Last week, I wrote about how I develop ideas for my novels. It’s not a particularly sexy method, and many authors do much the same thing. This time, let me tell you what happens to prepare the early drafts—and there are quite a few—to step out in public. Typically, I write between four and six drafts before taking the next step. I worked through seven–count ’em, seven–“first drafts” of The Bishop Burned the Lady before I felt it was ready for the next step: trusted readers.
The first draft is just that, a rough draft (very rough!). I let it sit for a couple of weeks (unless I’m really in love with it, in which case like any love, I can’t bear to stay away). Draft 2 is structural—do the inciting incident, the four plot points, the three twists, the climax all fall more or less where they should? Is the build of the story–the logic of each scene following those before it and preparing for those to come–sound and compelling? Draft 3, assuming I’m satisfied with the structural integrity and logic of the story arc, focuses on pace and timing. Does the story move well? Are there slow spots or passages during which my mind wanders from the story? Does the tension build appropriately through every scene (in some fashion)—including the scenes designed to offer some relief?
Draft 4 focuses on language and style: Are the verbs robust and the nouns able to carry the weight of the job they are doing? Are the style and language well suited to the scene? By “well suited” I mean, do they carry forward the scene’s purpose and do the words themselves reflect the dominant mood of the scene? For instance, if the scene’s purpose is to show a character facing a crucial decision on which much depends, are the words tension-loaded, heavy with implication?
Once I am satisfied (well, I’m never really satisfied), I turn to my trusted readers, also called “beta readers.” My wife, Michele, is the first one. She marks up the manuscript with her well-tuned teacher’s pencil, showing me breaks in the logic or word repetitions, confusing sentences or passages, inconsistencies either of plot or character, grammar goofs, and all sorts of other errors. So now I’m back to draft 5 or 6.
When that’s ready, I call on my other trusted readers, four or five folks who graciously read as, well, readers. They don’t offer editorial advice, but they do offer their insights into the story or the characters, criticism about passages that don’t work for them or don’t fit the flow of the story, suggestions for improving it, and overall challenges targeting how to make the manuscript stronger. Their feedback is always helpful, very often nuanced, and frequently wise. I wait until I have heard from everyone, then compile their feedback into a single document organized according to the structure of the book. Emphasizing the changes that more than one beta reader suggest, I use that document to work my way through the manuscript again, draft 6 or 7.
Finally, it is ready for editing. I’ll write about that next week.