“How many drafts did you do of your book?”
In between getting a book deal and being able to tell people I got a book deal, I went to an event at Dun Laoghaire’s Mountains to Sea festival where an audience member asked Paula Hawkins, superstar author of The Girl on the Train, this very question. On hearing it, I rolled my eyes and groaned about it to my company for the evening (who rolled her eyes at my groaning), even though it wasn’t that long ago that I sat in the audience at writerly events and asked the very same thing of published authors myself.
Why the eye-rolling? Because I don’t believe the guy who asked wanted to know how many drafts Hawkins had done of her book. What he really wanted to know was how many drafts of his book he’d have to do – minimum – before his publication dreams came true, before his debut hit 2 million copies sold in the space of a few months (selling at a rate of one every 18 seconds, apparently), became the “recommended” book in the Audible sponsor message on Serial and started being tweeted and Instagrammed about by the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston and Mindy Kahling.
What he really should’ve asked was “How many drafts did you have to do of your book?”
I know this because that’s what I wanted to know when I asked – or silently hoped someone else would ask – questions like “How many drafts did you do of your book?” (See also: “Was your book finished when you submitted to an agent?” and “Do publishers make offers on partials?” and “How many words do you write a day?”) In his memoir We Can’t All Be Astronauts, Tim Clare despairs when a pair of friends emerge from a day spent at the London Book Fair with a deal for an idea they sketched out on a single sheet of A4 paper. We’ve all heard of ten-way auctions culminating in six-figure deals for three chapters and an outline, and I know of at least one publishing story that actually involves scribbles on a cocktail napkin. Sometimes the folklore of publishing edges very close to fabled Hollywood pitches, like the one where James Cameron says “Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic” to studio execs and gets a green light on the spot.
As a writer whose ratio of writing a novel to daydreaming about having a novel published was about 1:10, these stories were music to my ears. I collected them. Fixated on them. Turned to them for encouragement. Because I wanted the spoils, but I wasn’t prepared to do the hard work first. Not if I didn’t absolutely have to.
But boy, is it hard work. Distress Signals is almost ready for copy-editing and it’s taken a lot of work to get to this point. Here is a very long blog post to tell you just how much.
Beginnings (Autumn 2012-Spring 2013)
So you have an idea for a novel…
I don’t actually know how many times I wrote the start of the book that at this stage was called Dark Waters. Four or five times, at least. When I say “the start” I mean the opening chapters; I think the furthest I ever got was 10,000 words. I was trying to figure out how to write the book. Who would be the narrator? At what point would the story start? I have a folder on my computer full of these fragments, and very little of them – almost none of them, I’d say – made it into the final version. But I wouldn’t have got to the final version if I didn’t mess around with these aborted beginnings so much first.
Vomit Draft (Summer 2013)
The next major step in the process was a discovery draft. At least, that’s the professional-sounding name for it. In reality, it’s a vomit draft. You sit down and upchuck everything you know about the novel, filling in ideas for the bits you don’t know in between. By the time I sat down to do this, I’d spent the best part of two years kicking the idea around inside my head.
This was not a draft for anyone else’s eyes but mine, because it wasn’t a readable book. If I knew what was going to happen in a chapter, I simply wrote a summary of a sentence or two and then moved onto the next. The idea was to figure out what I didn’t know, so I skipped over the scenes I already had set in my mind. At the end of this I had about 50,000 words – but what I really had was the skeleton of the novel, the framework on which I’d build the book itself.
First Draft 1.0 (AUTUMN 2013 – SPRING 2014)
By spring of last year I was up to about 30,000 words of my first, proper, readable-by-other-people draft and, egged on by writing friends (Sheena and Hazel, I’m looking at you), I submitted the first three chapters and a synopsis to an agent. Now in my heart I knew that neither I nor the book was ready to be doing this, but at the same time I needed to do it, because I needed to take the plunge. I was trying to scale a mountain of fear and for months – years – I’d been standing at the base of it, looking up, paralyzed. I wasn’t ready to leave the world where I might possibly get everything I wanted and move to the land of reality checks just yet.
I got a rejection, which was devastating, but it was a very detailed and generous one that pointed out what I now realized was a glaring flaw in my main character’s story, a development that just didn’t ring true. I scrapped most of what I’d written and went back to the start again.
You may wonder about the logic of taking one person’s subjective opinion and changing your entire book because of it. Well, I knew she was right. I simply knew it. It caught in my gut. I knew the best thing to do was to change that element of the book.
First Draft 2.0 (Summer 2014)
So I re-started my first proper draft and this time got up to around about 50,000 words. Then I stalled. Not because I didn’t know what was to come next, but because life got in the way. I’d applied to go back to university as a mature student and in May, I found out I’d got in. This meant packing up my apartment in Cork, moving back in with my parents for a couple of months while I house-hunted in Dublin (a full-time job in itself) and then, hopefully, moving myself to Dublin once I found a place. Writing fell by the wayside.
In an effort to kick myself up the arse, I submitted to another agent. My thinking was once I pressed “SEND” I’d be gripped by a fear that she’d come back and request the full manuscript I didn’t yet have, and would therefore get it finished immediately. But of course that’s not what happened – life was still in the way, fear or no fear – and when she did request the full manuscript nearly three months later, I still didn’t have it.
Imagine getting that e-mail.
I decided to pull the old “Sorry, I Was on Hols” trick, which was plausible considering that we were now into August. I cancelled everything and spent three weeks in a caffeine-fuelled haze, finishing the last 30,000 or so words of the book. Thankfully I was working from a detailed outline so I knew exactly what to write, but still, it was tough going. After a few days of re-reading, re-jigging and revising, I sent it off to the agent…
… who swiftly rejected it. But this time I didn’t listen to the criticisms that came with the (very nice) e-mail. Why? Because they didn’t catch in my gut. They didn’t stick. I didn’t think she was right. I thought that this was simply a case of this novel not being for her.
When I read over the novel again – this was a month after I’d finished it by now – I remember thinking, “Hmm. This is actually okay!” So now I still didn’t have an agent, but I did have a finished book I was happy with.
This being the first time in the process I had a full manuscript I felt confident about, I decided to go all in on the agent thing and do a simultaneous submission to my ultimate agent wish list. Two of them offered representation and at the very end of October I signed with Jane Gregory – who I almost hadn’t bothered submitting to, because I thought the odds were so fantastical.
Second Draft (Winter 2015)
Gregory and Company can spend up to two years working with a debut author before their novel goes out to publishers, so I knew that now the real work would start. It was time to do a re-write of the Novel Formerly Known as Dark Waters Now Known as Adrift with Stephanie, Jane’s in-house editor extraordinaire.
I think this was the most enjoyable part of the writing experience for me, because enough time had passed – we were into the New Year now – for me to be able to look at the novel afresh and, with Stephanie’s input, make it much better. There were no structural changes to do (plotting is my strong point, I think) but there was plenty to be done about my characterization (my weakest link). This was also an opportunity to layer in more complexity and to tighten all the nuts and bolts. I spent about 6-8 weeks on it, and then there was another week where I worked on the changes Stephanie suggested after I sent her back the draft, and then another couple of days for typos and addressing my favourite hobby, missing words. The manuscript grew to about 105,000 words in the process (up from 85,000).
Some writers don’t like being edited and although this will sound harsh, I’m not sure if those writers really know what writing is about. Being edited is absolutely wonderful. It’s like one-on-one tutoring in how to make your book better – and not just this book, but every future book you’ll ever write. A good editor doesn’t tell you what to do – they’ll just point you in the direction of where the potential problems lie. It’s up to you to figure out how to fix them. But amazing things happen along the way. New ideas. Better ideas. A better book, by far.
It was difficult time-wise because I was in university by now and re-writing when I should’ve been writing my last two essay assignments and starting to study for my exams, and the moment I finished it I spontaneously developed the world’s worst flu. You can read more about what happened next here.
Third Draft (Summer 2015)
Now for the scary bit: the first edit with Sara, my editor at Corvus (Atlantic). The novel was now called Distress Signals. When I first met her in London we talked about some of the things she thought needed reworking, and again, I agreed with them all. I knew she was right. But when the marked-up manuscript arrived in the door with lines through some of my favourite sections, my palms started to sweat.
It was soon obvious that the entire third quarter of the book needed to be rewritten. I’d given my readers a breather half-way through, much like the moment in a horror movie when the sun comes up after a horrific night of terror. But what I’d actually done is bring the narrative drive to a halt, to slow the pace to a crawl after spending 50,000 words working to crank it up. Elsewhere I needed to dump a few research dumps, and there was more work to be done on characterization.
But, again, I really enjoyed the process. Who wouldn’t enjoy making their book better? It’s like the first draft is the cupcakes and editing is the icing and decorating bit. It’s the fun bit. The hardest part is done. Now you get to make things look pretty. (This analogy doesn’t go the distance, does it? But you know what I mean.) By the end of it I was really, really proud of my book – and still in love with it, crucially.
If I can give you one piece of advice it’s to write a book you are madly in love with, because that love is going to need to last a long, loooooong time. It’s going to have to be stronger than your desire to start a bonfire when you’re reading it for the 53rd time.
Last week I heard that my editor loves the changes and the rewriting is over. We just have some line editing to do on the new sections and then Distress Signals will be off to the copyeditor.
That’s how many drafts I had to do of my book.
What next? Oh, just the little matter of doing this all over again with Book 2.
More coffee, please.
* * * * *
Since I got a book deal, the most common question I’ve been asked is why the book isn’t coming out for a year. The next most common question is how in the name of the fudge I’m going to squeeze the writing of a whole book into the time between now and next April, when – as evidenced by this thesis of a blog post – it took me approximately five times that to write the one I’ve just finished. (Darling, let me tell you: we’re both dying to know the answer to that). So between now and next summer, I’m going to do a monthly series called Book One/Two, where I update you on the publishing process and my attempts at doing this all over again. Consider this the prologue. I’ll hope you’ll stick around for the rest!
UPDATE 17th August: Oh my, Freshly Pressed! Thank you so much, Freshly Pressed Elves. This is, somehow, the third time I’ve been FP’d. (Whaa…?) If you’d like to read the other two, they were Why, For Me, Print Will Never Be Extinct and Self-Publishing? Read This First.