4 things you notice when writing a 4th draft

1. There’s a lot less to work with.

I mean, obviously. I’ve cut approximately 15,000 words from Privateer over the course of three drafts and it’s still way over a normal YA novel wordcount. My goal has been to put the integrity of the story before wordcount, and cut without compromising that… but now that I’m on the fourth draft, honestly, I’ve gotten a little bit desensitized. I look back on my second draft self and want to pat her on the head. Poor widdle Second Draft Self, so traumatized by shifting one paragraph down the page…

Look, man, I’ve cut pages and pages (AND PAGES) of material. I am feeling a little bit dead inside.


Which leads me to…

2. I’m returning to a first draft mindset.

My first draft was for getting stuff on the page, awful metaphors and awkward scenes that don’t make sense included. My second draft was for finding the single thread that tied all of that stuff together and following it to the end. My third draft was for chopping ruthlessly, saving only the most necessary-to-the-plot parts.

My fourth draft is for putting heart back into the story, just in a lot less words than before.

I hesitate to say that “heart” ever really left, but let me explain what I mean. This isn’t everybody’s method, but right now, I have even more of a skeleton of a story than I did in my first draft. I know many people write first drafts that are more like bare bones, but my first draft was bones and muscles and internal organs and tendons all jumbled together in a severely overwritten disaster that I both loved and hated writing (135K words, thank you, thank you. *cries*).

So this time around, I’m sort of returning to where I was when I wrote my first draft—I’m letting myself fall in love with it again. I’m no longer asking questions like the ones I asked in second/third draft season (“Why does this deserve to stay?”); I’m asking questions like, “What does this need to be beautiful again?” It’s currently thinner, but it also feels like something’s missing. So I’m actually going back to my first draft and re-adding lines I deleted in the second draft, because I’ve very nearly lost sight of the original tone.

If you didn’t have a reason to save all of your drafts… welp, there’s one.

3. My characters have CHANGED.

Sharpened. Flattened out. Revealed true colors. Revealed idiot status.

My characters are not who they were when I first started writing this story. There are some characters I’ve deleted entirely, because I added them on a whim in my first draft and never returned to flesh them out. There are characters I’ve combined with others because I realized that they were two versions of the same person. My antagonist has changed personalities more times than I can count. The number of ways in which a person can be EVIL is actually starting to freak me out.

Basically, everyone is Dwight.

And then there’s my main character. Charmaine.

In the first draft, she was a woman insecure about her authoritative position and her femininity. She was struggling to be taken seriously, and yet she was reckless—there was precious little that was likable about her. That was a PROBLEM, considering that she had to convince an entire crew of men to follow her lead.

For a while, I thought that she was afraid of losing control over her life. But over the next few drafts, I began to realize what it was that she was actually afraid of: losing herself. Becoming someone she couldn’t bear to face in the mirror. Becoming someone who had built walls too thick for anyone to demolish.

Privateer cover

Click to read an excerpt of Privateer on Figment.com!

I recently told one of my lovely beta/Figment readers (a dear friend of mine now) that Privateer was never about Charmaine’s love life or even rescuing her sister Kitty. It was always about Charmaine discovering that independence doesn’t have to mean carving everyone out of her life. But that was something I don’t think even I entirely got when I was writing the first draft.

But now that I know that, I can draw it out, I can weave it into seemingly insignificant moments. And that’s exciting, because that’s what makes this story important to me, and hopefully it will resonate with other people one day, too.

ALSO, there’s Kitty, a character I knew virtually nothing about in my first draft. Recently, I realized that (this is going to sound weird) I had allowed the way Charmaine viewed Kitty to influence the way I wrote Kitty. And in doing that, I’d accidentally created a stereotype in a story that worked so hard to break stereotypes, especially involving women.

I know I wrote both of these characters, so it may be bizarre to say that I let one of my characters shape the other, but Kitty doesn’t come into the story until very late in the game. Up until that point, all we’ve gotten is Charmaine’s memories of her sister from when they were children. Charmaine has ALWAYS seen Kitty as weak, the damsel in distress that Charmaine never wanted to be, but it occurred to me a few weeks ago that just because Charmaine sees Kitty that way doesn’t mean that Kitty actually HAS TO BE a weak damsel once we meet her.

Unfortunately, that’s sort of how she came out in the first few drafts. So this time around, that’s going to change. Along with many other things, I’m sure.

4. I’ve realized how much I love this story.

I wouldn’t be writing a fourth draft if I didn’t. I finally understand why so many people tell you not to become a writer unless you truly, deeply love it. Because I’ve already spent years of my life living in an imaginary world that I created—refining it, tuning it, caring for it, going a little loony over it. *eye twitch* A lot loony, actually. Seriously, it’s not worth it unless you love it.

And I do. Good thing, too.

Samantha Chaffin

Anybody out there working on a second/third/fourth/fourteenth draft of anything? What are your tricks? What are your aches and pains? Mama wants to know.

Also, if you’re on the struggle bus, don’t worry—check out this other post I wrote about “How to Rewrite Without Becoming a Shriveled Shell of Yourself.” It’ll help. Maybe.

12 thoughts on “4 things you notice when writing a 4th draft

  1. Linda D says:

    Sam, The story, any story is too close to my heart. Each and every character I put flesh into – so cutting them is beyond me. Luckily for me I have a ruthless friend (And mean friend) who, although she loves my story, has no qualms of telling me to cut – change rewrite better – each edit I get back (mostly red – very little of my original manuscript is not commented upon to question it) I see all that red, and my head thunks the desk/keyboard whatever –Aagh! I step away and get over my dissapointment – rewrite – have her rip that apart, and finally hone in on to what we both feel will “make the cut” – now having said all this – this is for a little 29K fun piece of mine – If the Shoe Fits – a absurd retelling of Cinderella – Once I get through this painful process then SFMD at 149K EEK! – and you thought you had cut back nightmares???

    Linda D

    • samchaffin says:

      Ahh, I completely understand, Linda. Receiving edits is emotionally traumatizing. Haha but I think it’s so great that you have someone who will be tough on your work, especially since it’s so hard for us to do it ourselves. Good luck with SFMD! What I’ve read of it is already great, and I know it’ll be even more wonderful once you do dive into revisions. 🙂

  2. Aubrey Cann says:

    I’m working on a third draft right now, and I’m having some of the problems you had with your third draft–namely, I’m cut a lot of backstory from the beginning, but I’m afraid I lost something along with it. I can’t pinpoint what yet, and there’s a chance it’s all in my head (I won’t know until I finish the revision and do a full read-through). But there is a fine line between cutting the unnecessary and losing the voice. I’m trying to find the balance.

    • samchaffin says:

      YES. I agree 100%. That balance can be so illusive… but again, that’s why we have to save all our drafts, because maybe that *something* is missing from this version, but it might be there in another version. It’s both hard as heck and exciting to find that happy medium. 🙂

  3. clclewis801 says:

    I never read Privateer when it was n Figment but I like your other stories–so I am assuming this one is awesome.

    I’m still trying to reach 50k on something. Currently I am taking a break from writing projects to feed my mind and come away with fresh ideas and a stronger writing voice. I was going to do camp NaNoWriMo, but just might write a novella on my own time to learn how to sharpen my skills. I have been watching a lot of these videos http://www.youtube.com/user/twiyachannel/videos about new releases to sort of get ideas for my TBR and what Tahereh Mafi calls a feel for the genre and what’s hot right now.

    I am amazed by your surplus of words. I have a word shortage issue. Myabe Privateer is meant to be a duology (one of my future projects–I am planning on writing as a duology). This just came to my mind while I was reading…but you know better then I do what the purpose is for your story.

    Have an amazing day and keep writing!

    • samchaffin says:

      Ahh, yes, I’ve heard Tahereh Mafi say that before. I agree and disagree with it… I think it’s a good idea to know what’s out and to understand trends, but to write FOR a trend is something completely different. For me, there is no way I will ever be able to do that. I know myself, and I know that when I commit to writing a novel, I’d better be passionate about what I’m writing whether or not the public wants it right now. So yes, I think it’s wise to understand publishing trends, but only to decrease my ignorance, and not to dictate what I write, if that makes any sense. 🙂

      I wish I had your problem, actually… it’s a pain in the neck to try to figure out what is “good enough”/”important enough” to stay in a story. But at the same time… it would also be hard to figure out where to fatten the prose to kick up the wordcount or fill out the story. So I feel your pain! Haha

  4. Kim says:

    OMG, could it be? I’m allowed to comment on your blog again at work? *shiny eyes* This is amazing!

    Okay, so, trying not to blow this opportunity, I’ll get straight to the point. My love hearing about other peoples’ draft processes because they are so wildly different. For me, even though I wander a lot in my first drafts, they turn out pretty solid. But… that’s all depending upon what *kind* of story I’m writing. I haven’t written one yet that’s left me with a snapped-in-half skeleton, but it’s bound to happen.

    My second drafts usually consists of cutting everything I can, because I totally overwrite on the first draft. On a sentence-level, I had so much to change by the second draft. I have what I call “stupid sentences,” which are super convoluted and don’t often make sense. They also read and sound terrible, though I guess I thought they were gold at the time (how could I have kept them there? Ahhhh.). Sometimes I’ll need to add more foreshadowing, now that the draft is finished and I know what the novel’s about, and other times I have to go back and rewrite chunks of dialogue in order to make the characters’ motivations and feelings more obvious. And I play the cheese exterminator. Everything too mushy needs to leave. Now. I can do better.

    While we may have different processes, I know exactly how you feel about that strange emptiness that comes with later drafts. That happened to me with both BG and my thesis, both having been heavily revised according to other people’s perspectives and advice. It was hard, at times, to remember *why* I was writing these ms’s at the heart of them, just like your discovery about the point of Privateer (point is a harsh word. But you know what I mean, haha). I had to fall in love with my manuscripts again before I could add the beauty and life back into the ragged story. For BG, especially, that mean watching a lot of Pushing Daisies and drowing myself in the OST.

    With WE Could Fall in Love, a miracle happened. This was a good baby, I suppose, the one in a million with an easy delivery. You know, as easy as writing anything can be. I think it was because I *knew*, more than any other project, why I was writing it. Just what part of life was I wrestling with to slap down on the page? With WCFiL, forced singledom. No shame. It is what it is, haha.

    Anyway, I’m glad to hear that you’re at the beauty and life stage of your revisions, even if you feel tired and slightly crazed, haha. You’re going to have fun falling in love with your characters and story again, and I’m looking forward to a time when I can read it 😀

    • samchaffin says:

      I LOVE hearing about your drafting process, Kim! And it’s so fascinating to me that everybody’s “process”—if that’s what we’re doing, haha—is so different! It’s also really encouraging to hear (as selfish as this may seem…) that you also came to a point when you had to fall in love with the story again. That’s definitely where I am right now, and I guess for me it means watching The Musketeers/historical dramas galore and even having fun with some new scenes. 🙂

      Gahh, I’m so excited to read We Could Fall In Love. Again, so sorry that I didn’t get to it while it was still a WIP, but I’m SUPER excited to read it (before May 31! haha) on Swoonreads! Congrats on posting the finished product. You never cease to amaze me, lady. 🙂

  5. Nordlys says:

    So I should not worry if lately I fell dead toward my story (Yet, when I check on it I notice there is a lot hidden inside)

    The fact is that I enjoyed the first and the second draft, while the third draft (I wrote 4 third drafts) were more about understanding some characters)

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