First Drafts vs. Final Drafts

In the last four years I’ve drafted (and revised and rewritten and revised again…and again) two middle grade manuscripts. I love the revising stage because every decision and change improves the story in some way (thank goodness). Drafting? Less of a delight. The product is such a hot mess and such a far cry from what I’m hoping to achieve that I cringe opening up the document. I spend more time questioning my writing skills (do I have any? Why is each sentence more terrible than the last? Why is this scene boring and undeniably the worst thing I’ve ever written? Even worse than that English paper from 9th grade that I purposely reread just for comparison sake [not procrastination, no of course not]?! Am I getting WORSE at writing? Is that possible? What am I even doing?! 😂) than getting words on the page so the process is slowwwwww and excruciatingly drawn out. Also, my characters are usually completely mute in my head during the first draft, I have absolutely no idea what their voice is like or what they’d even say in a situation, they’re resistant to all of my pleas to just “tell me what you want and why and oh for the love of brownies why won’t you reveal anything about yourself why are you giving me the cold shoulder I don’t understand can’t we just be BFFs–”

(Yes, it’s dramatic. But they’re my real and true feelings. For months!)

While the secret to finally (finally!) getting a full manuscript down on the page was very different for each project (I will never tell those secrets, I promised the troll I traded with for my first and second borne) (jk) (but sort of not), they did both involve months of bribery (of myself: chocolate, wine, caffeine, Netflix, whatever it took), craft books, crying into my coffee with writing friends, and hair pulling.

And they always end with a messy first draft that I sort of side-eye with fear and mild loathing.

But I’m starting to notice a pattern in my first and final drafts. Which I actually find very reassuring as I start thinking ahead to the next story idea and drafting in general. Instead of hating drafting/considering it a failure, maybe I can just appreciate it as a very predictable first step towards a polished manuscript I love.

First draft is ALWAYS:

  1. Bare bone/short word count (like, really short! Think 35-40,000 words). Woe is me, I think. There’s nothing else to say. That’s all she wrote, folks. There’s no hope.
  2. 95% descriptions, 5% dialogue. Argh!
  3. Cluttered with lonely scenes where the main character is totally alone with their thoughts, while participating in completely solitary activities (hence contributing to the 95/5% ratio referenced above). This also often leads to very melodramatic main characters. Stop whining! I want to shout and shake them by the shoulders. I’m so tired of your repetitive complaints and worries!

Then there’s some of this in-between. Rinse and repeat until the book makes sense. Throw in some critique partner reads and opinions.

So much purple! Always so much purple 😭

To my great and utter relief, I’ve now twice been able to replicate that the final draft is ALWAYS:

  1. So much longer! After layering in more and more with each revision, manuscripts start clocking in at the much more standard/acceptable 60-70,000 word range. Can it be true? I sniff the air, refresh the Word word-counter half a dozen times, just to be sure. It lives! It grows!
  2. Sooooo much more dialogue! I don’t know the exact ratio, but a chapter never goes by without someone talking to someone. Hurray! They speak!!
  3. Except for maybe in the dark night of the soul, very little totally solitary scenes. New side characters and relationships have been layered in and the main character now has a PERSONALITY (hallelujah!) so he/she actually has things they want to say and people who want to listen/talk back! Slow down! I want to shout, but don’t, to avoid jinxing it, fingers flying across the keyboard to catch everything they’re yammering so fast and loud in my head before I lose it. As a result, the melodrama dial is turned wayyyyy down and while it takes two to tango, it also takes two to joke! So there are actual jokes and humor in final drafts which make the stories so much more fun to reread! (And reread…and reread again.)

Thank goodness for revisions. Maybe (just maybe) I’m willing to admit my writing has improved since 9th grade. 😂

–Hannah

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January’s Too Few Book Reviews

As I mentioned recently, and for a variety of reasons, I’ve become interested in starting a little blog series where at the end of every month I give a few little book reviews of any books I read that are under reviewed. In this series I want to focus on books that, for whatever reason, haven’t gotten the media attention and book buzz other more popular books did, have less than 2,000 reviews on Goodreads as of my posting, and could use a little bit of love and attention. Also, I’m adding information for each title about how I discovered that book and/author. Mostly because I think this is interesting information, but also in case it helps any authors who have under reviewed books of their own and want to think of creative new ways of reaching new readers.

Book: Blue by Joyce Moyer Hostetter

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 404

Date Published: May 2006

Publisher: Calkins Creek

How I Discovered this Book: Went to the History Museum of Catawba County in North Carolina a few months ago, which had an exhibit on the polio hospital that had been run there in the 1940s. I expressed a deep interest in the topic (GOD I LOVE THE HISTORY OF PLAGUES…ESPECIALLY polio) to the museum curator and she pointed out that a children’s historical fiction book set in the hospital itself, written by a local author, was for sale in the gift shop. Obviously, this book was meant for me and I bought it immediately.

Thoughts: MG historical fiction always has a sweet spot for me as a reader. The voice of the story, and the main character narrating it, was so distinct, uniquely her and also uniquely of that place, both historically and geographically. It’s a perspective of WWII from the home front, the families and children left behind when their fathers went to fight overseas. I don’t think there are enough books that have this perspective, particularly from a character living in the south, as a region, and, let’s be honest, did you even know that there was a polio outbreak during WWII in the United States. (I only learned this in college during a really specific history course, but otherwise I think I’d still be totally clueless about this usually “hidden” history.) I love that this book was set during WWII, but wasn’t about every single battle fought during WWII, which made it feel more realistically like it was from a child’s perspective, for me personally. Perfect if you want a historical fiction read that will surprise and charm you.

Book: Ghost Knight by Cornelia Funke

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 1,387

Date Published: May 2012

Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

How I Discovered this Book: Digging through the OverDrive audiobook archive my library provides. Looked up Cornelia Funke, a favorite author, and found this lovely gem.

Thoughts: Love. Love love love love. Set in charming Salisbury, England, this is EXACTLY how I like my ghost stories: creative and historical (there are medieval KNIGHTS, folks!) and spooky and funny, with saucy spunky characters, alive and dead alike. This reads like my very favorite MG books when I was a MGer myself. I also happen to think this is the best comp book out there I’ve found for my current WIP (so I’m totally referencing this book in my query letter in a few months, when I finally can compose said query letter, thank you very much!) if you’re interested. PS: If you’ve read and loved this book in the past, let’s be friends. Also, will you please be my beta reader? (I’m kidding…but not kidding.)

Book: Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blackman

Total Current Reviews on Goodreads: 2,290 (it was at under 2,000 when I started reading, though!)

Date Published: April 2014

Publisher: Balzer + Bray

How I Discovered this Book: Mentioned in a round-up most-anticipated April releases over on the YA book blog, Perpetual Page-Turner.

Thoughts: Intensely detailed historical fiction that makes you feel like you’re there, in the early-early years of Nazi German. I could actually see the brick of the cobblestone streets, the world building and setting was so detailed. The twist of this story is that the main character is trying to solve her father’s murder…and her Uncle Dolf is no other than Adolf Hitler himself. An intimate, up-close, and brave portrayal of a massive historical figure who usually remains distant (in a far-off-famous-person sort of way) in young adult fiction.