What changes from first draft to publication? So much. In fact, nearly everything. But if the answer was that simple, an entire article (or even whole books on the topic) wouldn’t be necessary, so there’s more to this answer than it seems. Despite that, I insist you take my article with a grain of salt. In the end, everyone’s writing method is different, so everyone’s editing process will be fine-tuned to fit that particular project. Figuring out what works for you and what needs to be done is key, but I wanted to discuss a few topics that almost always change for everyone, so you can prepare yourself for the battle ahead. (It’s a fun battle, I promise.)
1. Word Count
Please, please, please be open to changing your word count. This is especially true for those writers pursuing traditional publication. For every genre, for every age group, there is a “perfect” word count range you’re basically expected to fall into when querying or pitching. Yes, there are exceptions. You might even become the exception during an editing process, but knowing how long or short your story should be shows your knowledge for the market and for what’s appropriate for your audience. That being said, I’m going to contradict myself and say it’s better to be true to the story than to fit a standard, but keep an open mind when rereading your work to see if you can fit the standard. Maybe a scene isn’t necessary. Maybe two scenes can be combined. You might even find yourself contemplating a cut of your favorite scenes or characters, and sometimes, that’s necessary. Keep it in a folder. Share it as an extra on Wattpad later. But making sure everything is vital is one of those tricky but true things a writer must overcome. I struggle with this myself! Almost all of my novels’ first drafts are 130,000 words, but I quickly figure out a lot of it was repetitive information or information not needed for a storyline. I might save it for a sequel or condense it somewhere else, but I tend to find reaching those ideal word counts isn’t that hard as long as I allow myself to let things go and move on. Letting go can be difficult though, so to help you with that, I suggest you read The Disposability of Ideas by Maggie Stiefvater. She is the author of The Raven Cycle and a mad genius when it comes to letting things go, even when you don’t want to.
Names. Descriptions. Backgrounds. Even their existence might change. Oftentimes, writers will find that two characters in a draft can be combined to serve one purpose, or visa versa (one character could become two). Publishers are notorious for changing names—especially of protagonists—but I always suggest writers face this problem themselves before submitting. Don’t count on publishers choosing the perfect name, and try not to get attached in case they do change it in the end. I personally like to take notes of a characters’ background while also keeping a list of other names used in the story. This way, I make sure I’m using different types of names, including the first letter, the syllable count, the sound, etc.—all while staying true to their background as a person. As an editor, I receive a lot of manuscripts where all 20-some characters have similar sounding names, and unless that serves a purpose (like twins named closely together), it can get really confusing really fast. Of course, names is a shallow example of what can be changed, but I think it’s a good one since many writers get very attached to names quickly…and I’m about to expand on characters a little more in my last topic.
3. Major Changes and Rewrites
In the end, your plot, purpose, genre, or even cast could change completely. I, for one, just finished a manuscript that started off as a 62,000-word draft and ended up being a 92,000-word novel. Why? Because I was missing that much information the first time around. I wasn’t sure about my setting, I didn’t know my characters THAT well, and the secrets didn’t reveal themselves until the end. On top of that, I’m a plotter, not a pantser, so this was a painful book for me, but I followed my gut and did what I could and then, I faced my rewrites head-on. Let me use characters as an example for how much could change overall. A character’s gender, sexual orientation, secrets, lifestyle, background, and mindset could change simply because you didn’t TRULY know that character when you first set out to write the book (even though you thought you did). I recall Cassandra Clare discussing this at a panel I attended recently. For those of who are familiar with The Mortal Instrument series, she actually didn’t plan the big twist about Jace at the end, and she simply couldn’t understand why he acted the way he did for over 700 pages of the first draft. It wasn’t until she got there that she learned that vital aspect about his life, and so, naturally, she had to go back and rewrite the entire story to make his character real again. Don’t shy away from the right change, even if that change demands an entire rewrite. That change could be what makes your book.
The first draft is only the beginning, but that fact doesn’t have to be a scary thing. It can be an amazing thing. All writers go through it, and all writers come out of each stage happier than they were in the previous stages. Rewriting that 62,000-word draft I discussed above, for instance, was one of the best projects I’ve ever worked on. When it finally began to take shape, I was satisfied and proud of the work. Before I rewrote it, it simply sat on my computer collecting technology dust. Think of editing and rewriting as another writing adventure—one that will take you one step closer to publication—and what could be better than that?
Original posted March 20, 2014.
(On a side note, the original is VERY different than this article. I actually focused on a real novel of mine, so if you want to see a detailed account of what I went through with one novel, this is a great article to read.)
November Rain, Part One, releases July 18, 2016
November Snow, Part Two, releases July 25, 2016