That Perplexing Umpteenth Draft in Mystery Writing

Cartoon of Girl WritingThis summer, my main writing project was to edit my Casey Holland novella for the ninth time. Given the good feedback from writers’ groups and the number of drafts I’ve churned out, I thought number nine would be the final edit and proofread before sending it to the editor. Boy was I wrong. More to the point, I should have known better. I’ve been through this before, not only with all of my novels but with every short story as well.

I don’t know if this happens with other mystery writers, but here’s what happens to me. I spend the first two or three drafts refining the plot, subplots, twists, pacing, and so forth. Then the next three are on character development and detailed, line by line editing to sharpen each paragraph. By the sixth or seventh draft I think, wow, I’m almost there! One more quick edit and I’m good to go…and then the zinger happens.

I reread the book from beginning to end and start finding subtle, but important glitches. Skewed logic, a misplaced bit of timing, repetition, and other subtle nuances that ultimately have a huge impact on how well the story works.

It feels like a setback at first, but it isn’t. It’s a weird, perplexing, near-the-end stage in which I truly—and finally—understand how the subtext and connections and movement in this story are woven together, sometimes rather delicately. It’s a little bit frustrating that this happens so late in the editing process, yet it feels like a necessary rite of passage.

A couple of days ago, draft number nine was finished. There were changes to  every page, and a few of those pages involved substantial changes. Perhaps I was naïve and overly optimistic to think that with 30+ years of writing experience and not an overly complex 26,000 novella to polish that things would go smoothly.

I’m not sure I’ll ever outgrow this phase, and to be honest I’m not sure I should. Clearly, I’m still learning, but that’s okay. Because without a doubt I know that draft number nine is much better than draft number eight and, really, isn’t that the point? In the end, perhaps it doesn’t matter how many drafts it takes to get where I need to be. Just that I’ll get there.