I think I mentioned in an earlier post that I don’t write separate drafts, so it’s impossible to say how many I go through before I’m satisfied with a story. It’s occurred to me that my “method” would probably be a nightmare for most writers. There are no older drafts to go back to, just the one that has been evolving and changing from day one. I also do a lot of stopping and starting over the months or years that I work on a novel, and usually start back with chapter one, so some chapters have been revised more times than others.
The subject of drafts has been occupying my mind for quite a while because there are so many opinions about it. I have a strong bent toward picking apart the pros and cons of subjects that are more a matter of personal opinion than of hard fact, and that’s what I’ve been doing lately. There are logical reasons why some professional writers insist that you should whip that novel out and stop fooling around with multiple drafts, while others insist that you must rewrite until you have a polished gem.
At the risk of overgeneralizing, I see one specific factor influencing how many drafts a professional writer considers optimum. The concept of “professional” writer has changed somewhat over the decades. By today’s standards, someone like J.D. Salinger would be considered a hobbyist because he published very few works, and took his own sweet time about it. Back when writers were paid by the word for magazine articles and stories, there was a fairly clear distinction between “hack work” and Literature. Hack work was about earning a living, and its practitioners were professional writers; Literature was about creating a body of work that would exist long after the words were put on paper, and its practitioners were also professionals.
Of course, those two categories didn’t necessarily say anything valid about quality. Some hack work turned into classics, some Literature was forgotten before its authors had died.
Today, from what I can observe, writing for a living is professional; everything else is considered hobbyist. It’s a dichotomy that leaves most writers scrambling to churn out their next novel as quickly as possible, and a smaller number fighting a rear-guard action for consideration of old-fashioned qualities like depth and complexity.
As a general rule, writing for a living is writing to entertain, and necessarily concentrates on plot and action. Writing “for the ages” strives for meaning, and focuses on style, complexity, and insight into characters. The two are’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but current debates tend to sound as if they are. You’re either a professional writing for a living, or at least aiming for it, or you’re a part-time writer, a mere hobbyist who doesn’t take writing seriously.
The irony here is that “taking writing seriously” is now defined by speed and productivity, rather than by maturing craft painstakingly learned over time. A notable change, which may be another overgeneralization, is that many of the writers who wrote for a living—the science fiction writers of the Golden Age of SF, for instance—churned out an enormous amount of crap initially, but learned how to write, on the job, and became the classic authors we still read today. Many of today’s professional writers, some of them hugely successful, write just as badly years later as they did when they started.
When I say “write badly” I’m talking about the qualities that make a book a classic and that are necessarily left out when the goal is to earn a living. These professional writers do improve their ability to plot, to maintain tension, to keep a reader hanging on until the exciting ending. What they may not bother with is style or even basic grammar. This does not describe every professional writer, and I’m not trying to feather and tar professional writers, as a group.
The real problem is that they are influential, and their advice to beginning writers, based on their own experience, and their success, makes it appear that their methods must be followed if success is to follow.
What does all this have to do with drafts? Everything. I think it was Ray Bradbury who advised writers to produce only one draft, and get the darn thing published. It’s popular advice, but I wonder at what stage of his career Bradbury made the suggestion that has, over time, turned into a rule. Was it an early statement when he was struggling to establish himself? Did he stick to it throughout his career? He wasn’t alone in advising just one or two drafts, and I suspect it’s the reason we see so many books that look exactly like first drafts: grammatically awkward, vocabulary-challenged, full of plot holes, continuity errors, and cardboard characters.
But here’s the thing. If you can write a story that hooks and holds the reader, you can get away with all that. Why? Because the majority of readers don’t see the problems, and even if they do, they don’t care as long as they’re being entertained. So, if you want to earn a living by entertaining the readers, one or two drafts will do the trick. You will rake in the bucks and it won’t bother you that your stories are read one time and then forgotten when the reader grabs another one more or less like it. It won’t bother you that your books will eventually disappear, buried under the ever-growing mountain of momentary entertainment, or that your name will be forgotten. You accomplished no more during your lifetime than the office worker sitting in his or her cubicle, but let’s hope you at least enjoyed it more than the office drone enjoys his job.