The fourth draft is where it all finally comes together

I’m grateful that a couple years ago I sat down and articulated my writing process and the drafts it usually involves, because it serves as a reminder, every book that I write, that I’m not crazy and that I’m finding my story even as it seems there’s no story there.

This is what I said then:

Draft 1: Write the wrong story. But sort of kind of get a feel for what the right story is about. (The exploratory draft.)
Draft 2: Write the right story. But with all the wrong words, muddled arcs, and not enough sensory vividness.
Draft 3: Get something approaching the right words. Only with lots of the wrong words still mixed in.
Draft 4: More right words. Not so many wrong words. Much tighter.
Draft 5: Polish until my teeth hurt.

Or something like that. This is pretty much a minimum, for me–that story went unusually smoothly. Any one of these draft stages can get repeated multiple times.

All of which is context for saying that very late last night, I finished the fourth draft of Faerie Winter, and finally have more-or-less the story I was trying to tell on the page. A few threads to add or tighten. An ending to pull tauter. As always, the whole book to go through for general polishing before I let it out of my hands. But it feels, at last, like a real book that Makes Me Happy.

(falls over)

Here’s how the drafts went so far, this time around, at least as I’m remembering it now:

1st draft (55K): Even more the wrong story than usual, set in the wrong town, with all the wrong characters, and with a tragic death that moved me to tears, but was also wrong, wrong, wrong.

2nd draft (92K): At least hanging out in the same neighborhood as the right story. Many of the wrong characters from the 1st draft got new names, changed gender and species, changed personalities, and through some strange alchemy formed the foundation for right characters. (But, interestingly, retained more or less the same magic they had in the 1st draft.) Protagonist gets forced to confront all the things she was able to sneakily avoid before by fleeing to the wrong town. Lots of rambling which, among other things, separated the books two equally dramatic climaxes from one another by far too many words.

3rd draft (68K): Began with deleting a prologue that almost moved me to tears and gained focus from there. Two central characters got merged into one, a new character got added, I finally accepted that one of my favorite old characters simply will not be on stage most of the story. Took two characters who accompanied my protagonist and replaced them with two others, because I felt like I’d spent the whole 2nd draft leaving the most interesting characters at home. Ages change, motivations change. Separate climaxes get stacked together, only now there are sort of two denouements.

4th draft (65K): Tighten, tighten, tighten, arc, arc, arc, describe, describe, describe, show, show, show. One climax (in two stages), one denouement, something approaching the right final line. (I have a thing for final lines.) In the end, a draft that’s not yet perfect, but is somehow right.

5th draft to come, more quickly, after I step away for a few days, and draft a short story that’s due soon. But in the meantime I feel, finally, like I have a book.

It’s magic, how this all happens. Is it okay to admit that, in a world where one sometimes seems to bump into “rules” for writing at every turn? A magic that’s fueled by an incredible amount of hard work and requires an incredible amount of thinking and rethinking, but magic nonetheless. (Then again, magic is rarely an easy or comfortable thing, and it never comes without cost, and it certainly isn’t an excuse for laziness. Fantasy readers know this.) I don’t know why this process works for me, any more than I know why other processes work for other writers, or whether there’s yet a book waiting for me that will demand another process entirely.

I only know that I need to remain open to it, and to keep making that leap of faith, at the start of every book, that there is a there there, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time.

So more revising soon. But today, a day without writing, unless it’s the sort of writing that gets the email in my inbox answered. 🙂

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