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