All my first drafts have certainly been exactly as Hemingway describes them in the above quote. Crass, maybe—but true. Future ones will be, too. So if yours is, that’s great! So you and I, my friend, are in good company with the likes of Hemingway and his peers.
To quote Anne Lamott from Bird by Bird and her chapter “Shitty First Drafts“: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”
Since you can’t write a second draft without a first one, so get it out and down and forget the quality. It’ll stink. It’ll contain loads of bad dialogue, flat characters, contrived scenes, typos, misused punctuation, missing punctuation, run-on sentences, sentence fragments, sentences that end in the middle of a word and go nowhere. And plot holes. Lots and lots of plot holes. (Remember, if you’re staring at that cursor, intimidated by that first [shitty] draft, you’re actually choosing to create writer’s block!)
Sometimes I think they’re called drafts, at least in the early stages, because of those holes. And it’s the reworking of your first draft into your second and third (or ninth and tenth) that fills them in. That blocks the drafts, if you will.
But a question I often run across, either to me directly or one that other authors are asked is how many drafts should you write?
The answer is: As many drafts that you feel it takes to create a complete story—and for it to read smoothly.
Keep in mind, that a/your editor might require some reworking that creates another draft or two. I thought Coming Home was complete at Draft 9, but further reworking required the creation of Draft 10, the truly final one.
Also, what you consider a “draft” may change from story to story.
When I wrote Backbeat, I was a bit more anal about what I called a draft. The final draft I sent to press was Draft 21G. I did this same kind of “sub-drafting” for other drafts as well.
For Coming Home, I only had 10, even though that book was a larger undertaking in a variety of ways. I didn’t feel the need to create sub-drafts and sub-sub-drafts and even sub-sub-sub-drafts.
The sub-sub-sub-drafting of Backbeat was due less to organization and more out of (anal) paranoia. I created new drafts when I only whacked out a single paragraph or two. I didn’t create new drafts for Coming Home even when I whacked out several chapters. Or dozens of pages. I don’t know why I had fewer drafts. There’s Draft 2 and Draft 2A, Draft 4 and 4A, and a Draft 6 and 6A, but that’s it for the sub-drafts. No mining of the alphabet this time. Perhaps I trusted the/my writing process more. Perhaps Coming Home itself had a unique writing process leading to fewer drafts.
So what, you might be wondering, constitutes a “draft”?
My suggestion is to create a new draft any time you make some kind of change to your plot, story, characters, etc., that feels like it’s significant. Examples of this could be:
You come to realize a character (significant or not) no longer fits in the overall plot and/or story. Deleting him or her means you must go through and edit out conversations and other interactions he or she has with your other characters. This means you must:
- Substitute another character
- Create another character
- Delete an entire plot line, which will have an effect on the entire story and characters
You delete a large portion of your story (what you consider “large” is up to you). This could be:
- A character/characters who no longer fits
- An entire plot line or twist
- A scene that no longer fits, but filtered into other scenes later on (I’ve had to put scenes back in I wasn’t fond of
because of this!)
- A once-important chapter or chapters that now no longer fit into the growing plot/story
- Several paragraphs and/or pages (or scenes or chapters) to thin out the plot and story so it’s more streamlined
- A section of dialogue, or a whole scene that orbited around a conversation—in that moment, earlier or later
You add in:
- A brand new character that has an effect on your main characters and a larger plot line or twist
- A whole new chapter or chapters—by writing from scratch, rearranging scenes, or the division of a long chapter
- A new scene that creates a fairly large shift in the plot, story, characters, etc.
You need to completely start over:
- A large or significant scene
- A long or significant conversation
- A significant event or experience your character hasYou’re making several changes you’re really not sure you want to keep, but have an effect on several different aspects to your story.
You want to go to bed and you have an intuitive sense that the minor change you just made will have an exponential growth effect when you get going the next day.
Some of the above reasons may seem minor or petty. That’s why I kept using the word “significant”. However, it’s up to you to decide what that means. I spent a period of three straight days going through Coming Home with a digital chain saw. The result was lopping out about
As with large, a significant change is subjective.
Clearly, what I considered “significant” in Backbeat did not feel the same in Coming Home. (Given my uncertainty as to what created a new draft for Backbeat, I’ll give you an overview of what I did for Coming Home).
- Draft 1, written in three weeks! Finished on my birthday! Definitely shit (the draft, not my birthday), to again use Hemingway’s term.
Draft 2Draft 1, v 2.0, 611 pages; Draft 2A, 614 (I consider Draft 2 a complete rewrite of Draft 1. Draft 1 was essentially a treatment.)
- Draft 3, 705 pages
- Draft 4, 768 pages (there is a draft 4A, but this is where I started experimenting with parts and what I wanted to name them.)
- Draft 5 is the “balloon draft” of 806 single-spaced pages. I duplicated it, named it Draft 6.
So, for the first five drafts, all I really did was add content.
Yes, I could have just kept all that as one or two drafts, but the additions were significant enough to me to create new drafts.
- Draft 6: I took a week and a half off from work and whacked out 29% of the story (something that still amuses my father). Coming Home now sat at 572 pages. I also created actual numbered chapters (rather than divisions with ::) and began dividing the book into further parts.
- Draft 7, further chapter divisions, plot changes, additional part creations. I broke even; 571 pages, even with further deletions, which then created the need to write new and better sections.
- Draft 8 was more smoothing out, chapter changes, scene deletions, bits and bobs of additions here and there; 579 pages.
- Draft 9 came in at the same number. This was also the draft I gave to three people to read for editing—two friends and my father, whose attention to detail and love of reading really helped me shape up the book.
- Draft 10, was the one that resulted from all the edits (and a further trimming of 112 pages!). Final page count, 467.
However, those page counts are taken from single-spaced 8.5X11 formatting at 13 point font. When formatted into the required 6×9 formatting (the standard height and width of a paperback) , the 13 point font rocketed the page count up to 818!
The last five drafts were edits that came from understanding what the story/plot actually was, who the characters were and how I wanted to tell the story/plot.
I did consider creating further drafts During that 29% tear-down. But I was on a roll, and I didn’t feel the need. Instead, just as I did with Backbeat, I saved much of what I culled out in separate documents. I did this in case I found a new home for something I’d deleted (though it only happened with about three scenes, and short ones at that.)
So, as you can see, what I considered “large” or “significant” enough to constitute a new draft changed between the two books. For my next one, I may return to what I did for Backbeat; I may also use fewer drafts, even if the story is even longer and more complex than Coming Home. You’ll know what you need.
Some authors who keep to the “Three Draft Rule”, and some who say no more than five. But my encouragement to you is to do create as much as you want in as many drafts as you want.
You drafts might outnumber what I had for Backbeat. Including the sub-drafts. Nobody knows better than you how many drafts you need, and what constitutes a draft in your mind.
Next Post: Kill All Your Darlings: Self-Editing
Write a short scene using these five words or phrases: Asphalt, sugar, dryer lint, moldy asparagus, car wax. DIFFICULTY: Create a recipe that an ogre would love. Include instructions on how to cook/bake.
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