Fiction writers can be divided into two major groups: outliners and discovery writers. Outliners know the beginning, middle and end of the story before writing the first sentence. Upfront planning and clear direction help outliners avoid getting sidetracked on storyline tangents.

Discovery writers may have a general feel for a storyline, but as the story develops, characters often act independent of (and sometimes contrary to) intentions. The joy of discovery writing is in the unexpected plot twists and surprise endings. Ray Bradbury described writing an argument a couple was having in one of his short stories, saying he simply eavesdropped and furiously copied down everything his two characters said. Bradbury said it was difficult to keep up with the pace of their argument.

A story written with a sense of urgency is called a “zero draft,” because it is rougher than a typical first draft. Zero drafting is not limited to discovery writing. Getting the information down quickly helps avoid premature editing. Once that editing door is open, I find myself chopping words as I write them, and thoughts as I think them.

About ten years ago, I gave myself a discovery writing assignment that turned out to be a disaster. My goal was to place a character in an uncomfortable situation and write him/her out of it. I wish I knew about zero drafts back then! My character was a precocious teenage photographer living in a small rural town. One evening, he rode his motorcycle to an abandoned building for a night photography session. The teen knew he was trespassing, but didn’t see the harm, since he was there only to photograph the architecture, not to steal or vandalize. The uncomfortable situation for the exercise came from what he saw in one of his images displayed on the back screen of his digital camera. His life would never be the same.

I thought I knew the story I wanted to tell, but I didn’t expect the story to talk back. The more I wrote, the more my original concept morphed into something stranger and darker than planned. I tried to steer the story, but everything I tried felt forced and wrong. Before long, the entire project seemed like a bad idea. I stopped writing and put the story away. I was left with the unfinished story that wanted to be written and an original idea never fully explored.

I started this blog to put myself on the hook, so, here’s the new assignment:

(1) Do a zero draft of the story that wanted to be written
(2) Revise and finish it within 30 days, and
(3) Publish the story here on the blog
(4) If there is no momentum with the story, trash it, start a new one, and publish it here in 30 days

It doesn’t matter if it has professional publishing potential or not. It matters that I finish it. My job is to make stuff. Join me in the exercise if you enjoy writing! Even if you don’t, creative exercises can get you unstuck.

I think zero drafting applies to artistic endeavors beyond writing. Next week, I’ll post an image of mine that I believe is the photographic equivalent of a zero draft approach.