It’s taken an ungodly length of time, but I finally finished the second full draft of my current work in progress. Yay!
This probably begs the question, how many drafts should there be? Here’s my answer, in best Tevye the Milkman fashion:
I don’t know.
As many as it takes, I guess.
Every writer takes their own unique approach to producing a final draft that is as close to perfection as they can get. Some aim for perfection with their first draft, and make only minimal changes with their one or two rewrites. I should be such a perfectionist. Ha! I’d never get anything finished.
Others write huge first drafts running several hundreds of thousands of words, then, with each subsequent version, winnow away the dross. There are hundreds of other variants, and there is value in each. You experiment, find what works for you, and just be glad you’ve got a system that results in a novel.
My own process is to dither with a tentative idea, some notes, a few landmarks, and then a rough first draft. This is usually fairly short, around 60-70,000 words. I tweak this, adding bits, new scenes, more notes, sometimes pictures, timelines, character studies, and indecipherable charts. I sometimes call this my second draft, but it’s more like my 1.1 version.
Then comes the real, the crucial second draft. This is where I start back at the beginning and go through the manuscript line by line, sorting out the theme and developing the characters. The landmarks shift, some become more pronounced and others are eliminated. Some scenes will remain as they are right to the final draft, or with only minor modifications. There may be many changes at the novel evolves, but the basic edifice is there.
Regular readers of this blog will know that in addition to writing, I also paint. As a visual artist, I like to build a picture starting with a lightly drawn sketch. This becomes more detailed, more pronounced as I go, with the pencil sketch turning into an ink drawing, then a painted study, until eventually I end up with a painting that comes as close as I can get to my vision. Many artists follow similar approaches. Not claiming any comparison, you understand, but here’s one of Georges Seurat’s sixty-odd sketches that he produced in preparation for his “Sunday on La Grande Jatte”:
Seurat visited the park over a period of six months, at various times of day, as he worked on the painting. This is the finished work of art:
It’s a magnificent work of art, and if you get a chance to see it in the Art Institute in Chicago, do yourself a favour. You really cannot appreciate its magnificence by looking at reproductions. But my point is, like visual artists, writers need to explore different aspects of their work in progress over long periods; need to take the work through draft after draft, as many times as necessary, until you feel it is the best it can be.
You take the novel through a draft, you make it the absolute best you can, and then you let it breathe. That’s all. Let it sit there and just be, because being is a wondrous thing. One day in a couple of months or so you’ll realise that the time has come for you to get back to work, and it will be waiting for you.
When I say the draft is the the best you can make it, understand I’m not talking about achieving perfection. This is just a draft, not the final copy. You may need to make note about things to research, or figure out some flaw with the timeline. Perhaps as the draft evolves you realise that the ending doesn’t match the beginning. That’s OK. That’s what drafts are for. You make notes of these things so you can go back and fix them. With your next draft.
When Seurat ended up with his sixty-odd sketches of La Grande Jatte, at some point he had to sit down and sift through them all. Some, he probably discarded. This one was drawn in the evening, and he had decided he didn’t want an evening painting. That one had too few people, and he wanted his park well populated. He sorted and selected, and the pieces that fit his final vision went into the final painting. So, with your various drafts and notes, you will eventually come to the day when you realise that some parts of the work do not fit. You’ll need to take the scissors and cut, maybe a lot. In one of my previous novels, I realised the story was heading in a wrong direction and with a gulp, lots of tears and screaming, and even more vodka, I cut 30,000 words. The novel was the better for it, but oh, it hurt. I still have the scars.
Sometimes you will be very deep in the novel before you realise what isn’t working and can identify the sections that have to go. It’s not easy. Believe me, it’s not easy, but if it means a stronger work at the end of it, it’s worth the pain and tears.
You won’t be able to see these problems if you’re too close, so stepping away from the manuscript after each draft will allow you to clear your head. Readers you trust, who will look over the manuscript and give you their feedback, are also invaluable, but, ultimately, it’s your call.
Each draft teaches you something new about your novel. It also teaches you something about you as a writer. No matter how much you’ve written before, there’s something new to learn. After all, you haven’t written this book before.
Many years ago, there was a TV series called Fame. It began with a voice over. Debbie Allen as the dance teacher telling her wannabe students,
You’ve got big dreams, you want fame? Well, fame costs, and right here’s where you start paying. In sweat.
Writers are more interested in producing works of excellence than in achieving fame, though some want that as well, but we sweat too, don’t think we don’t. More, we bleed. With every draft with leave a fresh trail of blood and tears.
How many drafts to write a novel? As many as it takes.