Zero Draft, or 5 Steps to Writing the Crappiest First Draft You Can

Z is for Zero Drafts.

This is a new term for me. I'd always called my first drafts "first drafts," but now that I've been introduced to "zero drafts," I like that much, much better.

Having a zero draft like having a hibernating squirrel. Okay, an unusual simile, I admit. But, as your zero draft slumbers like a cute little squirrel (see picture below), your mind gathers thoughts and ideas for it, even when you think you are ignoring it, your mind isn't.

Hibernating Arctic Ground Squirrel.
Photo from Kelly Drew, UAF
A zero draft is a pre-first draft. In other words, it's a draft that you allow to be so crappy that it's not even worth the dignity of being called a first draft. In still other words, it's kind of like that NaNoWriMo novel you have sitting somewhere on your word processor...

But what goes into writing a zero draft? Well, there are several things, and I've taken the liberty of breaking it down into a few steps below which I tend to follow. (These steps are, by no means, set in stone.)

When writing a piece of non-fiction, it's inherent that you'll have to do a lot of research. But what about a piece of fiction? It might come as a surprise, but there can be a lot of research done for a fiction novel as well. Not all authors "write what they know." And, even if they do, most likely, they'll come to a point where they're going to have to Google something or go to the library.

Working with the definition of "a zero draft is a draft an author writes before the first draft," I've outlined the following steps:

Photo Source
STEP 1. Choose your Subject.

STEP 2. Recognize your ignorance on said Subject.

STEP 3. Collect as much research as you care to on Subject.

STEP 4. Select what research will be included in your novel.

STEP 5. Write your zero draft, giving yourself permission to write crap, using everything you want to be included. And sometimes, everything and anything you can think of, just to get yourself through the draft.

What these steps do is allow you to focus your novel around the research you've made. In some ways, this is exactly what NaNoWriMo encourages: a crappy first draft. 

In all honesty, a NaNo draft is often so bad that you cannot consider it a first draft.

As today marks the end of both the A to Z challenge and Camp NaNoWriMo, I'm happy to say that I've "won" both. 

However, as a struggling perfectionist, my NaNo novel is less than pleasing to me. It's so far from what I expected and so far from something I would share with others, that it's reiterated to me just how much of a "zero draft" NaNo novels turn out to be. Some are better than others, and my NaNo 2012 novel was a more complete zero draft than this one has turned out to be. But every novel, like every child, is different. And some take more work than others. (I anticipate a lot of intensive counseling sessions for this Camp NaNo 2013 novel.)

After completing a zero draft, I like to induce hibernation in said draft—especially if I wrote it quickly. (Here is where we return to the squirrel simile/metaphor.)

While your squirrel hibernates, you are subconsciously gathering nuts and berries to feed your characters like some inept, subsistence hunter-gatherer. Most of them are poisonous to your plot, or your theme, or are something your character would never, ever eat. But you keep gathering, hopefully storing them away somewhere you remember to look so that you don't misplace them.

Photo of Spermophilus parryii enjoying a mushroom
Eventually, after a significant hibernation, you return to fatten up your starved zero draft of a novel (see picture above), hoping it still has that cute new squirrel smell when you melt the snow and warm up that tiny squirrel body. 

Now, when you return to it, you see all the fresh opportunities you have, all the things you've stored up for it in your time hibernating. You could feed it a mushroom, a berry, a nut…a seed… 

Now, you have new appreciation for your characters (which you might very well have learned to hate during a NaNo marathon or two), and you have new ideas for fixing those plot holes which are suddenly so evident to you.

There is inherent value in your squirrel-esque hoarding of ideas. 99% of all zero drafts at least deserve for you to return to them and give them a cursory read through in order to see if there's something worth developing. 

A zero draft may be completely tossed out and reworked from the start, or it may be chopped into unrecognizable pieces, but I bet you anything that there is at least one sentence or thought or idea in your zero draft that is worth pursuing. If not for a novel, then a short story or a poem. 

How about you? How do you treat your zero drafts? Do you return to fatten them up? Do you never let them hibernate? Or do you leave them to starve a slow, slow death?


Additional Sources on Zero Drafts:
Write Livelihood
The Writing Wheel
Lisa Harjes
Moody Writing 
Justine Larbalestier