How I Write a Book — Third Draft

Continuing my series on my process for writing a book, today I examine my approach to the third draft. When I’m finished with this version of the manuscript, I’ll be about halfway done with the book.

“What?” you say. “How many drafts do you write, Phythyon?”

It depends on the book, but the average is five. And there are steps after that fifth draft too. More on those in future blogs.

editingredpenIn the meantime, the third draft is one of the scariest for me. This is the first time I view feedback from an outside source. Here’s where I find out if my editor hates or thinks it is really good or something in between. So far, she’s never hated one, but writer’s suffer from crushing self-doubt, so getting the MS back is always frightening.

Raising Questions

As I mentioned last week, I send the completed second draft to my editor. She reads the entire book, making editorial notes as she goes. Most of the corrections she makes are for grammar. She finds typos, bad usage, clunky sentences, and such. Most of the time she suggests a change, but sometimes, she just writes, “awkward,” in the margin, and I have to figure out how to fix it myself.

She also asks questions if she doesn’t understand something about the setting. This is one of the most useful things she does in the entire process. Aside from being a Harry Potter fan (like pretty much the rest of the world), she doesn’t really read a lot of fantasy literature. I find that to be a real benefit, because she isn’t immersed in fantasy tropes, archetypes, and styles. She doesn’t accept what I put in there because it’s standard fantasy fare. She makes me justify it.

That’s good, because I am trying very much not to be a standard fantasy guy. I like writing about elves and dragons and wizards, but I don’t like faux archaic language, passive voice, and cliched storylines. I don’t want to rehash Tolkien. I write in a contemporary vernacular, and I blend modern sensibilities with classical swords-and-sorcery settings.

Even then, I miss things. I make assumptions based on archetypes that more casual readers of fantasy literature (or thrillers for the Wolf Dasher series) might not recognize. She points them out and makes me think about if they need better articulation.

She also thinks of details that don’t occur to me. For instance, in her first reading of The Sword and the Sorcerer, she asked me about magic. In the opening scene, a wizard’s spell emits purple energy from his wand.

“Is all magic purple,” she asked.

I didn’t know the answer to that. I just described that spell as purple, because that’s how I saw it in my head.

But I realized I needed to know. So I went through the manuscript and looked at every spell to see what color the magic was. I got the idea that spells should be color-coded based on what they did, and I developed an internal logic for that novel on what each should be.

That influenced my thinking for all subsequent books, even ones that had nothing to do with The Sword and the Sorcerer. For example, towards the end of the third Wolf Dasher book, Roses Are White, the villain casts a spell that transforms the ground into a giant hand of earth. I decided that transformative magic was yellow, and the ray from the wizard’s wand was therefore yellow. In the next book, Ghost of a Chance (which goes on sale Monday, October 13, by the way), another magician turns a crossbow into a dove. Remembering the basic idea that sorcery that changes something’s essential nature is yellow, I made sure it was a yellow beam striking the crossbow. Later in the book, when he turns a cart into a flock of sparrows, the magic is yellow again.

This sort of internal consistency is important for a well crafted narrative. If the details remain the same from scene to scene and novel to novel, readers accept and appreciate the world much better. They trust the author to deliver a solid book that meets expectations.

This is one of the crucial things I rely on my editor for. I’d never thought about color imagery in magic until she asked if it meant anything. She sees things (or the lack of things) I don’t, and she asks questions. That makes me  a better writer.

A Thorough Reading

Despite the fact that my manuscripts generally come back with lots of notes on them, I don’t just got through looking for her changes and making them. I could improve the book that way, but I don’t feel it’s good enough.

Instead, I sit down with the manuscript and read it cover to cover again. With a blue pen in hand (so I can distinguish my marks from my editor’s), I read every word, making my own notes. I often make the changes my editor suggests in pen on the page before I go into my computer to change them in the master copy.

I do this for a couple of reasons. First, as I alluded to last week, I don’t really know the story until I’ve read it. This is essentially my second reading of the book — the one where I really start to notice how it fits together and and how the themes and plots play out. Before I can make changes, I want to understand what I’ve written.

Second, for me to understand my editor’s request changes, I have to see how they fit into the overall narrative. Does it matter if magic is color-coded? I need to read the book to decide. I want my head in the scene, when I read her comments. That way, they make better sense to me.

Rewriting

After I’ve read the book and the edits, I sit down at the computer and go through and put them in. At this stage, many of the changes I make are cosmetic. Like I said, the first edit is largely for grammar and very big picture stuff. I wish she would edit the book structurally at this stage, because it’s easier to make changes to a book earlier than later. But she has her own process too, and I have to respect it if I want good results.

So after I’ve read the book, examined her edits, put them in as appropriate, and essentially tuned up the manuscript, I’ve got a third draft ready to go. Ready to go where? Back to my editor. That’s where she’ll really dig into the story, and look for things that need changing.

And that’s what I’ll explore next week.

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