Question of the Month: Drafts

by Susan Henderson on December 3, 2012

Tell me about your editing process, and where are you in your current project?

In May, I completed what I called a first draft of my new book—that initial dump of all of my ideas that resembled the shape and length of a novel.

Since then, I’ve been structuring, cutting, moving, shaping, developing themes and emotional layers, adding and subtracting characters, simplifying some things and complicating others, panning in, panning out, balancing the length and pace of the chapters. All the while, I’m reading, reading, reading to train my ear, to keep the bar high: Camus, Baldwin, Steinbeck, Brontë, Gaiman, Stoker, Irving, Wharton, Dickens, McCullers. I’m nearly done with this second draft, and I like what I see.

Though I’m close to my next milestone, I still haven’t, and won’t, show my manuscript to a single soul. I’m enjoying this time of creating and dreaming alone. I love marking up a chapter, editing it until all the marks are cleaned up, and then starting again. I imagine two more drafts before I send it to my agent for feedback—the third draft where I pay attention to the individual sentences, concentrating on language, imagery, and rhythm; and the fourth where I spend a few weeks living in the town that inspired my setting. (More on that later. No reason to go on about the fourth step when I still need to nail the second.)

So how about you? Want to say where you are in your current project or anything about your process? I’d love to see how you work.

In other news, I’m interviewed at length in a new book written by Chuck Sambuchino and published by Writer’s Digest Books. CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM is an incredibly fascinating and helpful book about how the publishing industry has changed and how writers can best adjust to the new expectations. I found myself underlining and dog-earing lots of advice, and there’s enough diversity of styles in the book to suit different personality types. I particularly like the interviews with Cal Newport and Lissa Rankin. Definitely worth picking up!

I’ll close with some thank you’s: Suder BlogEsmee-Jacobs, Girl Called BelovedRhody Reader, True STORIESBitch Media, and The New York Times. I appreciate the press!

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Billy Bones December 3, 2012 at 12:30 pm

Lately I’ve been editing more along the way. And as new ideas occur going back and layering them in. I’m also trying to put projects away for a month or so before I go back and rework them. I’m not always successful with that. Working in a writing group has been hugely helpful, too.


Susan Henderson December 3, 2012 at 12:54 pm

I do that, too. I’ll write a scene in some later chapter that causes me to go back to an earlier one and layer in something that I’ve just discovered about the character. I’m glad you have a good writing group!


Billy Bones December 3, 2012 at 12:57 pm

They are the best. Amazingly supportive, talented, and funny. I’m lucky to be part of it.


Jessica Keener December 3, 2012 at 12:48 pm

My pattern of editing seems to take years. I write a first draft, which takes about a year. I do this by filling a daily quota, about 500 words a day, 5 days a week. But, to be more specific about my newest novel: after the first draft, I spent another year reworking, rearranging chapters, adding stuff, removing. That’s when I finally showed it to a few, trusted readers, people who wouldn’t sugar coat their responses. I ended up excising a character. That was a surprise. I loved the character but she belonged in another novel. When I did this, I felt relieved and it helped me move forward again. I put it away when the noise in my head was too loud, though. Another year went by (because I published my debut-hurrah!). I pulled the new novel out again and began editing over several months. I won’t say more than that right now because staying quiet about part of the process is also a key part of editing for me. Congratulations on your great press, and your progress, Sue!


Susan Henderson December 3, 2012 at 12:58 pm

What an interesting revelation to discover your character belonged in another story. So glad you didn’t have to kill her off entirely! I absolutely love hearing about your process, and I think your writing shows the kind of wisdom that can only come from letting the work incubate and not rushing it.


McKenna Donovan December 3, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Hi, Susan! Love the photos of your revision-ing draft! Makes me feel not so silly about doing the same thing. I still love to work on paper, including draft work. My first revision is putting the handwritten notes into computer. A light clean-up. Then comes the journaling: who are these characters, deep down? What are their flaws, and what does the story NOT do to make them face those flaws? Where did I go too easily on them?

I like to draw a very rough, handwritten timeline, showing scenes of HIGH interest, scenes of BUILDING interest, and scenes that are interludes. That “chart” shows me the pace of the novel.

Then I begin again, revising and building. Quite fun; sometimes serious, sometimes hilarious. How a drunken Irishman turned into a wise-woman Torres Strait Islander is one revision I’ll never forget.

Thanks! I’ll be back to see how others work through their drafts and revisions. Good stuff here! And congratulations on your interview in Sambuchino’s book!


Susan Henderson December 3, 2012 at 1:17 pm

Thanks for bringing up writing by hand versus on the computer. I’ve learned again and again that my best writing sessions happen either on a legal pad or on the stories I talk into my phone’s voice memo while I’m hiking. I’m not sure what the difference is, but I tend to go deeper, the storyline or the scene tends to be more fluid, and there are emotional details that I can’t seem to access when I’m typing.

So glad to hear about your process and your focus on character flaws. What a lot of faith we all have with our blank pages and messy first drafts, trusting it will all come together!


McKenna Donovan December 3, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Yes, the handwriting (and “trail-writing”). For me, it’s the tactile experience of the pen traveling over the page. It gives my mind time to sort and select before the pen gets to the words, so the drafts are less scattered.

I’ve heard that hiking (treadmill if you’re inside) is an awesome way to generate great ideas. A good reminder, that one!


Susan Henderson December 3, 2012 at 2:35 pm

Ooh, I like the expression “trail-writing”… think I’ll refer to it that way from now on.


billie hinton December 3, 2012 at 1:44 pm

I love seeing the photo of our editing work! Right now I’m doing fairly final edits on two books and writing the first draft of another. I find myself able to do all three some days and on others I go deeper and longer into one of them. I have tried forcing myself to just work on one at a time to get that one finished, but for whatever reason I seem to need to make progress on all of them right now, so I’m giving in to that notion.

My process is much like yours – I like to get the first draft “out there” first and then I go back and start making what I call passes – a pass where I read for threads that need pulling through, a pass for deepening, a pass for language, a pass for following each character through the entire story, etc. At some point I end up printing out the whole thing and go through it on paper, marking things with a pen. I love putting those edits into the word doc – it’s a favorite part for me.

It’s been easy for me to rush myself this year with these particular projects – in November on writing retreat I made a pact with myself to step back from that idea of rushing to finish and to focus on the joy of making the work sing. And how much I love the tweaking and the free writing both. It’s been really useful to do that – suddenly I’m getting lost in the pages again and having much more fun. 🙂

I also discovered when I came back from retreat that I needed to change my physical writing location here at home. Sometimes changing the routine makes a difference and so now I’m writing in my green chair (where I wrote most of my second and third novels) but this time in the living/dining/kitchen area, on my iPad. Not sure how long this will last, but it has allowed me to keep the flow coming home from a fabulous writing week. And since it coincides with holiday time, I can enjoy the tree too!


McKenna Donovan December 3, 2012 at 2:36 pm

Oh, so true! “…to focus on the joy of making the work sing.” I love hearing that someone loves the JOY of the writing! Your sense of place for writing is an interesting one: sit HERE for this one; sit THERE for the other one; enJOy the tree as you work on whatever. A good reminder to vary where we work.


Susan Henderson December 3, 2012 at 2:40 pm

I think you’re so smart to trust your instincts about what to work on. And each project is different, I’m finding. I do the same technique you described in following threads and themes and characters through the book, one at a time, to make sure they have a full arc.

I often change the location of where I write to get myself out of ruts. And even within my teeny office, I have the choice of a desk or a lounge chair or an elliptical. I don’t know why location makes such a difference, but it does.


Joan Wilking December 5, 2012 at 5:06 pm

The retreat is in Arizona. Reasonably priced and in a wonderful location at that time of year. If you or anyone else is interested here is link:


Susan Henderson December 5, 2012 at 6:17 pm

It looks so lovely… the perfect place to write your heart out! I hope others here check it out. I’ll look forward to pictures and stories afterwards!


billie hinton December 3, 2012 at 1:45 pm

Argh, that would be *YOUR* editing work.


Joan Wilking December 3, 2012 at 2:21 pm

Love the photo of your manuscript pages. What is it that they say? “The writing is in the editing.” Too true.

After a several year hiatus from writing I am now reviewing and reevaluating my unpublished work, which includes bits and pieces of two short story collections, some flash fiction and a very peculiar novel. (One of the characters is a poisonous mushroom.) A week long online workshop with Josip Novakovich gave me a jump start and produced some fresh fiction as well. The time span between when I originally wrote the old stuff and now has given me a very different perspective on the pieces. So I’m torn. Do I continue revisiting and revising them and start sending them out or do I put them aside and launch into new work?

As part of my revision process I often write in first person and then rewrite in third. I find that it gets my story closer to the characters. And I cut, cut, cut and go back and refill the blanks. I have never been good at writing “rough” drafts. It may be a result of my design background. I kind of obsessively craft the writing right from the beginning so my editing is usually more about story than form.

My goal if I stick with my existing projects is have edited, the two collections and the novel by the end of March. I going to a writing retreat at the beginning of Feb. to get some constructive feedback. I was part of a great writing that broke up several years ago when the members scattered to other parts of the country. We met monthly. I really miss it.


Susan Henderson December 3, 2012 at 2:46 pm

I love editing so much, it’s really hard for me to let go of something. There are always ways to improve it!

Fascinating how you’re going back to some of the old writing you’ve done. What you might find is there was an emotional urgency to the old work, but you needed the writing skills you have today to bring it to life. I’ll be interested to hear whether you end up revising the old work or starting fresh.

With this new book, I did what you described, writing it in first-person to get closer to the characters’ emotions and needs, and then moving to third because I could take the story more places.

Be sure to back and tell us how the writing retreat goes!


billie hinton December 3, 2012 at 5:57 pm

Joan, I do the first person then rewrite in third too – it is SO useful in getting inside the character and for moving forward when I feel things slow down.

McKenna, I had forgotten how much I love sitting in this green chair. It’s one of those “good for the back” chairs with foot rest and although not as ergnomic as my desk set-up is, using the iPad works because the keyboard is so tiny my wrists don’t rest on anything when I type on it.

Susan, I love the character arc pass – it’s amazing to see how much the characters changed w/o me thinking too consciously about it. I think that’s my most favorite part of editing – seeing how my mind unconsciously put things in place in that first wild draft so that when I come back to it with intent to make it better, there are so many wonderful dots already there to connect.


Susan Henderson December 3, 2012 at 7:04 pm

You’re right, even though when I do a character arc pass, I’m on the lookout for gaps or lack of movement, I’m often pleasantly surprised at what happened accidentally.


Kate Gray December 3, 2012 at 8:00 pm

I’m right at the edge, the very edge, of being done with second draft of a book I started years and years ago…I’ve mentioned to other people how strange it is to go back in time and see my thought processes from fifteen years prior. I used to hate editing, and had the Tolkeinish resistance to cutting out pieces that felt as though they were part of me.
Now that I’m older, I don’t have that same sense about it – funnily enough, I’ve also hit a place in life where I’m more comfortable shedding “stuff” that I used to think I needed. Maybe it was cleaning out my grandparents’ house (round three, really), and still seeing so much junk that nobody wanted or needed (they’d moved from a huge Edwardian to splitting time between FL and MA). Maybe it’s also through having read loads through the years and really paying attention to what works and what doesn’t. I fall into that camp of writing what I would enjoy reading…I’m not as clever as Susan or Jessica, and I figure my Novel will emerge once I am as wise as someone like them 😉
I do editing all on computer (and some ideas come while I go out on looong runs). I keep (for a while, anyway) what I cut out in the editing process in an edits file, so that if I see something worth saving, it’s there to put in where it might make more sense. Beyond that, it’s just an instinctual process. I’m trying to read as a reader, and see what makes me stumble, scratch my head, or scowl. With this book, I realized that I needed to end it about 200 ages earlier (ha ha…ugh), in order to keep with the series concept I had for it, and the epublishing route I’ve chosen. Actually, I guess that made the job a little less headachey! Everyone’s input has been really interesting so far!


Susan Henderson December 4, 2012 at 1:45 am

Kate, Congratulations for being so close! If you can go on long, long runs, you have the endurance and mental toughness to finish this thing. Love hearing about these long-incubating novels. It means that, despite all the reasons to quit writing, something about that material and about you narrating it has had a several year grip on you… that can only mean it’s important to write it! And I’m absolutely entranced by your idea of shedding stuff, whether it’s in your manuscript or in your cupboards and closets.


Jessica Vealitzek December 5, 2012 at 3:16 am

There’s so many parts to my editing process I’m not sure it can be called a process. But one thing I can’t help but do is edit as I go. To get in the mood for writing, I always read a bit of what I’ve already written. I just can’t leave stuff alone. .


Susan Henderson December 5, 2012 at 1:44 pm

That’s a great way to get into the mood to write. I often make soundtracks for the different scenes or chapters, so I might play the music to remind me of the mood I want.


Paul Cunningham December 10, 2012 at 9:06 pm

I’m working much more in the screenplay realm these days, looking forward to a novel sometime in the not too distant. But I love the rewriting/editing process no matter the form. I definitely do it in passes. Always start with a character arc timeline of sorts. And I’d love to say that those passes go in an orderly way from one focus to the next from there…, but the truth seems to be that editing then becomes organic. I, too, love marking up pages, cleaning up the marks and then doing it all again. I build a story like I build a stone wall, looking at it in smaller bits and sequences and dovetailing them into the next. Anything else is a bit overwhelming for me. I build beneath the surface first, then when every aspect I can think is done in that respect I go in and inhabit a character and that character’s voice straight through to the end otherwise my characters end up speaking way too similarly.


Susan Henderson December 10, 2012 at 11:11 pm

I agree. I like to take passes, but I go where my energy and interest is. And if I’m not feeling “writerly,” I’ll takes passes for plot, sense, and pace. I’m always amazed at writers who start at the beginning and go to the end, and then just do a copy edit. Like you, it feels like I’m building layers, and that a discovery about a character in chapter 8 gives me ideas for an arc I can work all the way back to chapter 1.


GC Smith December 21, 2013 at 1:09 pm

I’m currently putting together a novel in flashes, “Mudbug Tales, Wit’ Recipes.” The tales are in Cajun dialect and many were previously published. The recipes are in standard American English. I plan some cartoonish illustrations to set off sections, but since I cannot draw well enough I’ll either have them done or use some public domain clipart.

My editorial process in general is to go o.vver the draft several times. Line editS and structural EDITS. I’ll do this with this ms as well, but there will be daaditinal attention to the dialect for 1.) consistencency and 2.) to minimize offbeat spellings to make sure the dialect is both authentic to the ear and easy to roll off the tongue. It will take a while.

I’ll need to pay particular attention to chronology (seasons) as the Mudbug tales were written over a period of years. The stories have a consistent set of characters and move to denoument, but I have to make sure that the order works (e.g. hurricanes are at the right time of year, hot and cold weather is in proper sequence, etc.). The whole process will be fun.


Susan Henderson December 22, 2013 at 12:51 am

Sounds like one of your editing passes, like mine, requires you reading the manuscript out loud. So glad you’re enjoying the editing process!


GC Smith December 21, 2013 at 2:58 pm

Excuse my fumble thumbs. I’m traveling and using an unfamilar keyboard.


Susan Henderson December 22, 2013 at 12:52 am

I’m impressed with your thumbs. You should see my mistakes and horrifying autocorrections when I try to type on my phone.


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