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How many drafts does it take to make a novel?



I don't think I've heard of anyone yet who can write the perfect novel in one go. Drafts - legions of them in my case - are where the magic happens.


Of course, nothing compares to that heady first draft. The blank page exhilarates and terrifies in equal measure and it's best just to keep going and not look back until you've reached the end. I'm at that stage now with my new WIP and it's lovely to be writing a first draft again with the story blossoming and the characters showing their true selves.


Somehow, with a first draft, we turn an idea into a vision and then into a collection of words. The alchemy of taking what is in your mind and putting it down on paper is both nerve-wracking and exciting.


A first draft has its own challenges, of course. We are essentially making something out of nothing. Voices of doubt clamour at the door and you have to hold your nerve on a daily basis. But, hopefully, we can enjoy the freedom of just getting the story out. As Jane Smiley says:


"Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist."


It's the subsequent drafts that can cause difficulties. I used to struggle with what to focus on first when editing: the characters, the language, the plotting, the tension. There was so much going on at the same time, it was hard to see the wood for the trees.


I found Lisa Hall Wilson's Editing in Layers really helpful. She explains what prompted her to create a 6-step plan for editing her first draft:


"I got real tired of editing for months and months because I was approaching the novel chapter by chapter. Every chapter had to be perfect before I moved on, but a small edit in the middle could have ripple effects that forced me back to the beginning. I was getting nowhere."

She developed a process of doing sweeps over the whole novel, focussing on a different area each time: Goals, Plot, Scenes and Sequels, Weaknesses plus Characterisation, Emotions and Consistency. Tackling the editing in layers helps me to keep in mind the novel as a whole. You can read more about Lisa's techniques here.


Great things can happen in the editing process. I liken it to tuning a cello. There are four tuning pegs on the scroll and four fine tuners on the tailpiece. The tension on the strings is used to secure the bridge and the sound-post. Perfect pitch is only achieved when all the elements are working together. When the different parts of a novel are in tune - the themes, imagery, characters, plot and language - you can feel the whole manuscript tightening and getting closer to completion.


So how do you know when you've reached the final draft? The temptation is to go on and on, tinkering and fine tuning, re-writing and editing but at some point you have to call it a day.


For Raymond Carver, that moment came when he started making tiny changes and then undoing them again:


"Evan Connell said once that he knew he was finished with a short story when he found himself going through it and taking out commas and then going through the story again and putting the commas back in the same places. I like that way of working on something. I respect that kind of care for what is being done. That's all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones, with the punctuation in the right places so that they an best say what they are meant to say."

Other writers talk of reaching a point when you just know that you can't do anymore. It seems that instinct has a lot to do with knowing when to stop.


At that point, it is time to hand the book over to an editor, agent, a beta-reader or friend whose opinion you trust. Writers' groups and beta-readers can also offer another perspective on your book and give constructive comments on how to improve it.


My agent, Rebecca Ritchie at A.M. Heath Literary Agency, is very insightful in her reading of my final drafts. She gives a general overview followed by specific areas to work on, which are always in tune with the story I'm trying to tell.


I'm also fortunate to now have a wonderful editor, Hannah Smith at Penguin Michael Joseph, with whom I'm working on edits for my novel, The Paris Affair. Having someone in my corner, with an expert and meticulous eye on plot, setting, characters and everything else, has been transformative.


Once all that has been taken into account, it's time for the very last read through before submitting your novel to a literary agency or publisher. I've recently discovered the joys of reading my manuscript on a Kindle rather than on a computer screen. It freshens up the story for my jaded writer's eyes and makes me feel like I'm reading it for the first time.


I also find that reading the book aloud is an invaluable way of making sure that the language flows and the story sparkles.


Letting go of a book is one of the hardest things to do. The sweet intoxication of writing lies in the hopeful anticipation of what might be created. Perhaps, in the end, what Paul Valéry said of poetry is also true for books:

“Poems are never finished - just abandoned.”


It's difficult to accept that sometimes the reality will fall short of the dream. However hard we try, there will always be things we want to change. We risk becoming like Mr Casaubon in George Eliot's Middlemarch, whose book 'The Key to all Mythologies' is constantly worked on but never completed in his lifetime.


If we don't abandon our novel at some point, we won't get the opportunity to move on and let the whole creative process begin again with the next book. As Carrie Fisher writes at the end of Surrender the Pink:


"Nothing is ever really over. Just over there."

So how many drafts does it take to make a novel? There's no fixed answer to that, I'm afraid. I personally don't have a magic number, nor can I recollect how many drafts my book has been through (it's probably too many to count). The only thing I can say is: stay tuned to your writing and when it's ready, it'll let you know.










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