I recently finished my third draft of Virginia’s Ghost, the novel I’ve been working on for longer than I can believe. Without a doubt, I’m a putter-inner, not a taker-outer, as my first draft was a bare-bones one and came in at a very slim 30,000 words, while this most recent draft is an impressive (to me, anyway) 61,000 words. I printed it out and discovered that it’s got physical heft if nothing else.
Seeing my book all in one big pile almost made me weak at the knees, and in a reckless moment I almost passed the thing on to one of my trusted editor colleagues. But after rereading it, I realized that it’s almost where I want it to be, so I’m not ready to relinquish it just yet to editorial scrutiny. Almost isn’t nearly good enough for me, nor should it be for any author. I refuse to embarrass myself.
So what’s my next step? Instead of diving directly into Draft 4, I decided to write a summary of each chapter. It’s my way of stepping back into a more objective mode of thinking and ferreting out all the things that need to be fixed: the little timeline glitches, the things that are missing, the events that don’t quite add up or that feel contrived, and the stupid things that sometimes come out of characters’ mouths when you least expect it of them. I’ve written suggestions as to how I’m going to fix these things at the bottom of each chapter summary. The blue writing identifies my main storyline, while the red is a second storyline. I’ve also done some hard-copy edits right on my draft.
But aren’t you supposed to do all the outlining and summarizing stuff at the beginning? Certainly a lot of writing books suggest drawing up an outline well before you write the book, and I often suggest it to clients who seem to be struggling with an unruly plot. But I began writing the book well before I knew very much about outlines, but more importantly, I think that my initial outline probably would have been nearly as skeletal as my first draft. In other words, my writing process doesn’t seem to lend itself to the outline-before-you-write approach. I find myself layering new stories into each successive draft, adding richness and complexity (I hope) to the storylines. There are things going on in the third draft that would have seemed inconceivable to me when I was writing the first or even second draft.
All this reminds me that there are probably as many ways of going about writing a book as there are writers. We each find our own way of getting from that first blank page to the end of that final draft. Our path may be straight, swift, and sure as an arrow heading toward a bull’s eye, or it may be more like that of a meandering, lumbering bear apparently not heading anywhere in particular. The choice is ours, and there is really no right way. The only thing that matters in the end is that the book itself is everything we want it to be.