I view working on a book in the same way a sculptor might view working on a block of wood. The first draft is generally focused on getting things in place so I can work on them. In essence, I cut out the crude features of the sculpture–but when it’s done, there is still a lot of work to be done. Readers who see the book in this stage can tell what the basic arcs and characters will be, but the emotional impact is lessened by the crude edges and unfinished lines.
Here’s my process in a nutshell:
Write the book in draft form.
Read through the entire book, fixing the major problems. Often, I’ll change character personalities halfway through the first draft as I search to figure out how I want the character to sound. I don’t go back then and revise, as I need to try out this personality for a while before I decide to actually use it. Similarly, often I’ll drop in new characters out of the blue, pretending that they’ve been there all along. In the second draft, I settle on how I want things to really look, feel, and work.
This is the language draft. Here I’m seeking to cut the book down by 10%. I write with a lot of extra words, knowing I’ll need a trim. This will make the prose more vibrant, and will make the pacing work better.
In a perfect world, this is where I send the piece through writing group and/or send it to my editor.
I let readers read the book, and I take some time off from it. I begin collecting things I want to change in the book in a separate file, called “Revision notes for ***”. I organize these by character and by importance and/or pervasiveness. For instance, a need to rewrite a character’s motivations will be at the top. Fixing one specific scene so that it has proper foreshadowing will be near the bottom.
Once this is all done, and I’ve gotten feedback and had time to think, I read through the book again with my revision notes file open beside the book file itself. I actively look for places to change, kind of like a sculptor looking over the statue and seeking places to knock off jagged chunks and smooth out the sculpture’s features.
I’ll do this process several times, usually. In-between, I’ll often do line-edit drafts, like the language draft above, where I’m focused on getting rid of the passive voice and adding more concrete details.
Fourth draft is my first editorial draft, working with the editor to fix problems.
Fifth is a second editorial draft (Line edits rather than plot and structure edits). From there, I alternate between further polishing drafts and smaller-level editorial drafts as long as needs be.
Three drafts is a good approximation of the basics of writing, but if you include all the tweaks I do late in the process, line edits, copyedit, proofread, etc, it comes out to be at least eight to twelve times through the book before it’s published.