Staying in the Chair: How Many Drafts Are Enough?

Yesterday, I wrote about what the idea of “high concept” means. Basically a marketing term, a high concept idea is a story that editors and agents can not turn their back on. But once inspiration has struck, once a stellar idea has come to you, what then? How does a writer begin to flesh it out, transforming a marketable idea into a well written novel?


Elana Roth of the Caren Johnson Literary Agency mentioned that while she has received many solid query letters outlining marketable ideas, often when she reads the first pages of the manuscript, the novel falls short. Essentially, the writer has honed her idea to a sharp point, but has not finished crafting the novel itself.


This is a trend I heard of for the first time at the San Francisco Writers’ Conference in February of this year. Editors and agents alike were complaining that writers were sending in fabulous ideas without a well written novel to back them up. I think this trend could be turned if writers stayed in the chair for a few drafts more, before trying to market their material.


While I know of one author who pounded out a fabulous novel in the first draft, she is the exception rather than the rule. She also spent years honing her craft of storytelling through other mediums. At conferences over the last two years, I heard people enthusiastic about their stories, but who were essentially trying to sell their novels too soon. If a novel is sent out before it is ready, it ends up getting rejected by agents, and never makes it to editors.


Rejection is an essential step in the process of becoming a published author, but I fear that it is happening more than it needs to. A writer sends out her first draft, has it rejected, then gives up the craft out of the fear that she or her work isn’t good enough. Instead of sending out a novel in its first or second drafts, a writer might consider staying in the chair another year, and honing the book. No writer is good in the beginning. Each one of us has to stay in front of the computer, or blank pad, and keep writing until what we write is interesting to others.


I think in the rush to get published and to get recognition for hard work already done, writers are not enjoying the first years of their craft. The first years when they can find their voice, when they can hone their craft and build their stories, a time when no one reads their work but them. Though there is no glory in this time, there can be a lot of joy. When it was only me and my characters getting to know each other on the page, I loved my work in a way that was different from the way I love it now. I adore my work and characters, but for the last three years I have had a professional audience: my agent and later the editors who read my manuscripts. While my awareness of my audience did not take the bliss from my writing, it did color the experience. It was gratifying to know that someone besides my mother would be reading my novels, but I also had a sense that I was writing for an outside eye, a different experience altogether from writing for myself alone.


My opinion, for what it is worth, is: stay in the chair. Find your voice. Classes and MFA programs and writing groups can help up to a point. They can make a lonely profession feel less lonely; they can help a writer feel less adrift in an uncharted sea. But essentially, the uncharted sea is where we live. The ocean of the imagination, with the land behind us, nothing visible but the sea and sky, is where the stories are. And essentially we must sail that sea alone, pen in hand, riding each wave as it comes, until the book is finished, and we are washed up on shore once more.


Writing is lonely work, which is why we have characters to tell us their stories. They are our companions on that sea, our only ones. No class or group or friend or lover can go there with us. It is our role to sail that sea, and bring our stories home.


The only way to learn to do this, and to do it well, is to keep writing. Reynolds Price once said in a keynote speech for the NC Writer’s Conference, “Go into a room, close the door behind you, and write.” He made this statement years ago, and I am no doubt misquoting him, but his advice spoke to me. It was a beacon on my own uncharted sea. And in truth, the sea is where I prefer to live.


Find your voice. Keep writing. Stay in the chair.

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