The more I write, the more I seem to understand the process of writing and drafting and the less fear I have when approaching a new book or a particular draft. All that angst and anxiety and uncertainty and doubt is mostly gone and now it's just work, hard work that pays off and that sometimes gives me a glimpse of what I could be as a writer in the future as I'm still searching for my identity and I suspect it will take me many more books to find it.
I tweeted this understanding one night and it seemed to have resonated with many of you so I thought, hell, I'll expand on it in a post and years later I'll read about it and and see what changed (if anything) and how.
You know that the most drafts I've done is five and the least is three and so far the median number of four holds true to me. It takes me roughly four drafts to write a novel and it could take me more if not for my brain that has a new story idea pressing by the time I'm done with the last draft and the pressure is overwhelming and I simply have to start writing a new book so as not to lose my mind.
Here is my 4-draft writing process and how I understand it and what each draft does to the story. Knowing this helped me to relax and take my time to craft the story just the way I want to.
1st draft - learn the story.
When I start writing the first draft, I have a very clear image in my head from which to start, and a very vague idea about how the story will end. I don't know all the characters nor the setting nor the style I'll be writing in nor the story itself apart from a thin path in the fog which I know I must take and I do and I plunge right in and write like mad without thinking and without looking back or editing because I know the moment I stop and look back, I will start doubting myself and my story, and I will be tempted to cut and it will be the end of everything. Because the first draft is for learning the story, not for writing it. Writing comes later. Here everything is absurd and exuberantly emotional and raw and tangled and juvenile and unruly and undisciplined and primitive and that's okay. That's what's it's there for. We're learning the story together, the draft and me. Because now I know this about my first drafts, I'm no longer scared of them. It's okay that they're shit. They're shit for an important cause. They are there to make a shitty road in that fog, the road that I will travel in the second draft. It has to be there, that road. Without that road there would be nothing for me to travel and that is why it must exist.
2nd draft - know the story.
This is by far the hardest and the most annoying draft to write. This is where I have learned what the book is about and now I have to know it by heart and I don't know it yet. To do that I have to get to know every character and their manners of speech and everything about their parents and where they're from and their habits and wants and fears and all that stuff that will make them into real people, real people that I really know. It's hard work, it takes a lot of thinking and I find that it's at this stage when I want to quit writing all my books. This is when I whine and squirm and wheedle and moan and try to procrastinate and spend time on research when I don't really need it and do a million other little things to avoid actually writing. I write each draft on top of the previous one so you might call it editing or revising or whatever but most words are new and only the structure remains somewhat the same and even the structure changes too and that's why it's so slow. But I know now why it's slow and I know I need it to be slow and I'm okay with that and I take my time getting to know the story so that it sounds in my head as though it really happened and the people, the characters, sound real. They come alive. At the end of this draft I usually can recite the whole thing from beginning to end in one breath.
3rd draft - tell the story.
Finally. This is the most fun draft, the one I love second best after the drunken delirious rush of the first draft. Here I can finally tell the story. Up until this point I have spent the time learning it and knowing it without paying much attention to the sentence structure or to the vocabulary or to the dialogue or to setting descriptions or to theme or to any of that stuff. Now I can. Now I can slash all those clumsy scenes and shape all those unbecoming paragraphs and hide all those unnecessary words my characters speak and have them imply things instead of bluntly saying them and sprinkle just enough details to paint the whole picture without overdoing it and indulge in chopping sentences short or stringing them long or whatever I want. The story is solid. The story is there. I know the players. I can focus on telling it the best way I can. Or, as some writing purists will tell you, show not tell. Whatever. You know what I mean. This draft usually moves faster than the previous one and I don't want it to end.
4th draft - polish the story.
This is what I dread the most. I love it and I dread it and I love it and I dread it. Fourth draft is almost an editor's job only I can't really be a good editor since I'm editing myself and I know too much about my story to be able to disassociate from it completely but I do my best. This is where I get into the finest details like periods versus commas and this word versus that and this hair color versus that and this chapter ending versus that and so on. This is the most tedious draft when I have to focus on mechanics and I don't get the high of creating the story anymore but I get a high of getting it ready for my editor and subsequently for publishing. Hallelujah.
5th drafts - polish some more?
Yes, I know I said this is my 4-draft writing process, but I had to do the fifth draft for The Badlings and I think it could use a sixth draft but by then I was spent. The writing of The Badlings got interrupted by the Amtrak residency trip and the TUBE story got hold of me so when I was back I forced myself to do the fifth draft of The Badlings and when you force yourself and don't enjoy the story anymore, that's it, you're killing it. The reader will feel it. I had to let it go. With TUBE everything is different. It's probably my first book that I'm not rushing. I hope it will pay off and I think so far it has been. I don't know how many drafts it will take me but I have calculated that at the pace I'm going this draft should be done in two months bringing the total time I will spend on the second draft to four months. It's the longest I have ever spent on a single draft. Let's hope it will be good.
So, what about you? How many drafts do you do? And what does each draft do to the story?