I loved fairy tales. I knew what I’d do if offered three wishes. I was sure I’d be nice to the king’s youngest son – even in disguise.
I wanted to be a writer because you could tell stories all day. Live in a house by the beach. Never work in an office.
Best of all – you’d have an editor who understood exactly what you wanted to say and fixed everything you wrote and made it better.
But. Becoming a writer means not only learning how to accept criticism, it also means killing your darlings, and letting go of the fantasies.
No matter how many novels or stories I wrote or tried to write, no matter how many jobs I had working as a writer, the magical editor never appeared. I’d always be faced with marked-up copy that left me with days of revising.
So when someone sends me a manuscript that’s a bit of a mess and I know they’re hoping I’ll send it back all polished and perfect. I try to break it to them gently.
Maybe 20 years ago, although it could have been 30, I was friendly with a writer who was working on a novel. In December she told me if she didn’t have it finished and sold by April, she would stop writing. She was approaching 40—she couldn’t afford to waste too much time if she didn’t have immediate success.
I’d been teaching novel writing for a few years and I knew that for most writers 6 months wasn’t nearly enough time to write a good book, find a good a agent, and sell it to a good publisher. So I asked her—if she got to April and she hadn’t accomplished everything, what would she do? She said she’d just stop. End of story. She’d do something else.
I could have told her, and maybe I did—it doesn’t work like that. Writers write. That’s what they do and if they don’t meet some arbitrary deadline they’ve set for themselves based on who knows what formula—they keep writing.
Not her, she said. So sure she’d be finished with the novel and happy with her new agent.
Here’s what happened. April came, the novel wasn’t done. It wasn’t even finished by the following April—and to no one’s surprise she was still writing. It took four years for her to finish the book. She did get an agent. No publishers picked it up. So she started the next book.
Ten years later she was still writing.
I’ve lost count of how many writers I’ve worked with in the past 20 or 30 years who have told me they have an absolute deadline. Before the kids get out of school. Until I need to find a new job. (I won’t even mention that wild November ride with NanoWriMo that may have made this whole fake deadline syndrome worse.)
The pandemic has created even more of these false deadlines because sooner or later kids will return to school and offices will reopen and all that free time will shrink. Right now I know at least three writers who have to be done by June, July, and August. Otherwise . . .
Here’s a secret I sometimes try to share. The deadlines are meaningless. Unless they’ve got a contract, an advance, and a drop-dead submission date from a publisher, the deadlines they’ve set for themselves don’t carry much weight.
Writers write. Books take as long as they take. Agents aren’t always easy to get and even then, there’s no guarantee a publisher will buy the book.
So instead of driving yourself crazy to meet some arbitrary deadline—let your imagination set the schedule; give the book as much time and space as it needs.
Enjoy the process.
No matter what date you’ve set for yourself, if you want to write a book, you’ll keep on writing.
When I finally had a New York editor – who agreed to meet me at the Algonquin just to humor me – I got to ask the one question that had been plaguing me for years.
How long is a chapter?
My editor was kind and lovely and smart. I expected to be given the key to unlock all the mysteries of writing. Instead she said, You’re the writer – you decide.
After piles of rejections and rewrites, after following protocols and trying to get it right, could it really be I had the answer all along?
Years later I was struggling with a draft of a novel that wasn’t quite right. I complained (okay maybe whined) to a friend that the book wasn’t very good.
He, too, was kind and wise. I was sure he’d understand. Instead he said, You’re the writer – make it better.
No buts, he said. It’s really that simple.
These days there’s so much good advice online about character arcs and pacing and narrative drive and showing not telling and protagonists with agency, it’s enough to overwhelm anyone tackling a book.
I get questions all the time about what to cut and what to add and is it interesting. And yes, more often than you’d think, authors want to know – how long is a chapter?
My answer is and always should be – You’re the writer - you decide. And if it isn’t good – make it better.
Photo by Wilhelm Gunkel on Unsplash
It used to be when you were just starting out to write a novel, common wisdom had it you'd need to do at least 5 drafts - 5 complete drafts, not just fiddling and tweaking - before you could even consider your manuscript ready for anyone else to read.
It's worth repeating. At least 5 drafts.
Five times you'd start at the beginning and go all the way through and do more than just move the words around - you'd come up with new situations, kill off a few characters, and how did a horse get in there? You'd go from first person to third and then back again only to wake up in the middle of the night and realize you needed both but from two very different point of view characters.
By the time you got to the third draft, everything had changed. And it wasn't until the fourth draft that you realized what you were writing about. But the really important twist didn't surface until the fifth.
Even after that, there would be more drafts because an agent asked you and more again because your editor had a few ideas.
In other words, it took a long time to put together a good novel.
Note: This isn't about questioning whether you can write a novel in a month. Like this month. Although I may be one of the few who think you can't.
When I taught classes and workshops I'd mix metaphors shamelessly.
The first draft, I'd say, is making the clay, the next several are shaping it.
Or else I'd say, I imagined it was like writing a symphony (as if I'd have a clue how that's done). In my imagination you'd need one draft for the strings, another for the horns, someway to put them all together and see if they could produce music. Only to come back and start again because you'd left out a part for the oboe.
No matter how I tried to describe, it I knew from my own experience and from working with other writers, it's almost impossible to nail it the first time through.
And then there's the idea that you might need to write one or twelve novels before you got it right and had something publishable. But that's for another post.
The reason I mention this about drafts, here on my coaching website, is because I often have the feeling that when writers start to work with me, they're under the impression it's kind of one and done.
They do a draft while I read over their shoulder and make pointed comments and hope that once they make the changes I've suggested, they've got a manuscript that's good to go.
The hard, bitter, crushing truth is that's hardly ever true. In fact, never. It's just too hard to handle so many moving parts the first time through.
Yes, working with a coach can save you from wasting time floundering. And having an outline can keep you from getting lost. Spending weeks thinking it all through ahead of time before you write that first chapter, can save you weeks of spinning your wheels. But. Can you really get it right on the first draft?
Look, the whole idea of creative writing is to keep your mind open to possibilities. So yes, it's possible you could get it all right in one draft. But when I work with someone I can only promise I'll get them through a draft or two. I never promise that when this draft is finished, whether it's the first or third, that you'll have a polished manuscript.
Writers often interview me before they decide if we should work together. They want to know about fees and deadlines. But we never discuss if they're secretly hoping when we get done with a draft, they can send it out
So, if you're reading this because you're thinking of contact me - I hope you'll take to heart this bit of common wisdom. I do believe it takes at least 3-5 drafts to finish a manuscript.
But I do try to make all that work interesting.
Photo by Mindspace Studio on Unsplash
Let's talk about drafts