Writing the first draft of a book is not only brave, but hugely exciting. The possibilities are endless at this stage! Plus, when you have a complete first draft in your hands, you know that the editing process can transform it; a rough sketch becomes a polished manuscript.
That being said, this part of the writing process can raise a lot of questions: how many drafts will it take – is your novel ready at third draft? At fourth? And how big should the differences be between your first and second drafts?
Thankfully, we’re lucky enough to hear how writers write every day at The Novelry. And in this blog post, award-winning author Laura Purcell walks us through the first draft stage of her novel writing process.
Laura has written historical novels about the Hanoverian monarchs (Queen of Bedlam and Mistress of the Court), and perfected bone-chilling fiction with her break-out Gothic ghost story The Silent Companions, which won the WHSmith Thumping Good Read Award in 2018 and was shortlisted for the Goldsboro Glass Bell Award. The Shape of Darkness won a Fingerprint Award for Historical Crime Book of the Year in 2022, and was shortlisted for both an Edgar Award and a Dead Good Readers’ Award.
Here, you can see how she tackles the process of writing a first draft, and prepares for the many revisions a complete manuscript brings.
A first draft is not really the first
This week I handed in the first draft of what will be my eighth published novel.
Like always, it felt disingenuous to name that file ‘First Draft’, as if it just fell onto the page that way. There are many secrets my editor and agent will never know. How I wrote 12,000 words before deciding that I’d used the wrong narrative voice and started again. The four times I completely redid my scene plan, as it no longer felt feasible for the characters I’d written to act in such a way. Not to mention the read-through I undertook after 60,000 words, when I realised I’d started the story too early. That resulted in a cull of 10,000 words and some major rewrites.
Like always, it felt disingenuous to name that file ‘First Draft’, as if it just fell onto the page that way. There are many secrets my editor and agent will never know.
As far as my publishing team is concerned, this document is my first attempt. But, as most writers will attest, the ‘first draft’ is very different from a rough draft.
And despite me having tiptoed into the editing phase, it’s still not good. Don’t get me wrong; this draft is the best I can get it on my own, I’m even a little pleased with it. But I’m well aware that by the time I hand in the ‘final draft’ – typically the third or fourth draft – I will look back on this manuscript and say, ‘What on earth was I thinking?’
As Hemmingway put it, ‘the first draft of anything is shit’.
Is the editing process part of the writing process?
One of the biggest hurdles to finishing a first draft is self-belief. Doubt creeps in at various stages of the manuscript and writers are often advised not to read their work through until it’s finished.
Now, I can see the reasoning behind this. It’s easy to get disheartened when you see the yawning gulf between your scruffy prose and the book you’re intending to write. For some people, having one large, uninterrupted ‘brain-dump’ and writing that first draft quickly is the best way to get it accomplished. Once you have the text, you can make it better in the second draft and beyond. But no one can edit what hasn’t been written yet.
But this isn’t the method for me.
Reading as I go helps me to keep the tone and story threads consistent. It also catches major problems early.
Reading as I go helps me to keep the tone and story threads consistent. It also catches major problems early, while I’m still in the first draft. My inner editor is ever-present. As I mentioned, I started my last manuscript in the wrong narrative voice. I had to rewrite 12,000 words and that was painful. But it would have been a lot more painful if I’d written all 80,000 words and had a finished draft before realising the voice was wrong.
There are so many aspects to keep track of when writing a book: character, continuity, atmosphere, voice, repeated words... Personally, I couldn’t look at all these things in one reading. I have to read the text through several times; once focusing on period detail, another concentrating on character, another on language.
Yes, I am thoroughly sick of the book by the time it gets published. But that’s how it works for me.
Infamous word count milestones
Yesterday, I told my husband I was feeling happier about my story. ‘Of course you are,’ he said, ‘it’s Wednesday. You always like your book on a Wednesday. By Friday you’ll be saying it’s terrible again.’
Clearly, I have my cycles, and the same rollercoaster of emotions takes every writer through writing a first draft.
The first step: 30,000 words
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that somewhere around the 30,000-word mark, you will hate your book. The whole thing will turn into a colossal embarrassment, the worst idea ever conceived by mankind, and you will seriously consider starting a new novel instead. I don’t know why it happens, but it’s important to recognise this stage of the process and push through.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that somewhere around the 30,000-word mark, you will hate your book. The whole thing will turn into a colossal embarrassment, the worst idea ever conceived by mankind.
That’s not to say you should ignore all alarm bells. 30k is a good point to stop and consider where you are going with the story and whether you need to change tack slightly.
With my novel The Whispering Muse, I got stuck at the 30,000-word mark and started again from the beginning four times. Yes, four times. I was going through some serious issues at the time, and my agent said she truly enjoyed the samples I sent to her, so perhaps there was an element of me being too hard upon myself.
But at the end of the day, I couldn’t see my way clear to finishing the manuscript in its current form. It wasn’t just about sentence structure or word choice. It took a major replot, a change of narrator and introducing characters who weren’t even in the other four drafts for me to proceed beyond that stage.
Reviewers are calling the result my ‘best book yet’, so maybe in this case, the 30k despair was valid? It helped me to find the best possible version of my story. But nine times out of ten, you need to tell your 30k misery to shut its mouth and get on with it.
The next step: 60,000 words
The next hurdle is typically at 60,000 words.
You start to realise how saggy the middle of your story is; surely everyone will have stopped reading by now? The pacing feels off and you’re not sure you’re heading logically towards the conclusion.
This is different to the 30k wild sorrow; at 60k you tend to like the book but feel as if you’ve mangled it. Again, this is perfectly normal, and a good time to regroup.
Here I tend to concentrate on finding my ‘through-line’; making all the scenes feel logically connected, cutting or amending the weaker links.
This is the point of the process where I finally meet the book I’ve actually written, rather than the one that lived in my head. I accept it for what it is and try to draw out its strengths.
I take time to consider my approach to the upcoming ending of the book. Oddly, I feel like this is the point of the process where I finally meet the book I’ve actually written, rather than the one that lived in my head. I accept it for what it is and try to draw out its strengths.
There may be other milestones for epic fantasy and novels with a longer word count, but I’m fortunate that mine all end around the 90k mark!
First drafts for unrepresented writers
Being used to this process and knowing what to expect makes it easier for me to weather.
I’m also in the very fortunate position of having professional aid to hand, but it wasn’t always that way.
I feel a huge amount of empathy for writers honing their novels for submission to literary agents, as, due to the levels of competition involved, their first draft has to be a lot better.
I signed with my agent on submission of The Silent Companions and when I think back, that ‘first draft’ was anything but. Years and years of work and rewrites. I’d submitted it to endless beta readers (most of whom had conflicting opinions) polished it within an inch of its life. Even so, the published version of The Silent Companions bore very little resemblance to this first draft.
I’ve come to realise that the key to succeeding as an author is not how well you write; it’s how well you rewrite. There are a number of people who can write a whole book; far fewer who can take on feedback and rethink, rearrange and invent alternative solutions. It’s a hugely difficult balancing act for a writer: you have to care immensely about your first draft, be absolutely dedicated to it, whilst at the same time accepting every sentence could, and possibly should, change.
I’ve come to realise that the key to succeeding as an author is not how well you write; it’s how well you rewrite.
If you’re currently unrepresented, my advice is to be selective about who you ask for feedback on your manuscript. Do they enjoy the books you enjoy? Do they have any publishing or storytelling acumen?
It’s so difficult to find anyone willing to read your work that it’s tempting to jump at anyone who offers help. But sometimes bad feedback is worse than none at all. If you make huge changes to suit your best friend’s taste, you might unwittingly be introducing more problems into the story, and moving it away from your dream agent’s taste.
In some cases, it’s best to trust your gut.
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