Attention novice writers! Stop comparing your first draft to published stories and books. It’s just silly.
Today I turned in the final proofreading on my next novel, They Promised Me The Gun Wasn’t Loaded. This was my very last chance to change the book in any way…and while it’s highly frowned upon to make significant alterations at this stage, I still made a number of tiny tweaks that were artistic improvements rather than just correcting typos.
This was the end of a lengthy process of writing and rewriting—mostly rewriting. The very first time I write a passage, I typically go back the next day and read it over to improve the flow of the text. Also during the first draft stage, I decide I have to make large-scale changes, e.g. throwing out one or more scenes and putting in something different. By the time I’m finished the “first” draft, I’ve probably combed through every word at least three times, and a number of sections are completely different from the way they first emerged from my head.
Then I do the same thing again. I go into the “second” draft knowing much more about the story I want to tell—the conscious
and unconscious elements which were brought to light by writing the first draft. The second time through, I can shape the narrative and the details more strategically. I can layer in more richness and more set-up for things that matter. I can also deal with problems I decided not to fix while I was writing the first draft…because during a draft, I repeatedly face the question, “Do I go back and deal with that problem right away, or do I leave it till later?” Sometimes I decide, “Fix it now,” and sometimes I decide, “Leave it till later.” The second draft is “later”; it’s when I tie off loose ends and patch up holes that I didn’t do the first time around.
(For those who care, I make notes in Evernote whenever I realize there’s something I need to fix. I also use Evernote to record details I need to remember: character descriptions, timelines, and so on.)
After the second draft, I share the book with first readers. That leads to another draft, which may or may not mean a ton of rewriting. The result goes to my agent, Lucienne Diver, who also gives feedback and advice on changes. After I’ve dealt with that, the result goes to an editor…which leads to more changes. Then copy-editing. More changes. And finally, proofreading the typeset version of the book for one last kick at the can.
Because of the repeated nature of the process, and the constant reworking of the text as I go along, it’s difficult to say how many drafts a book actually goes through. It’s like an oil painting: all such paintings are made by adding layers of paint on top of layers, with later layers adding detail, color and texture to earlier ones. Paintings start with broad strokes; subtleties are added last. The same is true of writing. We constantly remove weaknesses and layer in higher quality material. Stories and novels aren’t born perfect, they’re built a layer at a time.
And yes, once in a long while, an almost-perfect story just blurts out from your subconscious without needing much additional improvement. Writers should be grateful if such a miracle happens, but depending on miracles is not a reliable career path.
Develop a process. Learn to layer. And don’t judge yourself when the first words you put on paper aren’t as great as someone else’s umpteenth draft.