Six Drafts

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. 

30 thoughts on “Six Drafts

  1. Well, evidently you have the insight. Now all you need – and you’re partway home – is the eyesight.
    Best wishes.

  2. I appreciate the way you take your time, thank you for thinking of the reader. Your books are worth waiting for.

  3. I love looking at your process, because it makes me feel better about mine. Ha ha. I start out a pantser, do research along the way, then do vague plotting, more research, then back to pantsing, and it would be hard to explain to anyone exactly how I write. With every book I reach a certain point where I’m convinced the story is pure dreck, and so I stop. I lose weeks/months with no writing on that story, then all of a sudden I take off again. It’s so frustrating.
    But six drafts. Nope. I’d be batty by four.
    Hope the eye surgery goes well.

  4. Timely post for me. Am sussing out darlings today in my latest book draft.

    Generally, I’m a minimalist & love to cut things, but some darlings can be tough calls. Especially ones tied to whole scenes–as in they’re bricks that if pulled out weaken or topple the ones on top. Can mean major rewrites in those cases that sometimes feel daunting. Always good to be reminded we all go through this phase.

    And cheers to the new colours coming back into your life with the eye surgeries. Wishing you speedy recovery:)

  5. Thanks. I am writing another draft of a thing I set aside long ago, and wondering why the hell I think I can do better on it this time. I really appreciate that you take the time to share your process. It helps me to understand that the perfection I seek is more a dream than a reality and that’s ok.

    1. Hurrah for life, even if it’s a little blurry!

      I re-read my favorites of your books every few years, but the only one of your early Harlequins that I keep with me is The Cinderella Deal — the rest are stashed in a place I haven’t been for a couple of years. I checked e-books of “Anyone But You” and “Charlie All Night” out of the library the other day, and re-discovered them after not having read them since ~1999 (although some lines had stuck with me — I was anticipating it when Charlie poked Allie’s fuzzy handbag).

      There were things I’d totally missed when I read them 18 years ago because I didn’t know anything about literary craft, like that “Charlie All Night” is kind of a mystery and that all the clues are laid out as per the rules of mystery writing. (Also I wasn’t an antitrust nerd back then, so I didn’t catch that what the FoodStop guy is doing, by cutting prices below cost to drive competitors out of business and then raising prices sky-high, is predatory pricing and technically not price-fixing. You have to have competitors conspiring for price-fixing.)

      Learning about literary craft helps with any kind of writing, I think. I’m co-writing a big essay now about the election and its likely effects on policy, and right now I’m on the “Here’s what I want to tell the world about what I think” draft. It is way too long; I have big quotes from people instead of paraphrasing down to the bone and using only their most interesting words; and I need to edit my co-writer’s part, which avoids my sins but is prone to adjectives, adverbs and mixed metaphors. I am trying to get in as much as possible that communicates as much as possible in as few words as possible.

      I messaged recently to the writers I edit:
      “‘This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more “literary” you are.’ I think this has application to our writing as well, except maybe not so much ‘life’ as ‘business’ or something, and not ‘literary’ but rather ‘usefully informative’.

      I’m not sure there’s any way to do that without drafts. Otherwise you end up too Hemingway-esque: subject, verb, direct object, without those details that make both fiction and nonfiction into life.

      Anyway, thanks for all the self-examination you’ve willing to do publicly about writing — I have learned so much from it!

      1. I found that one of the hardest things about teaching freshman comp at the high school and college level was convincing students that the first draft was just the part where you found out what you thought. Get your argument down on paper, throwing in your research, and then look at what you’ve got, challenge all the assumptions, reorganize your arguments from weakest to strongest, and then end with a sentence that sells your conclusion.

        One of the most satisfying outcomes of beating that into high school seniors came after one of my students had gone on to college. He was a nice kid, but a typical high school jock, and his father, who was on the school board, did not like me, so there was that. I’d put the basics of writing an expository theme into a handout that I gave my all seniors, and I assumed they all went directly into a wastebasket. But then I went to a Christmas party the next year, and the kid’s mother was there, and she latched onto me and told me that her son had taken that packet to college and it was getting him through his first quarter freshman comp class, that everybody on his dorm floor had borrowed it and copied it, and they were going to be grateful to me forever. And after that his dad was really nice to me. I cherish that memory (g). It’s not my best teaching aftermath memory, but it’s a good one.

        1. That is a great memory! I always envy my friends who are teachers those moments. It was something I enjoyed about tutoring — when, after the kid had gotten slightly exasperated by my refusal to give her the answer, she could put into action what I had told her to figure it out for herself, and feel the satisfaction of that accomplishment and sense of being capable.

          I guess a few of those moments still happen in any job where one works with others, though, as you become experienced enough that you have wisdom to pass along. I’m trying to boil down some basics — subject matter, overall style, how to write certain kinds of articles — into handouts for my writers without going so long that they ignore them. Creating those handouts is itself an exercise for me in to-the-point writing and merciless editing, though I couldn’t resist one Spice Girls reference (hey, most of my writers are Brits).

  6. Thanks so much for this. As others have said, it’s timely for me. I’m looking at something I’ve been puttering with and making changes to for a while. How do you keep all your notes and changes and drafts organized? I’m guessing you don’t overwrite each draft entirely. I’m getting stuck in the weeds and confused by my not-clearly-marked files.

    So glad you’re back and doing well. 🙂

    1. Organized? HAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHahahaha . . . uh, I don’t.
      Okay, I’ll do a short post on how I (don’t) organize for tomorrow.

  7. Happy your surgery went well!

    I’m also glad I’m not a writer. ? What you’ve described sounds long and a bit mind numbing. Although, if I think about it as organizing, I might be able to get into it.

    Here’s hoping drafts 2-6 go faster than draft 1.

  8. THANK YOU!!! Very encouraging. I get bogged down in transforming an Idea into a Discovery Draft. I run into continuity problems because I wrote scenes all out of order, then cut and paste into order once I know the plot. (Hooray for Scrivener! Thank you again for recommending it.)

  9. Not reading yet. Am self sabotaging by reading too many blogs etc online. Dealing with stuff.
    But a drive by hello to all.

  10. My eyes are not up for a new post today, turns out having both eyes sliced oppen by lasers takes awhie to come back from, but they’re already much better, so I’m just going back to sleep. Back at you all later with the organizing post.

      1. I’m better today! YAY!
        Of course, the sun isn’t up yet. If I can stand going out in the sun with sunglasses, that’ll be the real victory.

        1. Hooray for your eyes–and for this post. I love it. I’m on my beta draft.

          You make me feel better about my discovery draft, which was a seething mess.

          And it’s fascinating to get inside the minds of one of my favourite writers. Thanks, as always.

  11. These posts are pure gold for me. I would like to think that if I were honestly trying to make a living as a writer I would approach it with at least a portion of this kind of craft and rigor.

    Since it is just a hobby I tend to just barf out a thing, let my sister read it, fix the things she says are Just Bad, and then throw it at KDP. Am beginning an edit of a whole series of novellas now. I’m not sorry I threw them out there in their first version. In a way I think I needed to get something Out There just to get myself over the hump of “can I do it.” And I’ve definitely learned a lot. But my process is no process at all next to yours. 🙂

    1. I miss him, the way he saw the world. I’ve kept the last few books of the Tiffany Aching Series unread on purpose. one day


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