top of page

From First Draft to Final: How Do Authors Do It?

There's a quote on the background of my computer that reads, "Writing a first draft and reminding myself that I'm simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles (Shannon Hale)." It was supposed to motivate me towards writing my own romance novel, but so far all it has done is mock me for the last three years.

I keep telling myself that all I need to finally write that romance novel is a new computer, a better notebook, some nice pens, a job with less hours or less stress, more weekends, one really good day of writing... the list goes on. I've scoured the internet looking for author advice, but the advice is extremely varied. Some authors recommend just writing and writing without editing until you've completed a first--and very rough--draft. Others edit as they go. Some try to make their first draft as close to the final as possible. Other's drafts are riddled with spelling errors and things like [insert transition scene here].

But there's always been one piece of advice that I feel is accurate no matter your writing style or that of your author heroes: Don't compare your first draft to a published author's final draft.

It got me thinking, what does an author's book look like when they first put it on paper? And so, I decided I'd go and find out. I asked a few of my favorite authors--Amanda Bouchet, Adriana Anders, and Lindsay Detwiler--to go back in time and dredge up their first and final drafts of some of their popular books and send them to me so that I could compare. And now I share them with you.

Amanda Bouchet has been one of my favorite authors since I first picked up her Kingmaker Chronicles series a few years ago. She wonderfully sent me the oldest saved draft of her first book in the series, A Promise of Fire, with this to say, "It was basically 4 years before publication and had been seen by no other eyes besides my own. I'd already been dabbling in novel writing with the intent to publish but each "try" was really a lesson and a learning experience...As you can see from the two excerpts I was starting in the wrong place. I started with a secondary character instead of the main character and I waited too long to show the hero.

The writing is obviously less smooth, but I can see that I used a lot of the ideas and phrasing. As time went on I just rearranged and put a lot of things in other places in later drafts. I wanted to get the ideas across, but in the opening paragraphs was not the place... Obviously it's important to keep in mind that I'd never been published before. The oldest excerpt is the effort of a person working a boring day job and trying to figure out if she could write a story that anyone might ever want to read."

Below you can compare the first page of her oldest saved draft and her first page of the final book:

The second author I reached out to was Adriana Anders, the author of the Blank Canvas series--a dark and steamy romance series involving secrets and tattoos. She was amazing enough to provide me with the first and final drafts of the start to her novel In His Hands, the final book in her series. With her addition to the blog you can see that authors don't always have big changes to make from the first to final draft, sometimes they're as simple as adding a few words and changing a name or two (although she claims that the second book in the series gained an entirely new first chapter).

Adriana says, "There's all kinds of advice out there about slamming out that messy first draft--the sloppy copy or whatever--and, though it works for some, it's not what I do. I write a pretty decent first draft, going back and fixing things as they come. I have terrible memory, so I have to get ideas down immediately or they disappear forever. [Blogger Note: Adriana's style of drafting is my worst nightmare. Getting it decent the first time around? Gah! But I know that her advice will certainly resonate with many of you aspiring writers.]

But no matter how clean a draft I put out there, there are always edits. And I don't mean copy edits, because, yeah, there are a ton of those down the road, but structural changes, additions, soul-crushing deletions. In edits, beginnings are rewritten, language is refined, entire chapters are added, and entire characters created, while others are killed. Nothing is perfect right off the bat. Nothing. So give yourself a break."

Can you spot the differences between the two below:

Lindsay Detwiler, the third author to help me out, provided me with something special: the page from the notebook where she hand wrote the first musings of her third published work, Then Comes Love. I couldn't believe it when she shared with me that she still handwrites her first drafts. I don't think I could keep a pen to paper long enough to get out anything constructive.

She says, "Stephen King in [his book] On Writing gets it right when he talks about how the first draft is just you telling yourself the story. You have to get it done as quickly as possible so you don't get in your head. Tell the story. Focus on the content. Rewrites are where you can clear it up." [Blogger Note: On Writing is one of the best writing books I've ever read so if you're looking for something to spark your passion and give you fabulous advice you need to pick it up.]

Compare the two below and see what you think:

Writing a rough draft seems easy, but once those words start appearing on the paper you start questioning yourself. Does this sentence make sense? Are these characters really vibing? What's that really specific word I'm thinking about... I'll come back later (spoiler alert: I don't come back later because I never actually remember that super specific word). In the end I give up my story because it doesn't sound like it did in my head and all my ideas are jumbled and the plot is starting to weave itself into confusion.

Don't be me. Look at these examples. Learn from them. Trust your own mind and get something down on the paper each day, even if what you're writing is nothing more than a grocery list.

And if you need a few more inspirational quotes to get you going, here:

-"The first draft of anything is shit."- Ernest Hemingway

-"You may not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can't edit a blank page." -Jodi Picoult

-"Every first draft is perfect because all a first draft has to do is exist." -Jane Smiley

Thanks for reading and get writing,

Kate LeBeau


bottom of page