Reset to Save

I just turned in the first draft of THE DEFIANT HEIR, Book 2 of Swords & Fire, to my editor today! YAY!!!

BUT WAIT! Let’s walk that back. While this is the first draft Lindsey is seeing, this is not even close to the first draft I wrote of this book. In fact, I couldn’t even tell you what draft it was. Because in the process of writing this book, I kept going back to the beginning so much, I might as well have been trying to fight the end boss with insufficient levels and mid-tier equipment.

And you know what? It worked out really well for me. So now I’m going to tell you about it, in case this is useful to anyone else.

My saved-off incomplete drafts look something like this:

Early drafts: 15K words

Middle draft: 70K words

Late draft: 125K words

Final “first” draft: 140K words

Weird, right? I KNOW! Here’s how that happened.

One different thing about writing this book was that since my publisher wanted to put a teaser chapter at the end of THE TETHERED MAGE, I had to get the beginning into really good shape very early in the process. So I wound up writing several drafts of the first 3 chapters before moving on to the rest of the book.

This was actually SUPER helpful. It gave me time to re-find the characters’ voices, feel my way into the story, and get some new characters and elements more solidified in my head before proceeding. It got the early, derpy, HA HA I’M JUST SPLASHING AROUND IN THE WATER I CAN’T ACTUALLY SWIM DURRRHHH stage of drafting out of the way.

After that, I was in a strong position to launch into the rest of the book. I forged ahead, pushing onward even when I hit a section that I knew I wasn’t nailing, because there was this pivotal sequence I was really, really excited to write and I just had to get there and get it out of my system. Both because I just HAD TO WRITE THIS PART, but also because it was SO pivotal that it was going to affect how I looked at the rest of the book.

After I finished that part, I was at about 70K words. I was halfway done—though at the time I thought it was more like 2/3, but that’s another story—and I was eyeballing that section I’d blown past which I knew wasn’t working. I had ideas on how to fix it, but they were story changes that would affect how the rest of the book would turn out.

It was a tough choice. Press ahead and finish a draft I could show my alpha readers, to get feedback while there was still time to act on it? Or go back and do some significant rewriting, so I could do a more final first pass at the rest of the book? It was especially tough because I had a deadline staring me in the face, and if I went back to rewrite, I’d miss the first draft milestone I’d set for myself.

I decided to rewrite. And it was the right choice. I had a much better sense of where I was going because I now knew where my characters had been. The new stuff I wrote when I caught up to where I’d been came out well on the first try.

Then I got almost done, and I hit another dilemma: I was writing the climax, and I was second-guessing my plans for the ending. I had ideas for more changes to that same @$!#$% section of the book that had given me so much trouble the first time around, and I also needed a sanity check on a few other elements of the book, and all of it might affect the ending.

So I sent the 95% complete draft to my patient alpha readers, with an incoherent email basically going “GUYS I DON’T EVEN KNOW IF THIS IS ANY GOOD WHAT IS HAPPENING I’VE BEEN WRITING ALL DAY EVERY DAY AND HAVE LOST ALL PERSPECTIVE HEEEELLLLP MEEEEEEEE.” And they were really awesome about getting back to me super quickly with encouraging noises and their thoughts on the various dilemmas I was facing. It gave me the clarity and morale I needed.

I had to go back and edit that one stupid section AGAIN, and then write the ending, and FINALLY I had a draft I could show my agent to get her feedback! It was much later than I’d wanted to get it to her, but… BUT… the draft I sent her was SO MUCH STRONGER than it would have been if I’d pushed ahead and finished that earlier draft instead of going back and restarting all those times. I’d worked through a lot of problems on my own, and the draft I sent her was in good shape and much closer to done. In the end, it SAVED me time.

So I guess my takeaway is this: Trust your instincts. If your instincts are telling you to go back and fix something before you keep going, DO IT. The rest of the book will be much clearer and better and more on track as a result, and you won’t wind up writing a bunch of stuff you’re just going to have to rewrite in the next pass. But if your instincts are telling you to press ahead, because you’ve got some other stuff you need to sort out first before you go back and edit, do that.

There is no magic in a completed first draft. It’s okay for the first complete draft to actually be the third, or the seventh. Or, hell, the fifteenth, if that’s how you roll.

This book will still go through a lot of revisions before it’s done. But I’m really glad I got some rounds of them out of the way when it was only 15K words, or 70K, rather than 140K!

About Melissa Caruso

I'm the author of THE TETHERED MAGE, first in the Swords & Fire trilogy, coming from Orbit Books in October 2017. I write fantasy novels. I love tea, adventure, and the great outdoors. I live in Massachusetts with my husband, two amazing daughters, three cats, and a Labrador. Represented by Naomi Davis of Inklings Literary. View all posts by Melissa Caruso

3 responses to “Reset to Save

  • Nicole Evans

    I am so glad you’re writing posts about your progress, because it’s absolutely so fascinating to see the inner workings and know that you’ve gone through struggles writing, too, and your books didn’t just come out amazing (obviously, I know how much work you put into them, but it’s so nice to actually be able to follow that train like you can here).

    Keep it up. You’re killing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Melissa Caruso

      Thank you! Yeah, there may be some writers in the world who can just sneeze up ideas on a page and it’s gorgeous first try, but if so, wow, I am not one of them. For this one I had to do some serious through line fixing and give A way more agency (and hence stakes) than she had in the earliest drafts, and it made SO MUCH difference.

      Like

      • Nicole Evans

        I’m certainly not one of those, either. It always blows my mind how, when I’m writing a draft, I’m like, “Hey, this isn’t too bad” and then I rewrite it and look back at the old draft and suddenly I’m thinking, “How could you ever believe this was good?” It’s amazing how our stories continue to improve with every draft.

        Also, your video game analogies are always on point.

        Liked by 1 person

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