The most recent controversy I’ve been seeing in my twitter feed is a lot of people complaining that other writers don’t go through enough drafts. It makes me ask questions, though, because I’m not sure I understand the problem. Is there a numerical requirement on the number of drafts you should have? Is there a limit? There’s a danger of applying a uniform writing process to everybody because it doesn’t always fit everybody. It’s like saying you have to outline, or outlining is a waste of time, or you have to write everyday. It also creates a false us vs. them paradigm that as aspiring writers or indie writers, we really don’t need to have to each other.
(Several traditionally published writers I’ve talked to like this war and already feel that way with them versus indie, on top of being a wee bit pretentious, so I have washed my hands of them. But the rest of us should make an effort!)
When it comes to the minimum of drafts, I always say at least two drafts are needed. Your first draft, you are just getting everything laid out that’s been up in your head. The second time, you need to look at it like a reader who doesn’t have the knowledge you do up in your brain. Do you explain everything, do you have a glaring hole in logic? Also, are you characters consistent, is your world explained enough? Your second draft can let you fill all that in, plus start on copy-edits. (No, I don’t count the various integrations of copy-editing as drafts.)
I do at least two drafts, though Sun’s Guard: Ten went through a handful as first I struggled with opening in the right place, then I cut out a subplot to save it for a later book than crowd the first book with characters who weren’t entirely needed yet. First draft I’m not worried about structure, I’m not worried overly much about descriptions for old characters or places, I’m not paying attention to my logic. I’m following the character and her goals, I’m following my villain and their goals, and the resulting conflict. That’s what I want written down. Then on my next read-through, I check for those things–descriptions, tags, logic–this one mostly summed up in making sure the reader is aware of Caley’s goals and also on Caley’s emotional positions in key scenes, which sometimes require some elaboration–that all the places are described in ways that invoke more than the visual senses if I can.
One person even asked a question (that I answered, though I suspect it was rhetorical) about why people do detailed outlines. Well, this is a form of drafting! I can use it as a sort of preliminary draft, to block out my character’s actions and know who goes where, or notice if we haven’t seen a side character in a while and I need to fix that. Remember, I’m holding two opposite goals in mind that I have to dovetail together–that requires planning, whether you do it in the moment or before you get started. By doing some very rough outlining, and then filling in more details with each “act” as I go, I can keep pace of myself as well as spot good places for emotional gut-punches. It also lets me treat my first draft as getting the story out, and then the second draft as adjusting the fit of the story over the outline. This keeps me from, to paraphrase another writer I heard speak in grad school, from having to change all the bones and organs under the same skin.
I don’t expect everyone to outline though. For some people, they can’t do it–I had grad school fellows who just couldn’t do it and that’s why they didn’t go with the advisor I did. Some have to outline more deeply than I do. I’m sort of a joint pantser-plotter (referred to as a plantser) at this stage in my writing career. I start with a paragraph of rambling that I know happens in the book, roughly. And then I plot each “act,” from Act I to Act II Part 1 to Act II Part 2 (which are divided by the midpoint where my protagonist’s goal has to change or their path to it alter) to Act III, one at a time, write it out, then plot the next while consulting my rambling paragraph and how the structure of the plot is working out. But that’s my approach. I’m not going to force it on someone else.
Much like I’m not going to tell someone they have to have at least four or five drafts of their book. They may not need it. I say at least two so you can at least objectively review what you have and see what needs changed (something always needs changed, whether that’s more description added or a plot hole that needs filled or a conversation that has to be restructured), but otherwise… It’s going to depend on you and your story. Ten took easily six or seven drafts by the time it was all said and done with all the restarting I did and an experiment to add length that ended up failing. Sun’s Guard: Page…doesn’t look like it’s going to have that problem, so I’ll probably just have my outline-draft and then the two normal ones. Some of my other stories I also don’t think will have that many drafts.
You know what my biggest piece of evidence for only two drafts being required is? None of my professors ever expected more than that in grad school. You’d submit the original story, get feedback, edit/adjust, and submit the second draft for your grade. Oh sure, you may still get notes back, and that’s not to say you didn’t do six or seven or twelve drafts on the side (…my horror short story and I were not friends…), but all you had to do was two, because my professors knew what I know now–you miss things in the first draft, so you got to do a second to fix them. Even the English professor I hate to this day only made two drafts a requirement…and then screwed your grade over so you had to do the third draft, but my point is made.
So how about we lay off of each other? So I only do two drafts and an outline, and someone else does eleven. This doesn’t mean there book is necessarily better than mine, or mine would be better if I worked at it more, or anything like that. All it says is we had a different experience writing our books, neither positive or negative unless we chose to view it that way.