How Many Drafts Does it Take to Finish a Novel?

Now that’s a good question. I hear the “it takes three drafts” a lot, but really it depends on the writer and the writer’s experience. Though the more experience you have in writing, the less mistakes you tend to make the first time around and typically add more “correct” information in the first couple of rounds (because you have a stronger idea of what makes a good story).

Even still, there are many well-published authors who do a lot more than three drafts (check out Lisa Gail’s interview with authors as she asks How Many Drafts Does it Take to Get to the Query Stage?). It really boils down to writing style and an individual’s organizational mode. Every writer is different. Check out this interview with Earnest Hemingway…

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
— Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review Interview, 1956

Gah! 39. Now that’s a lot! But he’s right, it’s about getting the words right even if it take 39 drafts or 390 drafts.

And then there are the super star writers who can do up a novel without much rewriting at all.

“It takes me six months to do a story. I think it out and write it sentence by sentence — no first draft.”— Dorothy Parker, The Paris Review Interview, 1956

And some people write drafts with certain issues they want to address in that particular draft.

Leslie Rose (from How Many Drafts Does it Take to Get to the Query Stage?) wrote:

Here are my drafts:
1 – vomit draft – let it fly baby
2- Story arc pass – main story subplots – overall structure
3- MC & supporting character arcs – including character development & embellishment
4- grammar/punctuation pass & bad habit pass (adverbs/tense/sentence variety/word choice)
7 – Hard copy read – make corrections
8 – Kindle read – make corrections
OUT TO BETAS
9 – Including Beta notes pass
10 – Holistic read – wearing my audience hat
11 – Corrections from Holistic read
QUERY TIME

Writing a novel doesn’t even really start until draft two and on (well, for most of us anyways). It’s the rewriting that shapes the story into what you actually want it to be. The first draft is just mental vomit.

“Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.” — John Updike

In my case, I found I didn’t even know what I wanted to say until my third draft (my novel will take a total of five drafts to be completed by the way). I have whole chapters from draft one and two that will never see the light of day (thank god!).

“Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.” — Helen Dunmore

And then there is the multiple rewrites that happen within a draft. You know, the tiny rewrites that happen over and over until you feel like you can bleed the words (though these rewrites and edits should happen in draft two and beyond).

“By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” — Roald Dahl

Basically it’s up to you how many drafts you write (and don’t let anyone tell you different!). What matters is that the story progresses in a way that you want and gets the point across.

Here are some other posts on how many drafts it takes…

Karen Woodward’s How Many Drafts Does it Take to Write a Novel?

Joanna Penn’s Writing a Book: What Happens After the First Draft?

And check out this article on How Many Rewrites is too Much?

Sooooooo, how many drafts does it take (or will take) you to finish a novel?

 

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Word Choice: Finding the Right Shade of a Word

As a writer you are an artist. The page is the canvas and the paint are the words. Use words to paint a picture, creating a movie in the theater of the mind’s eye. – Michael Knost.

I know I’ve hit on this subject before in my Good Description series, but this topic deserves repeating because of the important and necessary role that words play in writing. This is one of the areas in my writing that I have been focusing on this year. I have found that actively being conscious of the words I chose makes a BIG difference in the way a story sounds and how successful I am at conveying the story message to the reader.

Some people look at a story as a sheet of music because of the rhythm it makes as it is read. If you are a avid reader, you might know this already. Prose is similar to music because if done right it sings to the reader.

At the highest level, the sound a writer makes on the page is music. So you can say writing is music we can all read. Instead of clef notes, sharps, and minors, full stops or half stops, and all the other symbols actual music employs, English has letters, syllables, and words. – Richard Goodman, The Soul of Creative Writing 

It’s a beautiful thing when a story comes together with all the right characters, story arcs, meanings, and emotional depth, but none of it means a thing if the symphony of words comes to a jarring stop because one word sticks out like a sore thumb. The wrong shade of a word can cause teeth to grind and the reader to become a disbeliever of the world that was created in the story.

What do I mean by a shade of a word? As you already know from all those years spent in grade school, there are many words that have similar meanings or synonyms. I strongly encourage pulling out the thesaurus or even use www.thesaurus.com to discover words that might work to keep the rhythm of the story in tune.

Example 1: 

The street was bare as she walked across to the other side.


The street was empty as she walked across to the other side.

Which do you think sounds better in this situation? Well, it all depends on the context of the story. The first thing that comes to mind when we see the word bare is to associate it with someone without clothes. Yes, it also means unadorned or open to view, but is it the right word for this situation? It might be if you have a story that is about nakedness or a character that has a quirk of taking off their clothes for no apparent reason. Then using bare would be an excellent choice to describe the street, because it’s mirroring the theme of the story or flaw of the character. Otherwise, empty might be a better choice.
Example 2:
A story has a main character who is the CEO of a company. Which do you think he would be more likely to say?
“Our numbers sucked this quarter. How the heck did this happen?” 
OR 
“Our numbers were atrocious this quarter. How could this happen? “

The second example leads me to another thing that should be considered in a story… the character. Make sure characters have their own voice and not that of the writer… you. Use words that reflect the character’s background, profession and personality to make the character unique.

What colors or smells would a sailor know that a farmer does not? How would they describe something they both have seen? Wouldn’t the different experiences of the farmer and sailor cause them to  have a slightly different skew of the world around them?

Whether you are painting a masterpiece or conducting a symphony, getting the right word is essential to making the story the best it can be. Like any painter or musician, it takes practice and plenty of patience to be good at the craft of creativity. The next time you sit down to write and run across a sentence or paragraph that doesn’t feel right or clashes on the ears, pull out the thesaurus and take a closer look at the words. Let the rhythm of the story tell you what shade of word should be used.

***

Note: Some of the above information came from notes from a recent class I took by Michael Knost. A man who always knows how to blow my mind and make me see things in a different light. Thank you, Michael.