I was asked this question during the week. And I laughed. The other alternative was to cry. Because I am not yet the kind of writer who can turn in my first draft to my publisher. I know some writers do this. How I envy them, that they can produce a first draft that is readable, coherent, and not something to be ashamed of. I can, hand on heart, say that I can’t see myself becoming the one-draft writer for a very long time, if ever. So, why do I do so many drafts? Let me tell you.
I Don’t Really Do THAT Many Drafts …
First up, I should say that I actually don’t think I do all that many drafts any more. It was draft lucky number 13 that won the TAG Hungerford Award back in 2009, and which then – after a LOT of editing – became my first book, What is Left Over, After.
These days, I do about 6 drafts before I submit a manuscript to my publisher. I submit when I no longer have any ideas about how I can improve my manuscript. It’s probably not perfect, but I need another set of eyes to help me make it better. To get to that point, here’s what happens in each draft.
The First Draft
I’ve said before that my first draft is a discovery draft. It’s where I work out what the story really is. I know some of the bones when I begin – I have to, as I have to submit a synopsis to my publisher when I sign a contract – but those bare bones need a hell of a lot of flesh and skin and muscle and heart, and often a few bones get lost or added along the way.
I write my first drafts fast. I don’t edit. I don’t spell check. I don’t fix up typos. I don’t go back and fix things. I move in one direction only, and that is forwards.
It means my first drafts are unreadable in places, dreadful in others, gappy, and occasionally contain little sparks of wonder. In short, they are a relief. Because it means that when I get to the end, I know what the story is.
The Second Draft
Now that I know what the story is, my job is to tell it better. That’s a large part of what draft 2 is all about, as well as adding in all of the research information. I usually take a month off between draft 1 and 2 to do all of my research, and in this draft I put the research into the book, fill in all the gaps, and make things historically accurate.
The Paris Seamstress and The French Photographer are both dual narratives. In the first draft, I write the historical and the contemporary narratives separately. So a big job in draft 2 is to chop up and intertwine those narratives in a way that seems to best fit.
The Third Draft
This is the first time I print my book out and read it. This draft is all about fine-tuning and honing the motivations of each character. Why are they an optimistic person, or a cynical person, or someone who finds it hard to trust, or overly ambitious? I make sure I have their back-stories worked out properly now, and that those back-stories are dripped into the book in all the right places to give readers an insight into why each character is as they are.
It’s also about making sure that everything that a character says or does is based on their reaction to something that’s happened in the story. Why they behave the way they do and why they say the things they do needs to be clear. They can’t just decide to turn their life upside down and move to New York on a whim. There must be a reason, they must act because of their specific emotional response to something that’s happened to them.
It’s slightly fiddly work, but ultimately very rewarding.
The Fourth Draft
You might have seen my blog post about my colourful “What is Known” Chart. I do the chart after reading through the third draft and before I do the fourth draft. Then, I take in everything that I end up highlighting on the chart into this draft.
This is usually the big, structural stuff. Moving scenes and chapters. Moving entire parts of the book. Making sure that as I re-thread the historical and contemporary narratives together, each one has mirrored and referenced and shed light on the other.
The Fifth Draft
This is a more detail oriented edit, akin to a copy-edit. I tend to find I have repeated myself a bit in my efforts to make sure that the reader really gets what’s going on and now I will remember to trust the reader and just say things once. I’ll fix up inconsistencies and put in any last-minute research, double check every fact, plus the timeline to make sure people are actually pregnant for nine months rather than five.
The Sixth Draft
This is the tidy-up and is very much like a proof-read. I take in all spelling, typographical and grammatical errors, remove awkward wording, prune back the similes that I love to overuse, reduce flowery language, make sure there isn’t too much grimacing, crying, sighing, nodding, turning, shrugging or whichever other pet words have crept into this manuscript.
There you have it. I much prefer to only concentrate on a couple of things in each redraft, and to do those things really well. I find that if I try to fix too many things in one go, I end up making things worse. Which is why it takes me a few drafts. I should also end by saying that I love redrafting; there’s nothing more satisfying than knowing you’re making your book better.