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Do you Feel a Draft When You Write?

What is considered a draft of a piece of writing?

In a CNN article, Todd Leopold writes that when Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan writes a novel, it may go through fifty or sixty drafts.

Robert Boswell says, “I revise a lot. I write thirty, forty, fifty drafts of every story.” He saves every one of them.

In looking at my writing files, the highest number of drafts I’ve ever done for a story or novel is nine. On the surface, it’s clear that I need to do a lot more work before my writing is ready for submitting.

I recently submitted a short story to a Hugo House workshop in which I’m enrolled. It was still essentially draft number one, although I have reviewed and edited the file more times than I can remember. The workshop’s instructor, Joan Leegant (please check out her collection of stories, An Hour in Paradise), gave me some nice compliments and wrote in her assessment that the story was “very close” to being ready. One draft and nearly ready. But the great authors take fifty drafts. How can this be?

I started writing the story November 16. My Word file records that I’ve made 643 revisions and spent 4374 minutes on the story (73 hours). I still list it as draft number one, however, because I haven’t done what I would consider a major rewrite.

But if I follow the advice of Egan and Boswell, then mathematically, I’d have to multiply those numbers by fifty. That means the story wouldn’t be ready to submit until I reached 218,700 minutes of work. Assuming I work on it two hours a day (which wouldn’t allow much time for other projects), I wouldn’t be done for another 1822 days—that’s five full years—for one short story, mind you.

I’m curious to know what constitutes a new draft in the mind of a Pulitzer Prize winner like Egan, or a well-respected author like Boswell. Perhaps the way I write helps explain the difference. My method, and I don’t recommend this, is to write a sentence or two and go back, re-reading the previous sentences until the next one flows from what came before. I read and re-read and re-read. Most of the time this resembles a staring contest with the monitor. But eventually a new sentence makes itself known. This usually takes a few minutes, but has been known to take an hour or more. If I think ahead, and come up with something that I might use later in the story, I just type a note at the bottom of the page to remind me. I feel that approach creates a relatively coherent result, and requires fewer drafts, but then, I’m not a Pulitzer Prize winner (or particularly well-respected).

How many words must change to qualify as a draft? To me, a new draft means completely trashing maybe a quarter or more of the work. A scene revision, or a new direction for a character doesn’t fit that description for me.

But I don’t know. Maybe I’m trying to rationalize to make myself feel better. Maybe I need to do it Egan and Boswell’s way. Or maybe if authors tracked total time spent I could relate better. For sure the arbitrary definition of “draft” is not helping. If anyone has some advice on this, I would love to hear it.

BTW: This is draft one of this blog. I spent 71 minutes writing it.

Morning News

12/31/14: Tahoma Literary Review issue 2 is now available. Great poetry, fiction, and for the first time, nonfiction. You can purchase a copy on Amazon, or download an e-file on our site.

11/2/14: Tahoma Literary Review co-Publisher Kelly Davio and I will present "The Literary Magazine Goes Digital" at the Northwest Bookfest in Kirkland, WA on Sunday, Nov. 2. There's still time to attend the conference, which runs Nov. 1-2 and includes two days of intense workshops (and lunch is included). You can register on their web site.

09/23/14: My story "How to Live at a Hotel" received an Honorable Mention in the Stoneslide Corrective Fiction Contest. Publisher Christopher Wachlin said he would also like to run it in an upcoming issue of Stoneslide .

08/19/14: Minneapolis, here we come. My friend Lori A. May's panel proposal for The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference has been accepted, so she and I and three other writers will present "Literary Citizenship: It’s Not About You," in April, 2015.

03/31/14: My story, "Plunge," is live at Stoneslide Corrective. They're a cool new journal and book publisher. I used a pseudonym for this one, for future marketing considerations, as they say.

02/28/14: I'll be moderating a panel titled "Stoking the Fire," about finding the writing life that's best for you, at the annual AWP conference on Feb. 28.

10/03/13: Here come da judge! I've been named final judge for the Adult Fiction category of the Detroit Working Writers 2014 conference. I'm excited, because judging the Poetry category will be US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey! Just being mentioned in the same sentence with her is an honor.

9/24/13: Woodward Press co-publisher Dora Badger and I will present a discussion on Self Publishing Options at the annual Rochester Writers Conference on Saturday, October 5 at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. Registration is still open for the event, so if you're in the area please join us.

8/1/13: The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) has accepted my panel proposal for the 2014 annual conference in Seattle. "Stoking the Fire: Maintaining the Passion for Writing When Success Eludes" will feature co-presenters Kobbie Alamo, Teri Carter and Q. Lindsey Barrett.


“Curtain Calls,” Print Version Coming In April

Curtain Calls: A Novel of The Great War is my new book through Woodward Press. The Kindle version is available now. The print version will be released in April. The novel follows three American performers who travel to Paris in the summer of 1914, where they become caught in the passions and politics of a nation on the brink of war. Separated by events, they fall in with factions for and against the conflict, and move ever deeper into a mysterious underground world of political intrigues.

The Face Maker and other stories of obsession is my collection of short stories out now from Woodward Press. Kelly Davio, author of Burn This House, says. "In stories that range effortlessly across time period and place, Joe Ponepinto delivers the kind of masculine character we crave in literary fiction; these characters wrestle with the most essential questions of morality, and they bare-knuckle box with their human frailties." Find it on Amazon in paperback and Kindle. Want a signed copy? Email me at jpon (at) thirdreader (dot) com.

For the editing and tutoring services I offer, please see my companion site at Third Reader.

I am the co-Publisher and Fiction Editor of Tahoma Literary Review, a literary journal.

For links to some published stories, go to my Publications page.

Tahoma Literary Review Now Open for Submissions

TLR is officially open for submissions of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. To find out more about this new (paying) literary journal, please visit us at Tahoma Literary Review.

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