When Is a Draft Just a Draft and When Is It a Book?

Replacing the Boards

There’s an existentialist riddle that goes something like: “A man owns a boat for many years and every time a plank rots or breaks, he replaces it with a new one.  If he eventually replaces every single plank on the boat with a different one, does he still own the same boat he started out with or a different boat?”

I think of this riddle all the time when I’m rewriting (so much so that I may have mentioned it in an earlier post).

I’m a note-taker.  By which I mean that if an editor I respect (and so far I’ve respected all my fiction editors) asks me to change something in a manuscript, I’ll change it.  So far, this has worked for me, and why shouldn’t it?  Editors want to sell books as much as authors do.  Maybe even more so.  So I trust them to want to want to make the product better.

Usually this means tweaking a plot point or two, cutting the fat (there’s always fat when I write), even getting rid of a character or adding one in.

And sometimes it means starting at page one and rewriting almost everything until I get to the very last page, slashing and adding and changing and renewing.

I’m in the middle of that kind of rewrite at the moment and it’s not easy (it’s also why I didn’t post anything last week: Kim took pity on me, bless her heart).  It’s the kind of process that can keep you up at night with the excitement of new ideas and new problems to solve: it’s like a puzzle, trying to make the new pieces fit with the old ones (hammering in those planks).  (It’s also the kind of process that can make you break down in tears if you’re feeling a bit hormonal but that’s another story or at least the subject of a very different post).  It’s also the kind of process that allows you to humble your children when they start complaining about having to edit a two-page paper as per a teacher’s demands.   “Oh, please,” you can say, “I have to rewrite a three-hundred page manuscript!”  They may not learn to embrace editing but they do learn not to complain about it so much.

Anyway, the point is, this massive rewrite got me thinking about what a huge process it is to edit a novel.  And also to think about what constitutes a “draft” and what’s a separate new book (or boat) in its own right.

When I was a teenager and reading everything D.H. Lawrence had ever written, Penguin published not only all his known works–major and minor–but also something called John Thomas and Lady Jane which turned out to be an earlier draft of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. (An even earlier draft called The First Lady Chatterley has also appeared in print.)  I haven’t read any version of LCL in decades but I remember at the time being vaguely annoyed that something I had spent money on thinking it was a book I hadn’t yet read by a favorite author was, in fact, simply an earlier version of one I already owned and had already read–a similar emotion to finding out that Agatha’s Christie And Then There Were None was simply the politically correctly titled reprint of Ten Little Indians.

The point is, I guess, that as drastically as I may change things from a first draft to a final one, I still consider the first draft only a stepping-stone to the final one and not a book in its own right.  The same boat, not a different one.  You write multiple drafts to improve something and even though you invariably lose some things you love, (“Kill your babies” as some famous author once advised–although which famous author seems to vary according to who’s quoting the line), you emerge with something tighter, smarter, more what it should be.  So who wants to see the mushy middle product of that?

I don’t think D.H.Lawrence was around when those earlier drafts of LCL were published, but John Fowles was around–and the instigator–of a revised edition of his novel The Magus.  Non-fiction writers revise and update their books all the time.  In fact, it was the request that we do an updated edition of Overcoming Autism that led to my co-author’s and my writing a whole new book instead.  But it’s pretty rare in the fiction world for an author to do more than change a word or two–and of course add a new foreword–to a novel before a reprint. Fowles did it though and I’m guessing, if he’s anything like me, that once he had the new version out in print, he just wanted the old one to disappear.

As far as I’m concerned, a first draft is like a younger stage of your life: it leads to what’s there now–and is a large part of why it is what it is–but it’s also completely replaced by the newer version and–except for some ghostly traces–doesn’t exist in its own right anymore.  Move on, move out, move along.

But save the early draft for your future biographers.  🙂



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6 responses to “When Is a Draft Just a Draft and When Is It a Book?

  1. I have revised this comment four times but I am still not satisfied.
    Stay tuned.

  2. Great to see a new post from you, Claire!

    I have lost track of how many drafts I’ve gone through of my book and it hasn’t even been to a professional editor or publisher yet! One thing I love about having all those drafts and making all those changes is that I know so many things about my characters that the readers don’t. In my first draft I really played up the MC’s relationship with her family, but after a couple rounds of edits, I had to cut a bunch of that family stuff out because the book was too long. But all of the things I cut are still part of my character’s history and if I have to add in new scenes with her family members, I have a better grasp on who they are because of the older scenes that have been “trashed.” And since I hand-write my first drafts, then I’ll never lose those scenes, even if I’m the only one who ever sees them. Which, I kinda hope I am now, because the book is SO much better after all the editing it’s gone through.

    Great post, Claire. Fantastic topic!

  3. Claire

    So, so true, Rachel! I feel the same way: nothing’s wasted, because there’s more to build on. I always hope someone will ask me more questions about characters because so often I’ve cut scenes about them and have details I couldn’t include. Editing always improves a book.

    I decided my second novel (Knitting Under the Influence) needed something bigger to happen about two thirds of the way through so I decided to send the characters to Hawaii. I actually felt like, “Lucky girls–now they get to go on a vacation!” and half-expected them to thank me!

  4. haha, that made me laugh out loud. Sometimes I expect to get reactions from my characters, too. But I’m not usually very nice to them, so thank you isn’t the response I expect!

  5. Cutting is the best thing of all. Cutting is about letting go of vanity and seeking truth. But rewriting can be so tricky for authors, I think. When I was an editor, I knew I had to offer the author a road that would lead him or him inside his or her own vision, own world, and not MY world, not MY vision. That meant I had to find a way not to be too specific or I’d ruin the author’s creative process.

    I think the scary thing is when something is being asked for that feels it is coming from the intellectual self instead of the creative self. That’s the danger of rewriting, that the part of the self that creates won’t show up and the part of the self that edits and is critical will show up. That’s why cutting isn’t that hard as it’s GREAT to have the intellectual, cold-hearted, critical self show up.

    Anyhow, I enjoyed reading this and liked Rachel’s comment about how cutting always helps give more backstory.

  6. Ann

    Can we do email salon now that I am here in Siberia?

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