Drafting: my approach and general process

In a recent blog post, I said I’d be willing to answer some reader questions. Emy Shin (who is lovely, mind you. You should all go follow her on twitter) asked:

How long does it take you, on average, to write the first draft of a novel? Do you revise as you go along? How many revisions do you typically go through before sending the ms to a CP?

I’ve written an initial draft in as little as a month, but in most cases, I spend about 2-3 months writing the first pass. I’m one of those writers that works from start to finish. Going out of order messes with my head and I am still absolutely floored by people that can jump all over and stitch things together smoothly. You people that write this way? You are amazing!

I revise a little as I write, but only very lightly. I often re-read the previous chapter or two each time I sit down – so that I can re-root myself in the character and the story and the moment – but I only tweak obvious spelling and grammar errors during these passes. I like to leave the heavy stuff until the end. I feel my most natural writing comes when I power through. When I stop pressing keys at a steady rate, I start thinking too much, and then the words I type seem forced and over-analyzed. At the same time, powering through means skipping over areas that need additional research and not laboring over word choice, at least until it is time to revise. As such, my initial drafts end up with lots of holes:

An example of what I leave myself when I need to do research: “Joe slammed the clutch to the floor [make sure this model actually comes in a manual], shifted gears, and sped off in a cloud of dust.”

An example of what I leave myself when I can’t think of the exact right word: “Joe clenched his fists. The panic was building, intense and xx, rooted deep in his gut and hungry for air.”

And this is why I never send an initial draft off to my CP. I go through at least one round of edits before sharing it. Sometimes I fill in the holes shown above, think things are solid, and send it off for some feedback. Other times, as I fill in literal holes, I notice not so literal ones (pacing issues, plot strings that don’t tie up, actions that seem out of character, etc). In these cases, I revise an additional round or two before I send it on it’s way.*

Either way, it is always important for me to remember that this is just the initial draft. It is not perfect, nor will it be perfect, even after I’ve revised it two or three times. Sometimes I need to quit stressing over comma placement, stifle my inner perfectionist, and send it to my CP.

If anything, that is the one piece of advice I suggest taking from this post. Everything here is subjective and personal. It’s what works for me. It is not the right way, or the wrong way. It’s my way. Things here may work for you, or they may not work at all. But every single writer I have ever spoken with has trouble hitting “send,” and during any stage in the game, no less.

So just remember. It’s a first draft. There will be flaws. Take the big picture stuff as far as you can on your own, and then get another opinion. Chances are your CP will see issues far larger than the comma placements you were stressing over. Save that nit-picking stuff for much, much later in the game.

How about you? How long does it take you to write a first draft? How many times do you revise it before sharing it with another reader?

* I would also like to note that in some cases, I need a gut check before I even finish the first draft. If I’m really conflicted about the premise or the characters or just want a quick answer to the question “Is this working?/Is it worth pursuing?,” I’ll send a snippet or sampling of chapters to my CP upfront. So I guess I’m saying it depends. And there’s no hard or fast rule. Which seems to be the answer to pretty much any question when it comes to writing. Funny how that works, huh?

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