. These days, I want to be a word-efficient machine. It’s like scented candles. A little bit goes a long way. Too much and you’ll see me crawling along the floor for the exit, gagging on the chemically-mimicked scent of rose blossoms.

When I have addressed all of those issues, I consider the work ready for its first readers. By no means have I graduated to “complete,” but I am on my way there. This entire process will be repeated over and over until it feels finished.

It’s a long road from in-progress to complete. But like Waylon Jennings told Big Bird, “Once you’ve set your heart to moving on, there ain’t no road too long.”

Jack Campbell, Jr. is a dark fiction writer in Lawrence, KS. His writing has appeared in various venues including Twenty 3 Magazine, Danse Macabre, and Insomnia Press. He writes about reading, writing, and life on his blog at

1 Comment

  • This is a method I’ve used with my most recent novel. I got so caught up in writing a chapter, editing then re-reading the edits that it messed with the flow of my previous novel. I read another blog where an author used a similar method to yours for writing and tried it. I just finished the skeleton, start to finish and now I’m going through with my first pass. But who’s counting. By the way Follow that Bird is one of our household favorites!

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