How Many Drafts Does It Take To Get To the Gooey Chocolate Center of a Bestselling Novel?

So recently, in the writing community, we’ve been a-buzz over a blog post that warned no writer should ever write four books in one year. I won’t paraphrase, but issues came up over quality and care and other such fears for people who write fast.

I thought I could write a big long blog post defending the slow writer, or villainizing the fast writer, or saying nasty things about political candidate, but naaaahhhhhhh.  Other people who are smarter than me have already done all that.

I wanna talk about drafts. How many drafts does it take to complete a finished novel? And then there’s how many drafts do I WANT it to take to get a finished novel.

I might be a bad person to talk about this. I mean, I was pantser for a long time. My first novel took four years to write. I can’t tell you how many drafts I had. It was re-write city and I was the mayor. I then turned around worked on a book for seven years. Again, playing dice the story. Paper cuts, man, nearly bled to death because of paper cuts.

Then I discovered story structure by reading Robert McKee’s STORY. And I started outlining. And while that helped, it’s still taken me years to write books.  Several. Years.

I’d be lucky to get one book every four years let alone four books every one year. But I’ve been talking to people. I’ve been looking to see what other writers do.

It seems Stephen King writes a book, puts it aside for six weeks or six months, picks it up, goes through and reads it for big stuff (in one sitting if he can), does that second draft, and it’s off to his editor. He incorporates the edits into a third draft, it goes through line edits, and bam, four drafts and he is out the door. But that’s Stephen King. He’s been at this for a bit.

Other writers I talk do something similar though. They do this:

  • Rough draft
  • First draft
  • Beta reader’s draft
  • Editor’s draft
  • Copy edits draft
  • Line edits draft

And out the door. So that’s still six, which is a whole lot less than what I’ve done in the past. Now, most of the novels I’ve written were practice, working on my chops, getting my sea legs under me. But others, well, I didn’t want to give them up out of fear.

What if I sent a bad draft out and no one loved me anymore? I’d die alone.

So I’d go over the words again and again and again. Out of fear.

Notice in the bullet points above, there’s no entry for “Edit Out of Sheer Terror Draft”. Nope. That’s not up there because the brave warrior writers I know get their books done and out into the world. Bam. Fearlessly!

I think people can write successful books and publish multiple a year. I believe that. I also believe that books need several drafts to be tightened up and beaten into shape. In the end, it’s how much time do you want to spend on this?

And the other thing?

There are no rules. Crappy, unedited books do really well sometimes, while golden books of platinum-level editing go unnoticed. No rules, baby. Do what you want.

I’ve been lucky. Well, I’ve been lucky and I’ve been smart. I paid a copy editor to go over my last draft even though I’ve had publishers edit my stuff. RMFW’s very own Chris Devlin is a great copy editor, and she’s saved my books.

But in the end, no matter how much editing you do, you’re not going to please everyone. People will find stuff. A million people could read your book, and the one million and oneth person would find a typo, or find a plot inconsistency, or notice your character probably wouldn’t have eaten the English muffin on page fifty-fix.

I’ll leave you with an example. I was talking to a Star Wars fan, and he pointed out that it was quite the coincidence that you had a Skywalker on Tatooine after the Anakin became Darth Vader. Wouldn’t someone had called up Mr. Vader and said, “Hey, kind of a funny story, but there’s this kid named Luke living on Tatooine and his last name is Skywalker. Is he a relative of yours?”

Yeah, editors missed that one. But it’s pretty safe to say Star Wars did pretty well however imperfect it is.

I’m thinking six drafts, multiple readers including a professional editor, will do for me. I don’t know about you. Find your own path, Padawan learner, find your own path.

 

Aaron Ritchey
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Aaron Michael Ritchey is the author of The Never Prayer and Long Live the Suicide King, both finalists in various contests. His third novel, Elizabeth’s Midnight, was called “a transformative tale for those who believe in magic and in a young girl’s heart” by Kirkus Reviews. In shorter fiction, his G.I. Joe inspired novella was an Amazon bestseller in Kindle Worlds and his steampunk story, “The Dirges of Percival Lewand” was part of The Best of Penny Dread Tales anthology published through Kevin J. Anderson’s WordFire Press. The first two books of his young adult sci-fi/western epic series, The Juniper Wars, are available now also from WordFire Press. He lives in Colorado with his wife and two ancient goddesses of chaos posing as his daughters. Learn more about Aaron on his website.

5 thoughts on “How Many Drafts Does It Take To Get To the Gooey Chocolate Center of a Bestselling Novel?

  1. I’ve never been able to count ‘drafts’. I print each scene/chapter as it’s finished, and read it in bed (to get a different perspective) and make some notes. The next day, I fix what I noted. If I find something that bugs me, I fix it right then. When I start a book, I read from page one every day for the first 50 pages or so, and make more changes. I give chapters to my crit partners as I write them and fix what they catch, which often entails making more fixes. So, when I hit “the end” for the first time, is that my first draft? Not really. Then I print out the whole thing and read it start to finish, making more changes. Then I send it to my editor and beta readers. I make the necessary revision, then my editor will look at my changes. I suppose ever time I hit ‘save’, it’s really a new draft. But looking at a completed manuscript as a ‘draft’, I’d say I have 3. But more like 300

  2. Nice assessment. It took me about, oh, a thousand drafts to write my first book. And it still never got finished. These days I do just a few drafts, but I am now truing my hand at a different kind of book, and I’m needing more drafts. I was trying to figure out what to call the draft that seemed to come before “first draft” and I like the term “rough draft.” I felt like it was way to discover the plot and get a peek at the characters. The real first draft came next. And now I’m doing a draft that I think I’ll want to show some readers.

  3. Thanks everyone for commenting! I was going to go into the “how many licks does it take to get to the tootsie roll center of a tootsie pop” but didn’t want to get in trouble.

    And yeah, counting drafts. It’s all just a game. But I want to write books faster and I love the first drafts when it’s still fresh and I’m in love.

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