Five Layers of Drafts

I just went through the complete process of prepping a short story for submission.  It was an intense, grueling thing that took far longer than I thought it would, but I decided it might be worth chronicling (spellcheck let me get away with that word!).

The story was for the Timeless Tales Magazine and at the time of writing this blog, it’s under consideration.  If it’s declined, I’ll post it here for you all to see.  Either way, you should check them out and read some of the really great stuff they already have there.

So, the premise was a 1500-2000 word story that amounted to a retelling of Cupid and Psyche.  I decided to go for a sci-fi retell and see what happened.

Research – About 2-3 hours

The first stage was doing my homework.  I knew they fell in love, but in all honesty, I had no idea what the overall mythos was.  I pulled up lots of sites, and even found the original story by Apuleius.  I wanted to be familiar with the characters and the plot, but I knew I had wiggle room.  The magazine didn’t want a perfect 1-1 match: That would be boring.

Brainstorming – 0.5 hours

Next I kicked around ideas.  I only had 1500 words to play with, so I wanted to pick a moment and zero in on it.  The story is full of potential content, some of which would be easily adaptable to space, and some wouldn’t.

I decided I really liked the third task, which involved her going to a tower to kill herself, and the tower convincing her to live and giving her advice on how to get her task done.  In my head, I saw this tower as a talking ship that she was going to fly into the sun.  Bingo, I had my backdrop.

Draft 1 (Rough) – 1 hour

Keeping with Anne Lamott’s concept of a “shitty first draft,” I just started writing.  This draft went really quickly.  Lots of words on the page.  I was mostly just rewriting the story though… Hadn’t done anything to make it my own.  I jumped around a bit, seeing a few scenes in my head that might play out.  About halfway through this draft, the lightbulb clicked on for me.

What if the ship fell in love with Psyche?  Better still, what if I wrote the story from the ship’s perspective?

Draft 2 (Reboot) – 3 hours

Draft 2 took a lot longer.  For this one, I had to slog through the whole thing.  I covered the whole story, and had all my characters appropriately named (I used their original names in draft 1).  I finished it, and it came in at around 1900 words.  Success!  I decided to let it sit.  Walked away from it for two days.

Draft 3 (Tension) – 2 hours

I came back to it feeling good, and realized the whole thing read like a neat little slice of life.  That’s no good!  It’s a story.  I need some drama.  What drama could I get from a ship falling in love with a woman while she is trying to complete tasks for a man she believes that she loves?  I thought about external conflict… Enemy ships spotting them, maybe a space battle?  No good.  I frankly didn’t have the words for it.

The drama needed to fit in stuff I had already established.  How to make that work?  Well, maybe we can do some rejection.  She rejected the ship, and Cupid rejected her.  Nice.

Found several typos and sentence fragments that I cleaned up as well.

Unfortunately, this addition pulled my word count up to 2300.  No good.

Draft 4 (Iron it out) – 1.5 hours

My last edits had been done like a surgeon, carefully adjusting sections, adding stuff in, and otherwise hacking it to pieces while reassembling it.  This draft was me going through and making sure my transitions worked, making sure I didn’t have silly things like “again” when there was no first time, or referencing stuff that had been cut.  This didn’t net me much change, but I still gained.

More typos and sentence fragments… and now I was up to 2400 words.

Draft 5 (The Brutal One) – 2.5 hours

This one killed me.  This is the one I had to go through line by line, word by word and find the things that could go.  Per the advice of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, I murdered my darlings (the sentences I was especially pleased with myself over, but didn’t need to be there).  I hacked up adjectives.  I got really brutal with some adverbs.  I took “that” out. And “just.”  And “began to.”  And lots of other expressions that made the writing more wordy than it needed to be.

At one point, I managed to get this draft as low as 1981, but I had to repair some of the damage done and sew it back up.  That left me at 1995.  I really didn’t want to come in just under the word limit (and over their preferred limit), but I couldn’t find another word to be removed without changing the story… Which I guess is what I was going for?

And now it’s time for the waiting game… To see if all the work nets me a publication.  Either way, I’m pleased with the process I went through.  I felt like I learned a lot of writing on just this story alone.  The biggest being:  2000 words can take upwards of 15 hours.  I sure hope I can get faster, but even still, writing is not quick.

What’s your drafting process?

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