Two of my least favorite questions in interviews are “How long does it take you to write a book?” and “How many drafts do you do?” And of course the answers are “As long as it takes” and “As many as I need,” which is no help to anybody. I think the fastest I ever wrote a book was six weeks (Anyone But You). The longest? Well, if I ever finish You Again, that’s already taken me over a decade. I know there are people who do several books a year, books that people love. I assume those people get a head start: they’re natural storytellers, or they’re obsessive about story, or they don’t care about all the stuff that trips me up that has nothing to do with writing a good book. They’re born writers. I was born to crochet and eat chocolate. But the thing is, it doesn’t matter why those writers can do that. I can’t. There’s no point in gnashing my teeth about it. This is the path I was given as a writer, and just like those speedy writers would not be improved by slowing down, it’s a disaster if I try to speed up. (Really, I’ve tried.) What helps me to accept that is looking at my process (as much as I have a process; that sounds so organized). It goes like this: The Idea. This isn’t actually a draft. Call it a pre-draft. I get an idea. I want to do my version of The Turn of the Screw. I want to fix a story I’ve seen (like Lucifer) or read and in the process of trying to fix it, a new story emerges. A character from a previous book keeps showing up in my brain (Davy, Alice, Courtney). But most often it’s a woman in a situation: a woman who’s trying to come back from a divorce (Anyone But You, Fast Women), a woman trying to save her family (Tell Me Lies, Welcome to Temptation, Faking It), a woman living an inauthentic life who hits the Day That Is Different and tears everything up and starts over (Crazy for You, and then all of them, really). Sometimes it’s even a genre or a project idea: I want to write a four-book mystery series that will really be a four-volume romance novel. I want to write and alt history series based on fairy tales. I want to write my own Thin Man couple. And then I noodle with that idea, just to hear the voices. A lot of them stop there. I do a couple of thousand words and think, “Nope,” and go somewhere else, especially if the idea did not start with my protagonist talking in my head. It takes too long to find the right protagonist. Ideas are a dime a dozen; a talkative protagonist is gold. (If you want to know what idea drafts look like, go back to the beginning of the Lucifer posts last January when I started putting up character notes and the first scenes, just to get a feel for things.) But if the idea sticks, I begin drafting.
1. The Discovery Draft Once I’ve got My Girl babbling in my head, I start writing things down. Scraps of conversation. Thoughts she has. I don’t plan anything, I just keep writing to see what shows up. That’s usually when she tells me what her job is because she always cares about the job she’s doing; and her best friend because I can’t wrap my head around a woman who doesn’t have a friend (Nita’s is Mort until Button shows up); and what she’s struggling with, although often in the beginning, everybody around her is struggling and she’s just fine because I like her, so fairly soon in the discovery process, I have to throw a rock at her. And then because she talks to people, I find her relationships. Some of them show up fully formed like Mort; Nita’s twin was always going to be close and supportive and a good guy. In the beginning, they’re defined by their relationship with her but as I write and rewrite, the different shades and sides of the character show up–Mort didn’t believe in demons in the first draft, then he did, and now with the last drafts I’m doing, I know why he believes. Button was just a foil for Nita in the first draft, cute and fluffy in contrast with her scary and sharp, but then as I drafted, she became so much more to me, her back story emerged, not as something that explained anything she did now but as an integral part of the plot. This is why it’s called a Discovery Draft, it’s the part of the process where I’m discovering the story. The first draft of any scene is bare bones, just getting the scene down on the page, not worrying about conflict or antagonist. As Nora Roberts (and many other writers) have said, I can fix a bad page, I can’t fix a blank page. But then as I go back, Stuff happens and I discover the book that’s cooking in my reptile brain. I remember doing a rewrite of the first scene of Welcome to Temptation, and Amy said, “You just feel that way because of Davy, that’s very sisterly of you,” and I thought, Huh,they have a brother, and kept writing. I used to call these drafts “Don’t Look Down” drafts because of a story Ron Carlson had told about writing, but I labeled a draft that once, and Bob said, “Great title,” and now it’s on a book, so now I just use “Discovery Draft.” There are a few guidelines I follow in Discovery Drafting, among them the idea that all characters and settings and subplots have to at least be referenced in the first act/first third of the book, but that’s just something I check as I go along. I don’t obsess over it because the book takes huge shifts during this phase. I was way over 40,000 words in the first act until I stood back from it for a moment and realized that I’d put the turning point in the wrong place. It’s still 38,000 words, which is way too long, but I can fix that later, this is Discovery Draft. My discovery drafts generally run anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 words which means they’re not finished draft; parts of the book are still missing. That’s okay because this phase is just to discover the characters and the shape of the book in general. Every time a character interacts with another character, both characters change. Every time something happens, the characters in that scene change. Every time a character talks, I learn something news. And while I’m doing all of this, stuff pops up that I have to research. Like what would happen to $260,000 invested at 5% compound interest in 1934 and then reinvested at 8% in the boom in 1969. Like Cotton Mather. Like demon names. Like portraits of Italian men in the 1400s or mugshots from the early 20th century. None of this stuff is deep research,none of it takes longer than fifteen minutes (thank you, Google), but each piece slots into the Discovery Draft. And at some point, I have the shape of the book. I have the protagonist and the antagonist, I have the community and the setting, I have the conflict and the climax. And that’s when I start to rewrite in earnest, to make the unpublishable Discover Draft into something that it’s fair to ask people to read.
2. The Truck Draft At the end of a Truck Draft, I have a complete book,all the pieces in place. I may find out later that I need another scene or two for clarity, I will definitely find things that need to be cut, but by god there’s a whole story there, and if a truck hit me, Jen could publish it. It wouldn’t be a great book, but it’s a complete and coherent story. This is the juggling plates part of the rewrite, where I keep all the characters and subplots spinning, or the meshing gears part of the rewrite where I make sure that every character reacts to every event, even if that character isn’t on the page or doesn’t have a PoV. It’s where I fill in the blanks, and diagram act progressions and check word counts obsessively. How fast is this act? Is it faster than the last act? Why are they having this converation? Can I cut it? I love this bit but is it just extra stuff that the plot doesn’t need? Can I cut this character? What does this piece I put in automatically in the Discovery Draft mean? If I’ve been hanging on to it this long, it must be important, figure out why. (The baseball scene in Welcome to Temptation was one of those.) This is also the Kill Your Darlings draft; I’m looking to make the book as perfect as I can get it because the next draft involves other people reading an entire book, taking hours out of their lives to tell me what’s not working, so I have to take out everything I know isn’t working first so I don’t waste their time. (Note: If you give a book to a reader, and the reader says, “This part isn’t working,” and you say, “I know, I just didn’t have time to fix it,” you’re going to Writer Hell. You do not squander your reader’s time.) This is also the edit where I go through and take out all the adjectives and adverbs I can (because strong nouns and verbs are better) and the edit where I go through the book one time for each major character, tracing where he or she is physically and emotionally in the story so there are no breaks or abrupt shifts in that person’s story, remembering that every person in my book thinks the story is about him or her. Basically, this is the be-all-you-can-be draft.
3. The Beta Draft So now I ask people I know and trust if they’d like to read a book. And then I hand it over and work on other things while they read it. That can be awhile, sometimes up to a week depending on how busy they are, and then they send the book back and I read what they have to say, and I DO NOT DO OR SAY ANTHING FOR TWENTY-FOUR HOURS. Because my first inclination is ALWAYS to defend what I did. After twenty-four hours, I generally can see the wisdom in their objections and also have an idea of how to fix the problem. Even if I don’t agree that it’s a problem, it’s a simple fact that a reader tripped over that part, so other readers are going to do that, too. Is that something I’m okay with? Ninety-five percent of the time, I change it. There are a million things in my book that some reader somewhere is going to trip over; if I know of one and it’s an easy fix, I fix it, so that it’s a million things minus one now.
4. The Jen Draft And then I send it to my editor, Jennifer Enderlin, who is a saint, and she sends back an editing letter, and we talk about the book. I love this part. Jen is a genius and a friend and a fan and at this point, practically a collaborator. She has never changed a word of my text, never told me how to rewrite something, she just says, “This isn’t working” and I look at it through her eyes and we talk about it and I change it. The few times I’ve said, “I don’t think so,” she’s said, “Fine,” and then it turned out later she was right, so I generally do not say “I don’t think so” any more. And then I do another rewrite, and it’s a big one because by now I have some distance on the book (not enough, but some), and I send it back, and she may send another letter or she may just send it to copy edit.
5. The Copy Edit Draft Jen gives strict instructions to my copy editors to never change the text, so I get my copy edits full of notes in the margin. Copy editors vary widely; the good ones catch the mistakes, the bad ones try to write the book for you. I remember sending one copy edit back with “IF YOU WANT TO WRITE A DAMN BOOK, WRITE YOUR OWN” in red ink on the front. I do some big changes in the copy edit which is why people who sell ARCs (advanced reading copies) make me crazy; they’re not selling the finished book, they’re selling a early draft. Then I send the copy edits back and much later I get the galleys.
6. The Galley Draft Galleys are pages that show the book typeset and ready to go. If I change more than 10% of the book, I have to pay for the changes, but since ten percent is about ten thousand words, I can usually make the changes I need within that limit. This is a polish draft, a tidying-up draft, and oh-my-god-I-can’t-believe-I-didn’t-see-that-before-now-draft. I spot most of those changes because I’m looking at the story in a new foramt–not on a computer screen, not in typescript on a print-out–and that makes the story new again. Plus the galleys take awhile, so I’m usually in another story by the time I get them, so I’m not blinded by being immersed in that world any more. And I send the galleys off, and that’s it. The book isn’t finished–somebody wise once said that no book is ever finished, it’s just abandoned–but the world of that story is dead to me now, and any more tinkering I do can only hurt it. I’ll never write a perfect book, I just have to draft the story until it’s as good as I can possibly make it. So that’s how many drafts I do. Six. I’ve been working on Nita’s book for a year now, and I’m technically still on the first draft. But, you say, you’ve seen a dozen drafts already. So how many drafts do I really do? As many as it takes.