Writer’s Diary #7: how many drafts does it take to write a novel?

I am currently immersed in writing my second novel, trying to write most days. It’s quite a while since I wrote my first (The Occidentals, published as Caron Eastgate James by Asia Books in 1999 and later in German editions), because a PhD and a non-fiction book, not to mention employment, got in the way.
So I’m getting into the swing of writing again, aiming for 1000-2000 words a day, but currently doing 300-500 words most days. Still, anything is better than nothing. If you wrote only one page a day, every day, for a year, you’d have a novel-sized manuscript at the end of it. The main thing is, just keep going, no matter how small the input seems. Regular writing is the key to success.

The other important thing is the number of drafts you will write before you deem the novel finished, or at “final draft” stage ready for submission. The other day, I came across a writing journal I’d kept in 1992, when I was starting work on The Occidentals. In it, I had written a blueprint for drafts. I’ve done a lot of writing since then, but I think this brief piece of advice from myself more than 21 years ago is still relevant, and I’m going to keep it in mind this time, too. Here it is, unedited and exactly as I wrote it back then:

My painting of my old manual typewriter, bought in Bangkok in 1991, on which I wrote part of my first novel. I bought it so I could continue working on the novel during the frequent power cuts we had in those days.

My painting of my old manual typewriter, bought in Bangkok in 1991, on which I wrote part of my first novel. I bought it so I could continue working during the frequent power cuts we had in those days.
Image ©Caron Eastgate Dann, 2012.


1. First draft—tell the story;

2. Second draft—check out the facts; continuity; fill in any gaps in research; rewrite;

3. Third draft—polish the writing;

4. Fourth draft—Complete the polishing; small adjustments etc.




As a journalist, I’m used to writing quickly, but of course, journalism usually requires short pieces, most less than 500 words each and rarely more than 2500, even for features. But I still believe step one on that list is paramount: get your story down, no matter how badly you think you’ve written it. Then you have something to work with.

Writer’s Diary #6: How to finish your novel: ditch the to-do list

Screen Shot 2013-08-25 at 10.17.44 AMWe’re constantly thinking up new things we want or need to do, adding them to the never-ending list, then moaning about never having time to do them. If you are a writer, you probably complain that so many things get in the way to thwart you that you will never finish your novel.

The answer? Don’t have a list! Obviously, it’s good to have goals, but when you have so many that you’ll never have any hope of achieving them, it’s counter-productive. Often you have so much to do, you don’t know where to start.

So, the idea is, only put on your list what you can reasonably achieve.

In one weekend, no matter how enthusiastic you are at the start, you will not be able to clean out the cupboards, start your novel, read a whole book and go to the movies. Pick one and do it. Then you’ll be happy you achieved your goal, and you won’t be disappointed in yourself for not finishing four other things on the list.

Sometimes one day at a time is better than making five-year plans.

I’ve got a long-term to-do list that has been the same for about five years. I never cross anything off it, because I never get to it. So it’s always lurking there on my virtual computer sticky notes, reminding me what a disappointment I am to myself and others. I’m going to get rid of this list soon.

I gave away superfluous clothes from my wardrobe recently. Two big bags full, so now I can find the clothes I wear. The clothes that went to charity were all things I thought I’d wear again. But I haven’t, so out they went, except for a few classics.

So now I want to take the same philosophy to my to-do list. I have to realise that I am not going to be able to write 10 more novels in the foreseeable future—and probably not ever. But I think I might be able to write one, and possibly two or three. So I should just pick my top three ideas and forget about the others. I’ve started all three of them anyway. Yes, I know. I should choose one and go for it. Actually, I’ve got a new idea that I think would be great and for which I could happily put all others aside for a year.

I’m making a new plan to finish my third book and to have it published. To do that, I will have to put all other things aside, particularly to-do lists, though unless I am successful in attaining a government grant, I won’t be able to give up paid employment. Still, eligible applicants have about a one in 10 chance of getting a grant in my category, so it’s better odds than buying a Lotto ticket.

Screen Shot 2013-08-25 at 10.27.07 AM

Writer’s Diary #5: “Bring out yer dead! Bring out yer dead!”

If you’re a writer, you can probably relate to the idea of there being so many books to write and so little time in which to write them.

I am constantly coming up with great ideas for books, first lines, characters, titles and so on. I have a file for them—well, a few files, actually. I have grandiose-looking title pages with bylines and a copyright line…and no other content. I have outlines, first chapters, premises, character studies, film and stage adaptation ideas.

Image by Dmitry K Valberg

Image by Dmitry K Valberg

The problem is, I am like a child in a candy store: you flit from this piece to that, each one sweeter and more vibrantly coloured than the last. But, sooner or later, you get sick of eating sweets and you crave a nutritious meal.

If you want to continue being a writer, you have to make a decision, knuckle down, and write one book at a time. From start to finish. From cover to cover.

It’s all very well to have ideas, but ideas are cheap. Good ideas are the easy way out if they are not realised: you feel like you’re working on something, but actually, you’re not. Following all the way through on a good idea is much more difficult. Good ideas don’t make you a writer. Writing a complete manuscript makes you a writer. Those two words, “the end”, make you a writer.

I have book ideas from 20 years ago that “might come in handy one day”, just as my grandfather had a shed full of jars of nails, nuts and bolts of different sizes and my father had jars full of hundreds—perhaps thousands—of rubber bands.

I have to realise that I don’t need all those jars of bits and pieces. They will not come in handy.

It’s time to clean out the ideas file and all its cobwebs.

It’s time to get rid of the drafts of my books—they have been published already, so I really don’t need them. I am never going to be such a famous writer that draft marginalia will be worth buckets of money to collectors one day. I don’t have children to pass them down to.

I even have a manuscript written by an old friend of mine who, when she went overseas nearly 20 years ago, asked me to look after it “in case you ever hear of a publisher who wants it”. We lost touch, but I’ve kept it all this time and I’m trying to find her now to see if she wants it back.

There is a finite time in which to write. I have lived more than half my life. I need now to prioritise and to focus on projects one by one that I can research, write, edit, and get published.

Simplifying my writer’s shed with its jars of figurative nuts and bolts and rubber bands will give me more room in which to work, a clear bench on which to craft my works, and a direction in which to proceed.


Writer’s Diary #4: Build a bridge and find your inner engineer

An engineer taught me to write. I tell this story to anyone who asks me for advice about writing.

Years ago, when I was struggling to start writing my novel, The Occidentals, a structural engineer of close acquaintance told me that, in his mind, writing was fundamentally the same thing as building a segmental bridge.

At the time, this accomplished young engineer was working on a big elevated expressway that required thousands of prefabricated concrete segments to be precast off-site and then trucked in piece by piece. We would see the trucks, trundling along and not elegant at all, taking up space on the road and disturbing the traffic.

In its entirety, the engineer said, the project seemed vast and overwhelming. But once the design, construction plan and calculations were done, it was better to manage the project day by day than to think of it as a whole. So, he had goals for how many segments needed to be completed daily and weekly, in order to finish the project on time. As he explained, eventually, if you meet your target most days (and use others to make up ground), you have your finished bridge, ready for the public.

So, he said, he reckoned that if you attacked the writing of a novel the same way, you’d soon have your completed manuscript. Think about how many chapters (segments) you want and about how many pages will be in each. Set a deadline and work out how many chapters you want to finish a month. Perhaps you have 20 chapters and you will do two a month of about 20 pages each. Thus, you must write 10 pages a week. You have Saturday and two evenings a week to devote to writing. So, say, each Saturday you will commit to writing four pages, and each available evening to three pages.

After 10 months, you will have your completed 400-page manuscript, ready for the next stage, editing.

I’ve been thinking about this advice again, lately. I think there are more similarities between bridges and books than just a work ethic. Both bridges and books are more than the sum of their parts. When you look at a beautiful bridge like this…

The completed Pierre Pflimlin Bridge, which was opened in 2002.

The Pierre Pflimlin Bridge, opened in 2002, over the Rhine.

…you probably don’t think about the concrete, water, labour, segments and so on that made it, unless you’re an engineer. In other words, you don’t think of it under construction, like this:

Construction of the segmental Pierre Pflimlin Bridge over the Rhine in 2001. The bridge was opened in 2002.

Construction of the segmental Pierre Pflimlin Bridge in 2001.

Similarly, when a book is published, readers don’t think much about the blood, sweat and tears the author went through, first to write it at all, and second to get it published. Nor do they consider the work of the publisher in taking the novel from manuscript to book. A good book is, rather, a thing of beauty, a work of art, and like a bridge, a symbol of humankind’s infinite creative capabilities.

A monologue in Shakespeare’s Hamlet comes to mind here:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!  how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel!

[The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act II, scene II. Text presented following the First Folio, 1623; published by Rex Library, 1973.]


Writer’s Diary #3: Into the unknown

Let your writing take you into the unknown. (By the way, I visited this jungle path, at Queen Sirikit's palace grounds on Doi Suthep, near Chiang Mai, Thailand, in November. I didn't realise until I got home that I had been there before, 20 years ago).

Let your writing take you into the unknown.
(By the way, I walked along this jungle-like path at Queen Sirikit’s palace grounds on Doi Suthep, near Chiang Mai, Thailand, in November. I didn’t realise until I got home that I had been there before, 20 years ago).

I’m not the first to say “Don’t necessarily write about what you know; write about what you don’t know”, but I am still in a minority, as conventional advice tells writers to write what they know and what they know about.

This seems strange to me, since writing is a journey of discovery, a journey into the unknown, even if you know your subject matter. There is always something mystical about good fiction writing: it is more than the sum of its parts.

More important to creative writing than knowing about your subject or theme is being passionate about them and being able to write about them in a way that no one has written before.

However, you do have to do your research. While it’s tempting to jump right into the writing, doing some research before you start is a huge help because it enables you to concentrate more on the writing when the time comes.

When I moved to Thailand in the early 1990s, I decided I would write a novel set in 19th-century Siam. I knew almost nothing then about history in that part of the world, except highly romanticised (and mostly incorrect) information from popular western culture.

When I found the Siam Society, a club in Bangkok promoting the study of South-East Asian culture and history, I was on my way. They had a library of 20,000 books, many of them on old Siam. I did six months’ research reading these books and taking notes before I started writing The Occidentals. In those days, research was not generally done on a computer screen or using the internet, and we kept track of our research using an index card system, as I wrote about here last week.

Actually, writing the first draft of my novel took me only three months—half as long as it took to do the research (though when it was accepted for publication, my editor asked me to add 100 pages, so I had to go back to my research, and I spent another three months on the addition). I wrote every day, six days a week, for five hours, 12.30-5.30pm.

The six months’ ground-work had ongoing benefits: I used it as the start of research for my PhD in the 2000s, which in turn became my second book, Imagining Siam: A Travellers’ Literary Guide to Thailand, and which has led to an academic career.

In saying don’t be afraid to write about what you don’t know, I’m in good company. For more on writing about the unknown, see this article in The Atlantic by Harvard Creative Writing Faculty director Bret Anthony Johnston.

I’d love to hear from you about your launch into the unknown for the sake of your writing.

A Writer’s Diary #2: Goodbye, dear little filing system

1990s writer's filing system

Ye Olde Worlde Filing System, c1991.

Remember this? If you’re under 30, you’ve probably never seen one: it’s an index-card filing system. Before the internet, this is how we used to file our research. This is the one I compiled when I was writing my historical novel, The Occidentals, set in 19th-century Thailand.
I did six months of full-time research before I started writing the novel. This involved reading and indexing information from 42 books and hundreds of articles. Then, say, when I wanted to know about transport in Bangkok in the 1860s, I would look up the index card labelled “Transport”, and it would tell me the books, articles and page numbers where I would find the information.
Though I have not used this index since the late 1990s, I feel sentimental about it and have kept it all this time in my office. I’ve tried to throw it away several times, but something always stops me doing it. However, finally, I’ve agreed with myself, something once so useful has become just a waste of space.
So, I thought I would take a photo of it and write an obituary for my dear little filing system. Goodbye, you served me well, but now it’s time to go. Xoxo.

A Writer’s Diary #1: Finding time to write

Books by Caron Eastgate Dann (previously James)This year, I have determined that I will find time to work on my creative writing, instead of just thinking about it. This will mean writing every day, even if I am tired and overworked from my day job.

I know I can find the time because of this: nearly two years ago, I took up painting as a hobby. Since then, I have produced more than 40 finished paintings, variously  in oils, watercolours, acrylics and pastel. I paint four or five evenings a week, sometimes only for 30 minutes, sometimes intermittently over five hours.

Writing after hours is more difficult to do because in my job as an academic, I am on a computer screen much of the day, working on scholarly articles, lectures, and so on, or I am standing in front of a class of up to 60 university students. I don’t feel like writing at the end of the day. I feel like watching TV, eating pasta and painting pictures.

So, my best option is probably to get up an hour earlier and write before the rest of the day starts. Or, just make myself write at the end of the day for an hour. Sometimes I don’t feel like painting at first, but if I just set out my equipment and start, I am soon engaged by it. Maybe it will be the same with writing.

My other problem is that I have made significant (but slow) progress on two novels, and I think it is better to choose just one to work on. They are both historical novels, and one is a sequel to my first book, The Occidentals, initially published as long ago as 1999, then in German editions in 2003, 2005 and 2007. Where has the time gone?

While I’ve done much of the research for these two new books, there is always more to do. Some time, however, I have to stop researching and get writing. I constantly toy with the possibility of writing a contemporary novel, too, and my head spins with ideas.

Ideas, however, do not a novel make; constant hard work every day does. Writing a novel is like climbing a mountain: then having to revisit the mountain and climb it all over again when the editing starts.

My new writing program starts on Thursday, January 10, because it’s the day after my birthday. Also, my day job doesn’t start until February, so I should have the time I need to get a good start on my projects. I’m looking forward to a fruitful writing year.