Of course, there’s no magic number. Hopefully, we all know that. But we can also agree, there’s one we can all agree on.
The thing is, you have to come up with your own process. And sometimes it takes awhile for the Emperor to find his New Groove. It’s important though, to find what works FOR YOU. Not for J.K. Rowling, not for Stephen King, not that kid who got a point or two higher than you on his Biology essays, but YOU.
Some authors have some pretty crazy things they came up with that finally did it for them. Author Chelsea Cain for instance said that her first draft has all of the conversations that she’s thinking in her head, just written down without quotation marks. Sounds crazy to me, but for her it works. Then she pares it down to what’s essential, adds in the gestures and facial expressions and all that, until it’s concise and neat.
But mine is pretty crazy too. My first drafts are always pretty huge. I’ve always done the same thing with the full conversations (just with quotation marks) so that later I can summarize several pages in a couple of sentences. The first, bloated draft comes out, full of backstory and subplots not even Watchmen’s Ozymandias would care about.
Then comes the cutting. I take a lightsaber to all the conversations that do nothing but satiate the omnipotence of my world and all the things no one cares about, then write another draft.
Then another for good measure.
Eventually I have something that’s mostly good. For One Last Day this was on draft #7. When it’s more good than bad, I move on to the next set of the complicated editing.
I don’t like outlines. Never have. I skipped the prewriting stage in school, and only did outlines when they were required, after I had a draft done. They seemed so pointless to me, like a warning that Razor scooters move when used.
But. Always a butt. I did find a use for them during the editing process. I still won’t use them for first (or second. Or third) drafts, because I’m not a psychopath, but they do help me for editing, to decide what needs to be kept in each chapter. These essential things I write down in a notebook (not on the computer? I don’t even know why) and keep by me as I go through and pull out the nonsense and add in details I forgot (That’s right, I can’t afford two computers).
Then I through them out and don’t look back–okay, I keep them saved in my giant accordion folder with all my other drafts, but still–Lists, those on the other hand, are good for me. Especially for editing. I make lists for all kinds of things. One page just says “Major Changes” on the top, then I write down everything big I need to change, characters that need to be removed, attitude adjustments, those kinds of things. These are helpful so you don’t forget the main thing you went to edit and keep in that dinosaur ninja robot from the future planet Chrobosaur.
Then for the chapter rewrites. This is where the fun starts. First, I read the chapter and take out any obvious bad sections. Then again. And again. Again. After that, I print it out for line edits with the trusty red pen. I do that a couple of times, then do another thing I mocked as a youngling; read it out loud. I gave up on the Scottish and South African accents quick, but reading out loud helps catch some things that I skip over while reading. Plus it really weeds out “book talk”, words that seem like conversation in writing but no living person would actually say. Still, there’s more. I take that now-bloody document and incorporate the changes in the computer, then print it out again.
This printout stays clean. Healthy even, like it ate well (I double-side print this one to save a Bonsai). This fresh document I setup next to me on a document holder so I’m not looking straight down the whole time. In one sitting, I retype the entire chapter to get to word level editing and notice trouble spots I didn’t bother fixing the other times around, minor changes and word choices I didn’t like but put off for whatever reason. Then I reread it again for typos a few times and make sure everything’s good, then pass it off to the wife to fix my trademark half-erased sentences I always read over.
Finally, the chapter is done.
Of course, I have to repeat it for every chapter. It’s a lot of work, but it’s this process I came up with when entering the prestigious PNWA Literary Contest that got me a spot in the finals when I still had a rewrite left to go that made it a lot better. So yes, simple workhours and willpower pay off, because even on a version that didn’t end up being my final, the quality was objectively good because of the sheer amount of effort I stuffed into it.
All right, so maybe my editing is too crazy, maybe you don’t have the time to devote to it because your spouse isn’t the sole breadwinner who lets you focus on catching your dreams, I get that. But no matter what, there’s some specifics that I think apply to anyone seeking publication, even if the process can’t be so elaborate. I know as authors our instinct is to hate numbers, but even they have their place. And we can at least count to 10. (Or at least 6, I want to be inclusive)
1. Most of the First Draft Won’t Stay
Nanowrimo is only the start. Honestly, for many published works, most of the first draft goes straight with the numbers. I never was one to think first drafts were so bad until I got to version 8 of One Last Day and realized something–less than 5% of the first draft is still here. Sure, the main concept is the same, but how it’s used, the specifics, what I did with it, 95% of that didn’t survive. It’s hardly recognizable anymore, and that’s a good thing. Sometimes, this is the hardest part. Giving up the ideas you thought were so brilliant,killing your darlings. But it pays off in the end.
2. Get a Second Opinion
It’s hard to see the flaws in your own work. Writing is mostly a Solitaire–er, solitary–thing, but if you want to share your story with the world you should make sure that it actually goes like you think, or at least, that people like it. The hard part of this is finding someone that will be honest, and find issues that actually matter. Your family’s going to love it, almost guaranteed. If they don’t, they’re abusive. Maybe a significant other can shed some needed light, but that depends on the relationship; don’t lose your love over writing disagreements (even if writing IS your love. Whoa.)
Often, authors find what we call Beta Readers or Critique Partners (CP), people who have no emotional investment in you and read your work so you’ll do the same for them. Finding a good CP can be a daunting task. Some people really don’t have an interest in anything you say, and it shows. Others are excessively nitpicky since they’re reading just so they can criticize it, and forget about what’s probably the most important part; did they actually enjoy it? Did it make sense? If you find yourself as a CP, make sure to mention this on your own critiques. Was it any good? If you have the time and the willpower, I’d read once just for enjoyment and huge plot holes, then for smaller stuff a second time. Agent Query Connect is a great community, just make sure to find someone who seems genuinely interested.
3. Be Flexible
Sometimes, your story changes to something different than it was when it started. Let it. Don’t force it to be something else. I’ve read a lot of books and seen some TV that tried to force the original ending–How I Met Your Mother comes to mind. Don’t do that. Really, don’t. If your characters change while you’re writing and have a different attitude, embrace it.
Maybe your genre will even change. Part of One Last Day’s massive transformation included the genre. What was planned to be a fast-paced adventure showcasing all the clever ways I came up with for how to use the 24 hour time difference changed a little bit in each draft until it was more about the characters involved than the adventure they went on. Instead of thrilling, it’s slower and emotional. And I even used symbols like a High School English teacher, even though I swore I never would. But just like I changed over time, so did my work.
As it should.
4. Be prepared to spend a LOT of time
Writing the first draft is the easy part. Making it so people give a crap, that’s what takes time. And for most of us, it’s a LONG time. Not even the greats who hit Mega Millions on their debut got it right the first go. At some point, even for the best among us, there’s time spent editing and reading through your work, and you’d better like what you wrote because you’re going to be reading it over, and over, and over, and over again. And over.
And if you find while you’re reading it that you get bored at some parts or start to nod off, that’s probably a good sign that part needs to be changed. It’s happened to me, and that’s where I definitely make changes. And my final one? I read the entire thing three times in week and would’ve done it three more times, because now it’s good. In fact, I read it again today. And I still love it.
Remember that no one’s going to be as invested in your work as you are, not your mom, not your spouse, not your dog, maybe that guy who’s waiting for you to finish so he can steal it, but that’s it. So make sure it’s so good that even that business professor that mocked your liberal arts degree can choke on your words. And to do that, it takes a lot of time. And your professor’s mailing address to send a pre-release copy.
When you’re writing a story for yourself, you can say whatever you want. You can have crazy disconnected plots, super characters, and straight up lie. It doesn’t matter. Even for self-publishing, you could do what you want, but I don’t recommend it. Going the traditional route–the waves of rejection letters, failed books, all that–you should make sure the stuff you write about is accurate.
Now this is number 5 for a reason, because it’s less important. Authors get away with this all the time. Like the infamous 50 Shades of Gray that took all sorts of liberties with my Alma Mater, WSU Vancouver, sparking posts like these. But any kind of publicity, I guess.
Still, I always enjoy books that go the extra mile to show they put the effort into using actual facts. It draws me in more, lets me trust them better. I even like it for speculative books, having technology extrapolated into the future instead of completely invented (No pulling out memories into computers please, ugh) though you can get away with a lot more in those genres. But for the realistic books taking place on the Earth we know, get as much right as you can, and check for updates as things change.
6. Know when to stop
I think that’s enough numbers for now, don’t you think? Yeah. This one’s pretty simple. There’s always a way to make your story better. Always. Even Star Wars *Braces for Death Star Blast*. When you come to a point where you’re only making minor changes, when CPs are reaching just to find minor changes, when you’ve read it 200 times and spent 10 years on the same story, that’s probably enough. Because even still, your editor’s going to find things you never even considered.
Then it’s time to start again.
Still looking for something? Here’s what some others have to say on the subject:
Author Rebecca Brooks and her crazy outline posters
Writing 4.5 – Editing vs Revising by brainsnorts
Everything You Need To Know Before You Start To Edit by Sacha Black
A. D. Martin’s epiphany that part of his writing process might need to change
Classic Writing Advice: Write Every Day by Kate M. Colby (As a full-time author, I personally only writ five days a week , like a normal job… Unless I get a visit from the Muse Fairy)