Thoughts on Completing My Novel’s Third Draft

And then there were three: first (green), second (blue), and third (clear) drafts of my WIP

It almost happened too fast for me to have any thoughts on the process at all.

Compared to the marathon of completing the second draft of my historical fiction WIP—which amounted to a complete rewrite of a draft written years ago—there was no way, I told myself, that I’d spend another year on draft three.

Or even the better part of a year

And so, what I gained in a quick turnaround time, I lost to a gruelling work pace.  Here are my reflections on the process:

1) Each draft gets shorter

Working with my second draft (with nails to match)

I’ve written previously about how I read through—and line edited (by hand)—this current draft in just over a month.

I also mentioned how, during what amounted to a summer of unending work this year, I endeavoured to revise one of my 31 total chapters a day (and didn’t stray too far off that mark either).

Ultimately, the completion of draft 3 took a little under three months, which is a quarter of the time it took me to do draft 2.

Not that this is a great surprise to me.  For although I did put considerably more muscle behind this draft, I’ve always worked under the assumption that each successive draft will take less time to finish.

The main reason for this is because, with each draft, not only does the story become more focused and aligned with the vision I have of it in my head, I become more focused as well.

That is to say, I can more clearly anticipate my life after this book is fully completed, and become more willing to make that homestretch push to get there faster.

2) Each draft gets shorter, pt. 2

I’ve always been an over-writer.

Part of this is intentional.  I’ve always been the sort of writer who crams everything on the page upfront.  I’m always keen to capture, not just whatever fleeting idea occurs to me, but also the mood and emotion behind that idea.

Since these ideas are often fleeting or not yet fully thought out, this results in a surfeit of words to help explain them, and to create a facsimile of their accompanying mood in my head.  Very much a case of that famous quote by writer and scientist Blaise Pascal:

I have made this letter longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter.

Sticky notes of chapter numbers for drafts 2 and 3, both completed

Revision is when I get around to determining which among those surfeit of words are strictly necessary.  That is to say, I revise by subtraction, not addition.

Using the sculpting metaphor, I’m the type of writer who, rather than adding extra substrate to build up the form of a framework, picks the stature out of the stone one tap at a time.

To me, my subtracting process sometimes feels more like scraping barnacles off the side of a boat.

In any case, it is thus over the course of my revisions that I get to experience the great joy (and frankly, great relief, for even when my text is at its tightest, I’m still not a “spare” writer) of each successive draft being noticeably shorter.

My first draft was a whopping 137,000 words.  Draft 2, which grew by two chapters, decreased in word count to 124,000.

Now with draft 3, I’m down to 118,000 (although I’d still like to take off a little more if I can, because debut authors with books at the upper limit of length can be a hard sell in traditional publishing).

3) The sound of not my voice

There comes a point in a writer’s life when you have to be real with yourself about what your writing weaknesses are.

For me, this meant acknowledging that even though I’ve always considered myself a writer, it’s only now at the ripe age of 38 that I’m learning to write effective sentences.

The reason for this is because within my stream of consciousness, which is where all my early drafts are submerged, punctuation is somewhat optional.  And when I do punctuate, I often employ no pause that’s stronger than an em-dash.

I’ve heard it recommended that reading your work aloud can help with run-on sentences, as well as overall flow.  But who the hell wants to read out 118,000 words themselves?

Plus, since I wrote those words, I know how they’re supposed to sound, which presents a strong temptation to modify my speech patterns accordingly while reading.

TextAloud to the rescue!  TextAloud is a text-to-speech program that is cheaper than Dragon Naturally Speaking (which on the contrary is primarily a speech-to-text program) and is more user-friendly than the built-in Windows Narrator program.

Actually, TextAloud is the best $40 I’ve spend on my writing in a long time.  I used it to sound out and shorten individual sentences throughout the entire creation of draft 3.  I also recently had it read out a 4200-word short story I’d written, which was an immensely helpful experience.

I can’t wait to get this program to read my WIP back to me.  Especially since, although they cost more than the program itself, there have been huge advances in natural-sounding computer voices.

4) The rest of the story

My first draft put to rest (for posterity) because I need the binder back

Now that I’ve finished my third draft and am hopefully within striking distance of being finished with this novel period, I have to remind myself that this doesn’t actually mark the end of the story.

I have two more installments in this tale.  And they’re already written!*

(*In first draft)

This was a conscious decision I made years ago—to draft out the entire trilogy all at once before trying to (traditionally) publish the first book.  It was an admittedly risky move, for there’s no guarantee at all that agents and publishers will be interested in book 1.

However, I needed to prove to myself upfront that I actually could complete a trilogy.  Also, I wanted to give myself some breathing space.  If it happens that book 1 does sell—and sell well—the powers that be would want that next book mighty fast.

I may succeed at powering through revisions, but I am not a fast first drafter.

Printouts of all three books in the series

Anyway, it occurred to me that while I’m currently so immersed in and familiar with the plot of book 1, now would be an excellent time to read through books 2 and 3.  This will surely prove invaluable in revealing how the arc of the entire story hangs together across all three volumes.

I’ll definitely not be fully revising the other two books upfront; that can wait.  But a read-through of each to take general notes on revision needs and to colour-code the chapters the way I do would not at all be amiss.

And since I like doing my read-throughs on paper and the third-party print cartridges for my second-hand printer are only $2.99 each, I’ve now got my end-of-year reading all lined up.  Literally.

5) Eyes on the prize

Not only will I soon start handing over chapters for my critique group to read, I also have an upcoming opportunity to get my first 10 pages critiqued by a literary agent!  But I’ll write more about all of this at a later date.

Do you revise by adding words or subtracting them?  Do you use any special tools to help you revise (e.g. a text-to-speech program)?  Tell me about it in the comments.

(Images: J.G. Noelle)

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11 thoughts on “Thoughts on Completing My Novel’s Third Draft

  1. Subtract, subtract, SUBTRACT. But my extra words don’t go into the drafts themselves, not most of them, but into the files I create to store and organize all the ideas for each scene – as I write them.

    Yes, there is a first draft – I had to get to the end once, many years ago, to make sure the logic would actually work. But this draft is now labeled ‘old text,’ and very rarely is it useful. I shows me how much craftier I have become at handling words and plot and characters – and it also slows me down because there were a few gems… those are the ‘darlings’ I have to kill. Good – but not good enough. I use very little of the old text, and almost none of it as written. Once I learned that, I stopped wasting time trying to fit the darlings in.

    I probably discard ten times as many words as I use. There will be 10-20 THOUSAND words in the collected junk – for a 1-2 thousand word scene. I give the mind free rein, say each thing in several different ways (plus the old one), and then try to bring the cleaned up work to standards I’ve acquired in the last few years. It’s called work. Shrug.

    You do a much more colorful and organized version – I’ve seen your photos. And I almost never print anything any more – though I have backups everywhere. I’ve learned to edit on the ‘page’ – the 30″ diagonal monitor. Because that way I am absolutely strict: even if it’s ONE word, it will get corrected.

    It’s relaxing to KNOW there are parts where you free-range, and parts where you rein it all in.

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    • this draft is now labeled ‘old text,’ and very rarely is it useful
      This sounds like what’s happened to my very first novel (the one that I shelved) that I plan to rewrite when I finish with this current novel. That monster grew to more than 900 pages (and I never did reach the end). Like you, I’m sure there are some gems in there, but it’s not worth my time shifting through all that mess to find them. Plus the story as I’ve reconceived it is so different from what it was, I doubt the gems would really even fit anymore.

      This shelved novel is the exception, though. I definitely don’t discard as many words as you do, and but for maybe two chapters out of the total 31 in my WIP, I don’t write scenes in different ways. Actually, I’ve surprised myself at how consistent the majority of my scenes and chapters have remained over three drafts. The excerpt I posted on my blog is virtually unchanged from when I first wrote it – just trimmed and cleaned up. But I spend a lot of time THINKING about different possible ways to write scenes. I mean, a LOT of time thinking about it. Perhaps it’s that I think through 10-20 thousand words worth of possibilities while you actually write them down.

      I am colourful; I do love office supplies. I print my drafts, not as backups, but instead to create disfluency by taking in the story via a different media. It trips the brain up a bit – makes it seem a little less familiar. For the same reason, the hard copy I’m working from now is also printed in an uncommon font that’s slightly too small.

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      • Nice to have brain options! I know my brain works with my process, and I eventually end up with finished work, but I don’t dare do all the creative things other writers do – I’ve been off on a bunch of those tangents before, and the result is horrifying.

        I am, however, about ten times faster now – on a good day – which is very welcome.

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    • Thank you! I’m glad that my process interests you. Writing a book can indeed be daunting, but the good thing about it is that there are many ways to break it down to more manageable chunks. That’s why I use the chapter number sticky notes. To me, writing or revising an entire novel is very intimidating. But working on a single chapter over the course of several writing sessions is very doable.

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  2. Your process is fascinating Janna. I almost think that you’d like to lose drafts 2 & 3 so you could re-draft #1 all over again.

    As you know I’m a sort-of dime novelist – a bit of a tidy-up and finished 🙂

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