Friday, January 2, 2009

The Sweet Center

I used to think of myself as a first-draft writer, and when it comes to articles and nonfiction, I pretty much am. Providing I have the interviews done and research in place, I can usually bang out a few-thousand-word article in an afternoon and it'll be good to go. Or at least pretty close.

It turns out this skill kind of screwed me when it came to fiction. I made the mistake of assuming that what was true for one form of writing was true for another. But it totally wasn't. My first "real" (but unpublished) novel was 105,000 words. I wrote it in 5 weeks, beginning to end, and then thought, "OK. Now let's sell this sucker." Turns out I never even made it to the query stage. My critique group gently savaged the novel, and I realized there was massive work to be done.

Since then, I've written four more books. Each has a different history, and each is somewhere in the sales process (or permanently living in a drawer). But the one thing I know for sure is that I'm not a first draft writer, and I'm barely even a second-draft writer, and to call me a third-draft writer is to be charitable. Basically, if I didn't type fast, I think it would take me about a thousand years to pound out a completed book.

I'm kind of excited about today for a few reasons. First, for me, this is the real beginning of the new year. My first 2009 work day. And I've got lots of work, which is a great thing. Second, I'm not really going to spend today doing any of that work. Instead, I'm going to work on revisions of my most recent book. It's a present to myself.

It turns out I like revisions. Crazy, I know. But it's a skill like any other skill, and after I learned how to revise, I saw how important it was. It's a little like licking a Tootsie Pop. You just keep at it, stroke after stroke, until you hit the sweet center. I like watching the real story emerge from the initial, fevered pile of words. I like engaging with each character as I go through my passes, sharpening them and learning to understand who they are. And I love the feeling when I know a chapter or passage is tight.

I've never been much for comparing myself to other writers, because I just don't think it's possible. I think every person can only produce the writing they can produce. It's an organic thing, like fingerprints and faces. If I could go back and give any advice to my 20-year-old self, I think I would say, "Be gentle with your expectations, uncompromising with your standards, and most important, take the time to get to know yourself."


Mark Terry said...

I agree with you. For my nonfiction I'm pretty much a first draft writer, at least for most pieces. I write it, I proof it and tweak a word here or there and I'm done. Off it goes, invoice included.

Fiction is more problematic. Typically I'm AT LEAST a two draft writer, although that varies from manuscript to manuscript. The proofing/tweaking stage tends to be ongoing now, and I tend to tinker with words more. Then I do the whole thing over again when I'm done.

Typically that leaves me done, although my agent may request changes, requiring me to do some more writing.

And in some books, I can feel like I'm attacking a cave-in with bare hands, moving small and large rocks out of the way, trying to clear the path.

Jude Hardin said...

I heard a story one time about some folks who were at a writing conference. A midlist author was talking to an agent, bragging about how he always nails his books in one or two drafts. The agent pointed to the mega-bestselling author across the room and said, "Really? It takes him ten."

That says a lot, I think.

LurkerMonkey said...


Yeah ... there's nothing like THINKING you're done, only to have an editor say, "Better. But needs more work." I'm sort of at a point with one book that I can't really look at it anymore because I'll just mess with it again. Every so often, I'll run across a paragraph from the very first draft and chuckle, like, "Wow. I can't believe you survived."

LurkerMonkey said...


I think for me, that's very true, and probably for a lot of other writers also. But it's been hard enough for me to "get" my own process without worrying about other writers and how they do what they do. If a first draft hits the NYT best-seller list, more power to 'em, I say.

Mark Terry said...

Although I basically agree, I also think there comes a time, as Lawrence Block noted, where you're essentially "washing garbage."

Jude Hardin said...

Dean Koontz finishes in one draft, but he literally spends hours on each and every page as he's composing.

The point, I guess, is that good writing usually requires painstaking effort in one form or another, while reading as if it just rolled right off the tongue.

I'm sure there are exceptions, though, and I agree everyone's process is different.

Erica Orloff said...

Well . . . I'm all over the map. If I write a comedy, I am a first-draft writer. I find I nail my jokes and one-liners better that way--when it's real and raw and uncensored.

If I am writing a genre-type (vampire, say) . . . I've got my process down to a two drafts.

Anything else, anything challenging, anything pushing my own internal boundaries, anything making me stretch . . . I general labor over for a long, long time. I thought that meant that maybe I wasn't meant to write those books. Now I know it's just that I have to really find my way a little more.


P.S. Nonfiction--first draft.

spyscribbler said...

Ohmigosh, I'm the exact opposite of you. With non-fiction, I swear to goodness, a 3K-4K essay will take me a MONTH. Of daily work. (No goofing around or procrastinating.) Sometimes more, depending on whether it requires reading 18 books or not, LOL. It's like writing in mud for me. I have no clue why I can blog.

With fiction, first draft. I mean, I go through and edit, but I rarely ever re-write. I have, but mostly in my first couple years of writing. I tend not to go forward unless I'm sure.

Zoe Winters said...

I like revisions too.

And I'm a tweaker. So by the time I'm done I've gone through about 10 drafts. Though due to my anal planning in the beginning, it's almost never a total overhaul at any point.