“I'm writing a first draft and reminding myself that I'm simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.” ― Shannon Hale, author of Austenland
You have a great idea for a book and can’t wait to start writing. You pour your heart out on the page, fall in love with your characters, and get wrapped up in this world you’ve created. As you type the last word, all you can think about is sharing your creation. It’s an exciting moment and one you should be proud of. But before you rush out and publish it on Amazon, take a deep breath, step away from the keyboard, and…wait. Then go back and make it better.
As you already know, there is so much more to writing a novel then coming up with a story. There are so many questions to answer, so many things to consider: point of view, voice, pacing, character development…the list goes on. Some of these things you will have to consider before you begin writing; others won’t be clear until you’ve got something on paper. And no one is going to get it all right the first time, not even accomplished writers. Jodi Picoult, best-selling author of eighteen novels, says it takes her nine months to write a novel. Dean Koontz, one of the most prolific writers of our time, spends six months to a year writing a novel. And these authors are writing full time! If you are squeezing your writing in around the rest of your life, as most of us are, then it could take much longer.
Your first draft may come quickly because this draft is really for you, the author. It’s the time when you turn off the critic in your head and get everything down on paper. It’s when you figure out exactly who everyone is and what’s going to happen to them (even if you thought you knew when you began). Second drafts (and third drafts, and maybe fourth drafts) are where the hard work really comes. This is where you have to decide which things your readers really need and which things can go. You need to know all that backstory about your protagonist’s childhood so you understand his personality and his motivations, but your readers may not. You may really love that lyrical description of your character’s favorite beachside resort in the middle of the sixth chapter (and I’m sure it’s beautiful!), but it may slow down the forward motion of your book and give your readers an excuse to put it down. Have you wrapped up all of your plot points by the end of the book? Are your characters acting in ways that are consistent with their personalities? Now is the time to find out.
But don’t try to do this as soon as you finish your first draft. You are too close to it to see the flaws and too emotionally wrapped up to be willing to admit it when you see them. Get it all down and then put it away. Stephen King recommends stepping away for six weeks, but there is no hard and fast rule. Just give yourself enough time away that you get some emotional distance from the work. Then go back to it and edit, edit, edit. Once you have a second draft that you are happy with, get some feedback. Hire a developmental editor (an editor who specializes in big-picture story issues), find some beta readers—just get some other eyes on it. Once you have received feedback, go back and make more changes based on what you heard. You don’t have to make every change that is recommended to you, but if you hear the same thing several times, you should definitely consider it. You’re already at your third draft by now. If you hire a line editor at this point to help polish the words on the page, you will be making more changes and coming up with a fourth draft.
Seem like a lot of work? It is! But at every step, you are working towards creating something that your readers can fall in love with. The point of all this is not that it should take a certain amount of time to write a novel. It may take one author six months to write their novel and another two years. It took Audrey Niffenegger four and a half years to write The Time Traveler’s Wife. The point is that writing a novel is a long process and you shouldn’t rush it. Give yourself and your future fans the gift of a book that has been well thought out and lovingly rewritten. And then move on. There is such a thing as too much rewriting. The point is to finish it and get it into the hands of the reading public. Do your best and then take what you’ve learned and apply it to your next book. All three or four drafts of it.