The Myth of the Perfect Draft

When I wrote my first book I had absolutely no concept of how the whole process worked. I wrote a story, read it over, sent it to a friend—who read it over and said very nice things—corrected a few typos, and sent it in. The publisher offered me a contract, and I thought, “Wow, that was easy.”

Then I got my first developmental edit letter.

I’ve had worse. I didn’t cry over that first one. But I did wonder why they’d bought the book if they wanted me to rewrite it. I decided that a first draft—revised, but not really changed—was the idea and that publishers bought ideas they liked and helped you shape them into books.

I can hear you laughing.

So I rewrote the book, from beginning to end, expanding my original 25k to just over 40k. I liked the new version. It wasn’t exactly what I’d envisaged when I first put the story into words, but I could see how it worked better. I understood what my editor wanted, and I tried to deliver.

I wrote my second book with a friend. Actually, I guess it was my third, because we’d written another one together before, during, and after I sold that first novella. We pitched this second book and four sequels to Carina Press. They offered us a contract for all five books.

My stomach nearly clawed its way through my intestines as I waited for the developmental edit letter. I felt like I’d applied a lot of what I’d learned. We’d drafted, revised, read through and revised again. We’d really worked that manuscript.

The edit letter arrived and the changes were fairly minimal.

We wrote the second book and sent it in. The edit letter we got for that one was brutal.

We worked really, really hard on the third book and sent it in. The letter we got back for that one made me cry. See, I’d decided somewhere between the second and third book that we needed to draft smarter. That we had to take everything we’d learned to that point and use it—and if we did, we’d save time on developmental edits. Failing at that was one of the hardest lessons of my publishing career thus far. It took a very long time to feel confident in my ability to tell a story after that. As a result, book four was delivered a couple weeks late. We started, stopped, restarted, stopped, revised, rewrote, and finally delivered.

The edit letter was less than a page. We’d delivered a near perfect draft. The same proved true for book five.

Believing we’d unlocked the secret to the universe felt really great until I realised what I had learned was how to write a fantastic Chaos Station book. The same approach wouldn’t work for contemporary romance, paranormal romance, a Christmas story, or even another science fiction romance. This was very frustrating to me because I hate wasting time. When I have a number of tasks at hand, I always start the most difficult first—or kick off the thing that can happen in the background while I do everything else. I prioritize. I live by to do lists and done lists.

Every edit round, I took note of what I’d done wrong—filter words, crutch words, sentence structure, commas (OMG, me and commas), regionalisms and all the rest of it—and tried to remember it for the next book, because I believed I could one day write the perfect draft. All the elements of the story would work and the writing would be impeccable. Beautiful. Perfect.

Then I met reality.

There is no such thing as the perfect draft. It shouldn’t even be attempted. The manuscript you send to your editor should be as polished as you can make it. There is such a thing as pride. 😉 In between, there is something I now call a process. It takes time. Oh, how I’d love for that not to be true. For my brain to somehow get it all right, first try.

But I am not a computer.

What I strive for now is a finished draft, and I have new rules for it because… rules. (They’re like lists only stickier.)

1. I do not edit my draft until I’ve typed “The End.” Exceptions are:

  • If I’ve hit a wall and realize the story might be going the wrong direction. Then I’ll backup and rewrite. Move some chapters around.
  • I often skim what I wrote the day before to get back into the groove. I may revise a little while doing so, but if the whole chapter sucks, then we’re in a 1A situation and need to go back to the outline.

If I’m not sure about the previous chapter, I’ll write on regardless. I can always fix it later.

2. After I type “The End” I do not go back to the beginning and start revising. I often want to. Sometimes I’m so excited about the story that I want to start revising right away.

  • What I’ve discovered—particularly when writing a novel—is that books are a lot of words. (You’re laughing again, aren’t you?) What I mean is that it’s kinda hard to keep all eighty-or-so-thousand words in your head at any one time. (That’s what outlines are for.) So, even though the last half of the book might be right there, just written, recently experienced, the beginning of the book will be more vague. And if I start back there, inevitably, I’ll forget things I’ve got at the end by the time I get back there. This creates a lot of repetition and redundancy—and might not be an issue everyone has.
  • So, what I do is load the book onto my Kindle, step away from the computer, and read. If I’m not on a tight deadline, I won’t even do this right away. I’ll let the book fade. Work on something else. Then I read from beginning to end, making notes as I go.
  • The reason I do this away from the computer is to squash the temptation to edit as I go. What I really want to do is read the book. The whole thing. See if it works first. Make note of what doesn’t fit, where the pacing sags, where I’ve repeated myself for the fifteenth time, and so on.
  1. Then I revise.
  2. And revise.
  3. And revise.

The book goes to betas in between steps 3-4 and sometimes 4-5. The point of this post isn’t really to outline my process, though. More, it’s to illustrate that my process now incorporates much of what I’ve learned along the way, while acknowledging that whatever I send in to my publisher after step seven or so will not be perfect. It’ll be the best book I can produce on my own, and I always hope not to get six pages of why it’s not working back. (Yes, I’ve had a six page developmental edit letter.)

All a first draft need do is exist. (I didn’t make this up. I’ve heard it elsewhere and adopted it.) It just has to be done. It can be as messy as you like and scenes can be missing and there can be close to a hundred comment bubbles hanging off the sides full of reminders of what was supposed to go there. But it’s DONE. That idea is out there and ready for you to develop.

I’ve had first drafts that were actually fairly lucid and nearly complete as is. I’ve had first drafts that were so bad, it took me nearly as long as writing the damn thing to wrestle it into any sort of shape. I’ve declared first drafts irredeemable. And there’s a part of me that sits down at the beginning of every book thinking this will be the one. This will be the book I write from beginning to end, and it will be perfect. First time.

Then I start writing.

Perfect drafting might be a myth, but practical drafting is not. Remembering not to use filter words, or that, or have my characters nodding like horses as I write will save time when it comes to revising, but… BUT… I’m going to be revising anyway, so…

Get the story down. That’s what’s important. Acknowledge that it might not be pretty. Let go of the need to obsess over every word. You’ll end up back there, probably seven or eight more times. First things first: just write.

You can always make it close to perfect later.

4 thoughts on “The Myth of the Perfect Draft

  1. Georgie Wickham July 27, 2017 / 5:58 pm

    Thanks – for a newbie wannabe maybe-one-day-will-be author, that’s really encouraging!

  2. Mary Anne Moore August 27, 2017 / 8:24 am

    I find I need to put a draft aside for a while (a few days – although I have one that is over 20 years old) so I can look at it with new eyes. I must admit I don’t plan out my plot in any detail. I enjoy the mystery of not knowing what happens next!

    • Kelly Jensen August 28, 2017 / 6:50 am

      I plot the beginning and I know what’s going to happen in the end. I have places I’d like to go on the way and I generally know what the plot climax and if I’m writing romance, the black moment, will be. As in, I know which story elements I’d like to tie into those events. I don’t necessarily plot them, though. I write toward them knowing that by the time I get there, I’ll have all the setup I need to write through to my ending. It usually works. 😉

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