My Top Writing Life Hack: Draft Cycling

My Top Writing Life Hack: Draft Cycling

Writing is a highly personalized endeavor. The process that works for one writer might not work for another. That’s why it’s so important to test widely and discover what works best for you.

Some people like to spend months creating a detailed plan before they write a single word of first draft. Others like to hop right in and get moving within hours of a plot bunny whispering new ideas in the ear. Both methods are equally valid and, I think, bear an equal number of pitfalls.

The plotter, for example, may discover something they forgot to account for that forces them to alter their plan. And the pantser might find edits more difficult because they have to unify several less than cohesive lines of thought.

But every writer is trying to head to the same place – a polished story we’re happy to share with the rest of the world. And whatever path you take, you’ll eventually settle into a rhythm that works for you. (Or at least, doesn’t work against you.)

I think most writing hacks are actually productivity hacks. There aren’t really any shortcuts to good storytelling. But I have picked up one writing habit that feels a lot like a life hack, and it has served me well on several occasions. I didn’t invent it; I just sort of stumbled upon it. But it works well enough for me, I feel it’s worth sharing.

Lots of people ask me how I write such long-running series. (Eternity’s Empire is 8 books. The Celestial Serenade is likely to eventually be 12. And the Aruvalia Chronicles will ring in at a whopping 15 installments.) The short answer is that my brain doesn’t do short stories. But the trick to tying it all together, I think, is draft cycling.

What is Draft Cycling?

Each part of the writing process is complicated in its own way. Some people don’t like rough drafting, for example, because it feels chaotic and unpredictable. I actually love the drafting process because I love discovering the story as I put it on the page. For me, there’s nothing quite like the act of raw creation, drawing thoughts out of the air and making them concrete with words.

I feel like I could rough draft forever and never get bored. But then I wouldn’t be able to publish a lot of books. Because my initial drafts come out of my fingers a veritable train wreck of typos, horrible clichés and missing subplots. Without edits, they would never be fit for other eyes.

For me, editing is the hardest part of the process. I find it exhausting to tear my work to pieces and rebuild it better. Possibly because I attempt to perform every part of the process at one time (line edits, polish and story edits). But if I had to do more passes to fit it all in, I’d probably never finish a book either. As a result, I don’t like to spend more than a few months in editing mode, or my spark starts to wane.

In order to keep from getting too bogged down in any one part of the process, I switch back and forth between the three – writing, editing and polishing. After I write something, I go back and edit something I recently finished. And after I finish an edit, I polish a draft I’ve recently edited (hopefully after it’s had some beta feedback).

This is draft cycling in a nutshell.

Room to Breathe

My basic unit for my large series is a trilogy. This means that after I write the second trilogy, I go back and edit the first. And after I write the third trilogy, I go back to edit the second, then subsequently polish the first. (When I write the first trilogy, I usually have a previous series to finish, so some of the tips in this blog post don’t always apply to the cycle.)

What are the primary benefits of draft cycling?

Well the first and simplest is that it gives me a chance to take a break from each part of the writing process. Even the part I consider my favorite.

The best way to ensure something feels fresh and new is to take breaks. All things in moderation, as they say. And since creativity is a cycle, breaks can help refresh not just the energy well we use to perform creative tasks, but also the idea well we use to weave our tales.

Using the end of a trilogy or a book as the switching point helps me plan my schedule and set my goals. For me, editing is a lot easier if I know I’m only going to be at it for a few months before I get to write something fresh and new.

For me, draft cycling also makes sure that each part of the process gets the proper amount of attention. Otherwise I might rush through edits so I can start writing the next portion of my project and end up missing important details. Going through each scene once at each portion of the process keeps me on track (and on schedule)!

Dropping Breadcrumbs

One of the biggest – and for me most unexpected – benefits of draft cycling, is the ability to retroactively seed details through the earlier installments in my series. I do plan my plots before I draft. But I also let my characters to run wild and change details as I go.

While I usually have a rough idea of where my series are ultimately going to end up, I rarely know all the details ahead of time. I don’t like my series to feel like a random group of stories strung together as an afterthought. I like to plant little details in the early books that eventually pay off in later installments. Which is extremely hard to do if I don’t know what’s going happen in book 8 before I write book 1.

But since I know I’m going to edit the previous installments of the series, I can brazenly establish new details in later books. I simply make a note during the drafting process, then swing back and sew the breadcrumbs for the big reveal into the series’ earlier installments during my next editing pass.

I’m not going to lie, this makes me feel like a genius. It’s a lot easier to write foreshadowing into previous books if I know exactly what happens in the future. It’s way easier than trying to make my characters tell me their whole story before I start writing. And the best part is, there’s no way for readers to tell those details weren’t included all along unless I fess up to the later additions.

And since I always do at least one last polishing pass before publishing, and try to at least draft all the books in a series before the first one goes to print, nothing slips through the cracks.

Handy Dandy Fallbacks

That last trick works in both directions, as a matter of fact. It’s hard to keep track of all the nitty gritty little details of a long series, even if you keep detailed notes (like I try to). I can’t count the number of times I read back through an older draft and exclaim, “Oh yeah! I forgot about this!”

But since I’m always scrolling back through older drafts to spruce them up, there’s always a handful of little details fresh in my mind when I start the next installment in a series. So if I need a helpful magical item that won’t feel out of place, I can call back to the magical mcguffin from book 5, which I have helpfully just read about during my last editing pass.

Pulling minor details, characters and places forward in the series instead of making up new stuff every time also helps the series feel like a more coherent whole. It’s important, of course, to balance between new and returning details so the world continues to feel fresh. But it hopefully makes it seem like I did spend months meticulously planning each book before starting the first – without having to actually commit the time to the pre-drafting stage.

This is the closest thing to a writing hack in my personal arsenal. Honestly, it saves me a lot of stress to know I can roam freely through each book in a series and make it all come together in the end.

What’s your favorite writing trick?

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