HOW MANY DRAFTS
Writers have different ways of working. I have friends who write one draft and send it to their editors. It’s finished, done, off their plate. I envy them. My first and second drafts aren’t fit to be seen by anyone except a handful of readers.
I have just finished the third draft of the 10th Calvino novel – Paying Back Jack. But is this the finished book ready for the publisher? Like my other novels, this one will go through another set of revisions. Four to five drafts to finish a novel is my average. Part of the reason, in my case, for multiple drafts, as I write a draft I find many new possibilities to develop the story and characters. An organic development arises from the writing process. It is at this stage, for me, where the pure joy of writing happens. Connections, events, snippets of dialogue, and motivation emerge from the white heat of writing inside a fictive world. I never know what will happen next. I never know the ending. In fact, I never know the opening of the book I feel works until I have finished the third draft.
I try to layer the narrative of my novels. There are often many different events happening that have, at first blush, no apparent connection, but slowly as the story builds the interrelationships start to appear. When I change a point of view, add a character, better understand the motivation of the characters, it is bound to have an echo through the entire story, and that requires second and third drafts. In the later draft I concentrate on how to best integrate the new material so that it enriches the story. Often during this process I eliminate out whole sections of the book. That hurts in the same way of ripping off a bandage. But it last only for a moment. The reality is if something isn’t working in the story, it has to go. In the current draft I tossed out an entire chapter. And large parts of a dozen other chapters disappeared with a press of the delete button. The discarded section had to go; they weren’t working to move the story forward. I had no choice; they had to be marched into the courtyard, put against the wall, and the firing squad did their duty.
The metaphor for writing fiction isn’t all that different from what we know about the universe. 96% is comprised of dark matter and dark energy. No one has any real idea what these “things” are or how they fit with the 4% of the visible solid universe of stars, planets and galaxies. Writing that first draft is when I know about 4% of the story. The other 96% remains a mystery, which is only revealed to me as during the second, third and fourth drafts. At that point there is an overall coherence, inherent logic, and the world inside the book, though as strange as dark matter and dark energy, is comprehensible and mirrors the familiar but with enough odd angles, sharp edges, and sudden turns, so that a reader will be off balance just sufficiently as to keep on reading.
On the other hand there are writers like Robert B. Parker who writes three or four novels a year. He was interviewed in The Telegraph, and said this about his writing: "I do first draft. I don't revise. I don't reread. I send it in. They edit it - and it's valuable if they do, or I'll end up spelling 'cat' dee-oh-gee… heh, y'know, sloppy. But they don't make any significant changes." Parker's longest running character, Spenser, is a tough-guy private eye named after the author of The Faerie Queene.”
In terms of inspiration, Parker says, "I said to myself quite consciously: what would Chandler do here?, if I didn't know what to do. People talk about money corrupting a writer. Poverty corrupts a writer. Money frees you. When I realised people would pay me, I stopped worrying about whether I was doing it like Chandler, and I started to go my own way. "