I was inspired to write this post by a writer friend of mine, Katie Zhao, who said she was currently in the process of rewriting her Chinese YA Fantasy (!!! agents, keep your eyes on this one). Katie said rewriting seemed like a daunting task, but that she took courage in the fact that I rewrote BLOOD HEIR three times over the course of three years before querying. So I wanted to share a little about my rewriting experience.
First off, rewriting your novel is absolutely necessary, and will take you so much further if you put in that extra effort. I can attest from my own experience. It took me three years (yes, three) to write BLOOD HEIR. I was extremely careful; optimistic but cautious, hopeful but grounded. And as a result, the timeline it took me from querying to submissions was less than two months.
Yep, two months, to get an agent, and submit to publishers. A lot of my friends have commented on how mindblowingly fast that is — I’ve finally realized, too (after learning the ropes of this industry)! And I will edit this post once my submissions process ends, but my incredible experience throughout is even further testament to how important it is to take your time, rewrite, and revise.
I’m hoping I can share my experience with you today, as well as take you through how I go through each of the drafts in the process of writing my novel.
Let’s start with the first draft.
No matter how good a writer you are, the first draft is going to be a hodgepodge of ideas, plot changes, and character development arcs that flesh out as the story grows. The first draft, as most writers say, is for you. It’s the process of understanding your story: the themes, the world, the plot, the character arcs — hashing it all out on the page. For me, I do outline. But I can only know how the story’s going to end when I finish my first draft. Katie and I were chatting about it — I think of the outline as a map — the chartered course, that is, for my journey. But it’s up to me as to whether I want to follow it down to the tee. Sometimes, my brain or my characters will lead me astray into new, undiscovered, unchartered territories — and these discoveries can either be amazing, or disastrous. But one thing is certain: they will completely throw me off track.
When I was writing the first draft of BLOOD HEIR, I was still a fledgling writer. I didn’t know many of the writing techniques or storytelling techniques that I picked up throughout the course of my writing journey. I didn’t know my world, which completely changed throughout my rewrites. I didn’t know my characters — I struggled to find their voices, and it was only in the third rewrite that their backstories were fully fledged out. I didn’t know my themes — it was only around the third draft that I felt like I had a true, solid grasp on them. So, the first draft was my exploratory draft — I felt out the characters, let their voices firm up in my head with each piece of dialogue I wrote, and let the world come to me with each scene I wrote. It’ll be wobbly; it’ll be a mess — but none of that matters.
The second draft was the real first draft, in my eyes. This was when I really started to pay attention to my word choice, my sentence structure, and pausing to think about crafting my writing before putting it down on paper. This was when I began layering in world-building. The world had started to take real shape in my mind; I knew the grand sweeping strokes, the laws that governed and the rules of magic. I knew my characters’ development arcs, their perfections and their flaws, and what made them so irrevocably and absolutely human. I knew the themes, the messages that my book represented, and what I wanted my story to tell the world.
The second draft was about weaving all that together. Massaging all of the separate threads I had spun and gotten to know through my first draft, and spinning them all together into a single, coherent draft. The second draft consisted of things like incorporating the laws of my world into specific subplots, making sure all the cities and locations lined up throughout the protagonist’s journey, incorporating backstories, penning certain scenes that served to underline the themes and enhance character development as well as subplot development.
So, the second draft is the story actually coming together, coherently, and possibly readably without any huge chunks or missing things. (For example, between my Book 1 and Book 2, an entire kingdom disappeared/got cut, someone’s love interest became her brother, and a few new characters popped up towards the end of the book that were meant to have been in the story throughout. Try asking your beta readers to critique that mess!)
So, the second draft is much more salvageable, the big picture is there, everything makes relative sense, no kingdoms are popping up or vanishing overnight at my writerly flick of a wand; things are coming together. This was when I chose to send it off to my beta readers — although each writer will have different preferences as to when in the process you should send to your beta readers. I had all of the big ropes woven together, and it was time to get third-party feedback before continuing onto the final stage of my process: the third draft.
Now, the third draft. This doesn’t have to be your final draft — and again, I had many “point five” drafts (Draft 1.5, 2.5) where I changed one specific aspect of my book per revision (i.e. Draft 1.5 was where I changed one huge subplot, Draft 2.5 was where I re-wrote the laws and religion and wove in those themes, etc.). So, don’t limit yourself to the number of drafts. These are just representative of the stages of revision I go through.
The third draft is the finessing. All the finer details of your world — those extra little tidbits that breathe life into your world, and your characters. There might still be some smaller plot-level changes (perhaps some really minor technicalities you need to work out to get them from Point A to B). For my third draft, I massaged in the finer details. For example, my world didn’t just consist of “cottages” or “trinket stores;” I specified “red-bricked dachas” and “lacquered phoenixes and silver tiger ornaments.” In my eyes, that makes the world come alive. These details are crucial to ensuring my world is not just another medieval village somewhere in a medieval fantasy book. That it’s mine. That, upon opening any page, the reader will immediately be transported to the world of BLOOD HEIR. For my characters, I gave each of them idiosyncrasies, or little phrases to their speech that solidified their voices. For example, one might rub her nose when she’s anxious, another might run his hands through his hair when he’s frustrated, a third might have a catch phrase that he/she repeats.
All these details are the “above-and-beyond;” the finest aspects that make your book come to life.
The third draft might not even be a rewrite. It could just be a revision — going through, tweaking sentences here and there, cutting words or adding scenes where needed, making sure all of the finest details are layered in so everything reads seamlessly.
So, that’s my drafting process, in a super-condensed nutshell. Don’t let this blog post fool you — it looks so easy and reads like a flawless process, but there was much angst, a lot of agonizing, and three years’ worth of late nights and cups of coffee that went into this magically messy process.
But I would do it all over again. Why? Between Drafts 1 – 3 of BLOOD HEIR, I found myself. My writing, my craft, my execution, and my storytelling techniques progressed exponentially. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today had I not gone through all those drafts and rewrites.
BLOOD HEIR took me three years to write. But now, I know how to do it, so I know BLOOD HEIR 2 will come much, much faster and more easily. It always takes a (few) trial run(s) before you start to fly. No one is a master at the get-go. And guess what? When I received my agent offers, every single agent who offered and chatted with me said my novel needed at most 2-3 weeks’ worth of editorial work before we needed to go on sub. That’s not just coincidence.
It’s not uncommon, once you have an agent, to revise with them for months, even years. This industry is not a sprint to the end — it’s a marathon, and the more you prepare, the better the results will be. The three years I spent plodding on by myself with no recognition and no one believing in me were long, and difficult. I can completely understand how it feels to want to query already, to want to finish as soon as possible and see where your manuscript takes you.
But, trust me, revising and rewriting is completely worth it and absolutely necessary. I had a 100% (or close — I can’t tell if some queries would have turned into CNRs since I received offers so quickly) request rate for my queries, and a really high offer conversion rate. My submissions process has been an astoundingly positive experience for me and I will blog publicly about it once I can, to tell you how far great revisions and rewrites can take you. And I owe that to the amount of work I put in to my manuscript; to all those drafts I wrote and rewrote and rewrote again.
Yes, you’ve just finished a novel (my biggest congratulations to you!) and the prospect of rewriting it can be so, so daunting. It’s like having climbed to the top of a mountain only to discover there is another, bigger one to climb. But trust me, it pays off exponentially.
When it comes to the publishing game, there is no benefit to rushing. Slow and steady wins the race.