Beyond 20 Drafts

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I am in good company to have written more than 20 drafts of a novel. Ernest Hemingway rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms 39 times. Compared to nonfiction, a novel may require more drafts and take longer to get right. Writing a novel is a unique challenge, rather like birthing a brainchild: each book is different and needs as long as it takes.

Before publishing my debut novel, Living Treasures, I had gone through so many revisions that I asked myself “What’s there left to revise?” Then, a published friend encouraged me: “You have to get through this, or you won’t get published.” She had written 27 drafts before publishing her debut. It was like a rite of passage to push through the last revision and be greeted at the finishing line of a marathon. My second book, My Old Faithful, a linked story collection, won the Juniper Prize. The stories were previously published in the literary journals. So the manuscript was pretty clean, and I just had some line edits. The toil of revision—like labor pains—is conveniently forgotten so I can go on writing another book.

My third novel, My Good Son, won the UNO Publishing Lab Prize. I was beyond honored. The book was read and commented on by students from The Publishing Laboratory. My dear editor, Chelsey Shannon, with her thorough diligence and incredible acuity, compiled the extensive editorial feedback: 5,500-plus comments via track changes and 13 pages of global comments. To be fair, two pages were praise. But there were also 11 pages of single-spaced constructive criticism. Some of the notes were line edits, but others were mini essays. It was overwhelming—and not just the sheer volume, but how the feedback took the story apart, tuned the timing of plot points, brought out the themes, and rounded up the symbolism, which made it seem like a battle plan.

I found the rewrite a tremendous challenge. Every time I changed a gesture or line of dialogue, it shifted a host of meanings and the relationship dynamics: who is hiding what from whom and for what reason? I found it hard to gauge my progress. Was I making it better or worse? I seemed to be making minute changes. Why did it feel so much more difficult than earlier drafts, when I built a world from the ground up?

It took me a while to understand that there are different stages of writing and revision. Early drafts are like building a house. The first draft is like scaffolding: prepare the construction site and pour foundation. Then, complete the rough framing: install the floors, walls, and roof. This is exciting physical work that makes me feel strong. Pretty soon I have the skeleton of a house that looks like a promising story.

The subsequent drafts complete that house: install plumbing, insulation, complete drywall, interior and exterior fixtures, and paint. This is less dramatic than the scaffolding but still feels very productive. After a great deal of hard work, I have built a new house for readers to visit.

Until this point, I have worked in relative isolation. The story and characters have emerged from my subconscious. I am more of a medium than a judge of my material. That is why the writing is so energizing and revelatory. I fall in love with my characters and their world, laugh and cry with them because they open me up to a broader spectrum of human emotions. The story is more than my own experience; it is everything in life that prepares me to understand, feel, and imagine.

After however-many drafts, my manuscript is accepted for publication. From there, it goes on a different journey. A book is a commodity and exists in an economic system that relies on readers to exchange money for goods. A book keeps readers invested for the five, six, 10 hours it takes to be read. The stakes are raised; now there is a relationship with the reader, who’s often got one foot out the door.

When an editor accepts my manuscript, they have a vision for the book and a target audience. The development edit turns my manuscript into something ready for public consumption. As the editor breathes life into my creation, the manuscript is transformed on its journey into the world.

Now I look at the development edit like performing surgery. I cut open the body, repair the soft tissue, make it work. It is minute work. I work in an operating room, under a microscope, for long hours. Finally I sew up the wound and wait.

Another kind of labor requires greater precision and different perspectives. I examine the story, somewhat like a judge, from the readers’ and critics’ point of view, and ask difficult moral questions, which didn’t trouble me during the early stages of writing. Now that time has come. I must undertake the role of both a medium and judge. When I see an editorial comment that confounds me, I need to slow down and listen to my characters. Let the material saturate me like before, and remember why I wrote this story. If the world and characters are true and strong, they will tell me what to do.

I cannot make the readers happy by pandering to them. Readers are compelled by characters that are distinct and surprising. If the characters are tamed—in other words, if I flinch or back down—I risk losing my story. Instead, I should keep my characters strong and push them harder: allow them to act true and with autonomy. Only when they are strong enough to rebel against me, will they convince and move the readers like real human beings.

Bonus Links:
Unconventional Revision: MFA vs. Therapy
Fifteen Poets on Revision

Image Credit: Flickr/Jonathan Kim