Saturday, October 23, 2010

Drafting: The Evolution of a Novel

My writing process continues to evolve, but I'm working on my third novel (one published, one querying, and my WiP) and here's my overall thoughts about the drafting process.

Draft 1: JOY Enamored with my shiny new idea, I'm off to the races: outlining, researching, and quickly sitting down to write. I write until I run into a plot barricade, then stop for a quick pit stop of research and more outlining, and then off on another no-holds-barred sprint of drafting. There's also character and voice development, but the first draft is primarily about PLOT. What happens in this story? And a mad head-long rush to THE END. Each week, I'll polish up one or more chapters to send to my awesome crit group. They keep me hyped and moving forward, as well as pointing out pitfalls along the way.

Draft 2: PAIN Starting over, I rewrite the beginning, usually dramatically. The ending usually needs a serious rewrite as well. The story has evolved as I've written it, so I painstakingly march through the entire MS, finding craft, plot, and character issues. Sometimes entire sections have to be rewritten or cut. Sometimes a character is deleted, or a new one added. I'm shaping and molding the story as a whole. I fold in all the crits from my crit group, as well as various other crits I've collected along the way. Then I send it off for a whole novel critique (or two) from a trusted crit partner.

Interlude: WAIT Research something else. Draft something else. Remove the WiP completely from my brain for a month. Maybe two.

Draft 3: GOING DEEPER Hopefully I'll have feedback which will help point out some basic flaws in story or characters. I'll incorporate those, and then look in-depth at several key aspects of the novel to see if I can take the story to a higher level. For my current WiP, this includes things like:

  • does my MC's internal and external conflicts get resolved in a satisfying way?
  • do my secondary characters all have meaningful stories of their own that deepen their characters?
  • does the story tension keep rising throughout, or are there places where the story sags?
  • are the stakes high enough? Do my characters have high human worth?
  • have I plumbed the depths of the world I've created, to make it rich in detail and movement through history?
  • do my characters interact with the setting in a way that shows their development through the story?
At this point I will read a couple books that are similar to my WiP and try to draw lessons from them that can be applied to my own work. I may get a couple more crits along the way.

Draft 4: POLISH
  • Add/remove slang, cliches, descriptive phrases
  • Check chapter beginnings and endings for drama and clarity
  • Check overall voice
  • Tighten up the beginning some more
  • Check high frequency words
At this point I will read through the MS once or twice very quickly, maybe reading aloud to catch typos and missing words, or read silently for a quick overall check of plot holes and missing information.

Although these are labeled DRAFTS they are more accurately STAGES. A DRAFT is not a simple once-through the manuscript, but more a stage in the evolution of the novel. It took me a long time, and many revisions, before I was finally ready for Draft 4 on the MS I am now querying. I'm still in Draft 2 for the current novel, but I can see the stages ahead, waiting for me. 

What does your process look like?


  1. Hi Susan! Well, it's pretty methodical.

    I give my first draft some breathing space so that when I get back to it later, I'm not attached to scenes or phrases or characters so that I can cut them or mold them or whatever them.

    This last MS I'm working on had to be completely rewritten. I added TONS and removed tons. It went from a measly 26,442 word count to 115,456 words. What a difference, hu?

    Now I'm going through and applying 5 stages per chapter. Once I'm done with that, I'll print it up and pass it to my beta readers and edit it again in hard copy form.

    My five stages consist of smooth sentence cadence, strong chapter opening/closing, nixing cliches, strengthening my words (look to stare kinda thing), I balance my internalization, visceral behaviors, dialogue, setting/MC descriptions, and up the tension stakes. I also look for echo words and read it out loud for sure.

    I'll post my process some time soon.

    I think it's wonderful to hear how other writers perfect their writing. Thanks for sharing!

    ~Elizabeth :)

  2. I love your process. Great post. :)

  3. @Elizabeth Thanks for sharing your process! I didn't talk much about craft, more about story, but I like your five stages approach. I think I do a lot of that along the way, sort of my standard editing process, and then look at individual pieces to make sure I haven't missed anything.

    @Leisha Thanks!

  4. Susan, I love hearing how others refine their work. It's always enlightening and gives me great new ideas.

    The editing and polishing steps seem like a lot of work (they are), but it's a lot like getting up in the morning, and then dressing up and putting on make-up. You know the end result will be something you're proud of. It's exciting to see the story finally come together.

    Thanks for sharing! I'm taking notes!!

  5. @Jonene I think my edits end up looking better than my make-up! At least I hope so. :) Thanks!!

  6. Mine's not nearly so detailed, but I am a perfectionist, so I go over it many, many times. I don't hate or dread revisions, though.

  7. @Alex Although I delight in the first draft, I wouldn't say I dread revisions either. Especially when I feel like I'm making a big improvement. :)

  8. My process hasn't really stabilized yet. I've only been writing for two years or so. But so far, it pretty much goes something like this:

    Get an idea that I think could be made into a great story.

    Write ten pages or so, then give up.

    Go back six months to a year later and finish it.

    Try to do a second draft, but give up after the first few chapters.

    Depressing, isn't it? I haven't gotten farther than that yet. Oh well, I'll get better. I've got a long life ahead of me.

  9. @Amber And you have an early start! Just keep at it, and you'll discover your own path. :)

  10. I'm still trying to find my process, too. In the early days I would start each writing session by reading what I'd already written, then most of the time I got lost in editing. When I'd get to the end I'd write a little more simply because I wanted more to read. That's why my first book took me seven years to draft.

    I've written two more books in the last two years by forcing myself to finish a first draft without revising. In both cases I didn't do much prep work, just charged off into the manuscript. That's made revision a very difficult process, and I end up keeping almost NOTHING from my first draft.

    This time I plan to have a plan. I'm going to work from an outline and see how I like it.

  11. @Rebecca I've vowed with each novel to plan more on the next one - and I have! But it's still an evolution. I think I plan/outline/research until I can't do that any more, and then I write. Then I write until I can't do that any more (get stuck) and then I outline some more.


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