How many drafts does a novel need? Some are ready for an editor by the second or third draft. Others – like mine – are assembled in slow layers of revisions, a process of discovery. There’s more about that in What Takes Literary Authors So Long.
I wouldn’t be surprised if I went through a manuscript at least 50 times, but I’ve never counted. So for Ever Rest I’m keeping a draft diary. How many times do I set out from the start? What am I doing each time and how much difference does it make?
Right now, I’m starting draft 10, which on my usual timescale is early days. But my draft diary has already revealed some surprising and paradoxical benefits of slow writing.
Outline first, obvs
Ever Rest has been with me a long time. I wrote it originally as a short story, read it out at a workshop and the feedback was unanimous – it had enough guts to be a novel. So began long hours of staring at plot cards in uffish thought, and much collecting of Undercover Soundtracks (music for writing… see here). Finally, I’d assembled a set of troubled characters and some torments for them. I put my headphones on and began writing.
Draft 1 – inhabiting the scenes for the first time. I was trotting nicely through the outline when a couple of characters went off piste and sent everything to pot. Somehow, though, it made glorious sense so I clung on and wrote to the end. And hurrah, I had a wordcount of 76,123. The original short story was 7,000 and I’d been worried it wouldn’t make novel length. Onwards.
Draft 2 – dealing properly with the disobedience in draft 1. It made intuitive sense, but why? Draft 2 was understanding this, pushing the characters harder. When I landed at the end I had 107,471 words. Shortness wasn’t going to be a problem. I suspected much of the wordcount was flab, but I now had room to cut.
Draft 3 – getting strict about facts. I’d left a lot of factual gaps so I didn’t nonce around with research I wasn’t going to use. What colour is a police uniform in Kathmandu? Now it was worth finding out. Also I filled the gaps in back story. How do x and y know each other? When did crucial event z happen?
This draft fizzled out, alas. Other deadlines intervened and I made my ghostwriting course for Jane Friedman. After that the manuscript looked like an exam in a language I didn’t speak, so I started again, draft 3.2. Pretty soon, draft 3.2 did something that disrupted the beginning, so I rewound again and started draft 3 for the third time.
Drafts 4-7 The original short story was a first-person narrative. In enlarging it, I added a lot of people and it grew into an ensemble piece, with short chapters from different viewpoints. Several characters had matured much further than their original roles, so I needed dedicated drafts to give them proper space.
Meanwhile, the book’s Undercover Soundtrack was now the size of a small record shop.
After a detour for a little travel memoir, draft 8 began with a radical scene reshuffle. The book had never felt balanced so I put a main character’s introduction earlier, where it ran more smoothly. Often I don’t know why something is wrong until I make a drastic change; then it seems to sigh with relief.
I was also worried about easing the reader into the story, so I promoted an outsider character to a bigger role. If I introduced the story through him, the reader could learn alongside him. His back story looked thin, so I tipped a lot more words in to give him a more defined life. But despite all this, he was boring. What to do? One of the other characters had a job that resonated with the novel’s main themes. What if he did her job? At first this seemed inspired; a perfect fit. Then I began to hear a false note. Instead of a pleasant resonance, it screamed the smart parallels in the reader’s face.
By the end of draft 8, they were back to their original professions. And I realised I’d been right the first time. The person who originally had that job had a bigger arc I hadn’t suspected. I only found out by breaking the book.
Draft 9. I now knew the supporting character couldn’t kick the book off. So I tried the most complicated character as centre stage. I hadn’t before because I’d thought her situation was too strange and required copious explanations. But if I could find one detail that would plug the reader into her world? I found it. Geronimo. With this new opening, I then chopped a number of redundant scenes and made a list of scenes that were missing. I usually find these tricky to write, but I found if I started typing and made the characters talk to each other, they took the scene further than I ever imagined. When you know the characters, they will surprise you when they talk for themselves.
And now I begin draft 10. What now? In the previous drafts, I’d been singling out particular threads or problems. Now I’m going to read the book in its entirety, to listen to the whole mix. I think I know what I’ve made, but I’m not yet certain. Wish me luck.
Oh and what’s the wordcount? 110,213. Each round, I’ve culled and added a lot, and I’m sure there’s more that can be trimmed, but it seems to have found its comfortable weight. Expect a whopper, guys.
So here are my 3 wondrous paradoxes of a slow writing process
- A massive switch in my original plan was so intuitively right … that discovering why helped me understand the whole book.
- Sometimes you have to break the book to understand how it works. Swapping characters’ roles, giving the opening chapter to a different character, even changing the main viewpoint were all useful experiments. Even if you restore it to the way it was, you come away with a stronger understanding. (You might also like Revision is Re-vision.)
- When you know the characters, that’s when they might surprise you most.
Thanks for the balcony pic, Maxpixel.
Are you a slow writer? Have you discovered any wondrous paradoxes? Share them here.
Need a writing plan? My method (including time spent staring at plot cards in uffish thought) is in Nail Your Novel.
Want to know more about Ever Rest’s progress? Get updates in my newsletter.
#1 by Eric Klingenberg on February 4, 2018 - 8:52 pm
I loved the article. I thought I was being slow, I’m on my 5th or sixth draft and will need another two or three at the very least. I think on my second draft I added a new story ark which will be the main focus of book 2. The rest of the drafts have been focused on making my book less rubbishy. Each time I think I’ve nailed then I read it back again and come crashing back to reality. Good luck with your book.
#2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 5, 2018 - 7:33 am
And good luck with yours, Eric! Like you, I often come across rubbish I need to clear out, but bit by bit it goes.
#3 by S.K. Nicholls on February 4, 2018 - 9:01 pm
The best thing I did with my last novel was sitting it on a shelf for 8 months then going back to it. I can tell rushed writing when I read it and so can my husband.
#4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 5, 2018 - 7:35 am
Eight months – great! I left Lifeform Three for a year.
#5 by acflory on February 4, 2018 - 9:46 pm
Hmm…Roz, I have to say that apart from the ‘Outline first, obvs.’, everything else struck me as being incredibly familiar. The only real difference in our working methods is that I do all the drafting as I write because for me, the small nuances, the throw away details, the apparently unimportant bits, all end up becoming pivotal.
One of the nicest things a reader ever said to me was that they thought I’d outlined my plot because it was so tight. The truth was, and is, that I could never have come up with a plot so tightly woven if I’d tried to think of all those details up front.
I guess it doesn’t really matter which method we use so long as we’re prepared to invest the time and effort required to make the story /right/.
Btw, those few meagre hints are very intriguing. I understand that draft 10 means the story is still more or less fluid so you don’t want to set it in concrete just yet, but…something very general, maybe?
#6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 5, 2018 - 7:38 am
Hi Andrea! I certainly add nuance as I think of it, and that might be early in the process or late. But the more times I go through the book, the more I understand which nuances are important and which are not helpful. I love your observation that people think you’d come up with everything at once – revising lets us be geniuses.
Glad you’re tantalised by my few details of Ever Rest. Yes, the story is pretty much set, but there’ s still a lot to do.
#7 by acflory on February 5, 2018 - 9:31 am
-grin- so get to work! -cough- pretty please. 🙂
#8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 5, 2018 - 10:49 am
Am doing! (On the screen behind this one …. just added another 1,000 or so words. 🙂
#9 by acflory on February 6, 2018 - 4:14 am
Good! -hands Roz a triple choc chocolate biscuit-
#10 by Natalie K. on February 5, 2018 - 12:11 am
Hi Roz, this is a really helpful post! I’m always curious at how much other people revise. One question: do you keep track of versions as you edit? As in, once you’ve finished draft 1, do you make your draft 2 edits in a new file so that you have draft 1 to go back to if necessary?
#11 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 5, 2018 - 7:43 am
Hi Natalie! I do a mix. Sometimes I keep the same file, but if I edit a passage heavily I take a copy and put it in the Outtakes folder. Then I can go back to the previous version if necessary. Or if I’m about to do something very radical I rename the file because it gives me confidence to be more drastic. So when I rewrote the beginning, I called it ‘Ever Rest Robert Sooner’. That gave me permission to scrap it if I didn’t like it. As it happened, I liked the result, so that became the master file – complete with this name.
I think draft 10 is special enough to deserve a fresh file and a fresh name, though!
#12 by Natalie K. on February 7, 2018 - 1:25 am
Thanks for the reply! I haven’t tried the radical renaming thing—but that sounds like a good idea! I’ll have to give that a try next time I’m editing.
#13 by DRMarvello on February 5, 2018 - 12:43 pm
Thanks for the insight into your process, Roz. It’s always interesting to see how different people work. You never know when you’ll find a gem of an idea to add to your own methods. I recently took a class on how your personality type (in an MBTI/DiSC sense) affects your writing, and it was both illuminating and comforting. The bottom line: revel in your strengths, and don’t fight who you are.
I’m definitely a slow writer. To prevent myself from engaging in endless revision that borders on perfectionism, I’ve developed a structured approach that works well for me. My drafts are based on the major milestones in my writing process although the amount of work in each draft varies by the book and what I discover about the story while writing it.
* Outline – lay out the story in acts with main events (not quite down to the scene level)
* First draft – get the story down as quickly as possible without looking back
* Second draft – fix plot drift/holes and character inconsistencies introduced in the first draft.
* Third draft – tweaks based on alpha reader feedback.
* Fourth draft – tweaks based on feedback from beta readers.
* Fifth draft – tweaks based on editor feedback.
* Sixth draft – read-aloud proof.
I don’t typically do as much experimenting as you do with plot and characters. I did that once with a story and nearly lost the heart to finish it. I’ve learned that I have to do enough work up-front that I’m happy with the main character and primary plot before I begin drafting. Subplots are where most of my pantsing happens but that’s always within the context of the big picture.
#14 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 5, 2018 - 8:03 pm
Mr Marvello! Welcome, as always. I guess my writing process also plays to my strengths – the many drafts of playing and exploring suit my nature and the kind of depth I’m interested in.
But it’s not that easy! You mentioned you’d tried a more experimental approach and found it nearly wore you out. This book of mine has certainly been an endurance test too. I like your approach of adding the depth and experimentation with the subplots – perhaps that’s the way to go next time. Each book seems to develop its own method!
#15 by George Dreading on February 15, 2018 - 6:04 pm
Thanks for sharing. Knowing someone else has been through similar circumstances with their writing with similar results is encouraging. I’m on version 3.? of a screenplay I’ve been working on for some time now. I’ve often wondered if this was a slow decent into absolute madness or just a part of the writing process. Either way now I know that I’m not alone.
#16 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on February 15, 2018 - 7:23 pm
Indeed you’re not alone, George! Thanks for stopping by. I believe in long-haul writing.
#17 by Alexander M Zoltai on July 3, 2018 - 12:51 pm
Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
I think Roz Morris does a great job pinning down her topic for todays’ re-blog in that title up there 🙂
#18 by Viv on July 9, 2019 - 8:03 am
I’ve never been able to outline or plan (except once, when I was 12 or so..). But something unconscious can and does.