The Draft

I was teaching a writing class a couple of years ago and during a break, one of the middle-aged students came up to me with a question.

“Can we talk about the draft?”

“It sent a lot of people to Canada on extended vacations when I was fresh out of high school.”

“How long do you work on a draft?”

“Oh, that. Until I get through it.”

Budding Writer paused, thinking. “I mean, how long does it take you to get to the end?”

“That depends on Life. If everything lines up and I can really sit down and work, I can get a first draft finished in about three months, and the way I do it, the manuscript is pretty polished by the time I reach the end. I once wrote a draft in six weeks, but that’s rare.”

She wrote that down in her notebook, “Do you outline?”


“I have to.”

“Well, you and I work differently. I sit down and put my fingers on the keys and start writing. The story unfolds, and I go with it through that entire session, however long it might be, fifteen minutes, an hour, or even three or four hours. Then the next morning I read through what I wrote the day before, and use that as a launch pad for the current day’s work. I do that every time until I type, The End.”

“What if your writing group has a suggestion about those pages and you have to go back and change them?”

“I don’t have a writing group, and you really don’t have to go back and change anything. Those are suggestions.”

Two deep lines appeared between Budding Writer’s eyebrows. “You just write all by yourself.”

“Yep. All alone.”

“My problem is that I keep changing things after my group makes suggestions, and I find that I spend weeks on one chapter.”

“Have you finished your first draft?”


“How long have you been working on this manuscript?”

“About three years.”

“My suggestion is to simply sit down and finish your first draft without stopping for any more edits.”


“Right. Butt. Put your butt in the seat and finish your first draft. In my opinion, you can come back and re-work those chapters that might be giving you trouble. You see, there’s no right or wrong way to do this. You have to find what works for you. I promise, there’s no formula, because if there was such a thing, everyone would be on the bestseller list with every book.”

“So is that’s how it’s done?”

“That’s how I do it.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking writers groups. I know many readers of this blog, and several of those who post each week, belong to such groups that offer much-needed support in writing, or simply in providing the camaraderie to discuss this strange, wonderful business we’re in, but it’s not for me. I just want to write.

Budding Writer needed that support, but it seemed as if she was caught in a loop of well-intentioned suggestions that tightened like a boa constrictor named Self Doubt until she couldn’t move beyond those few chapters.

Your first draft is just that. It’s a firehose to some as it pours out in a great torrent of words, a trickle to others as they struggle to craft that perfect sentence, but writers need to reach the end, to get it all down, however full of errors, typos, or plot kinks. Once it’s done, then you can go back and add all that’s necessary to streamline and fill out the story and make the manuscript readable. Then edit with a vengeance, but the completion of that first draft is absolutely necessary both physically and psychologically.

I understand Budding Writer’s issue. She likely juggled a job, husband, kids, dogs, bills, friendships and any combination thereof, including Life it’s ownself, putting down a few words here and there and not seeing the continuity of her work as a whole.

Then that chapter, or collection of chapters and all those suggestions began to gnaw at her and she needed to get it just right before she could move on.

It just doesn’t work that way for me. I wrote my first novel over a few fitful years, lost it to an electronic hiccup, and started over to recreate the whole thing from memory. Maybe that’s where my writing regime came from, because I hammered that second draft out within about a year.

Today I begin with fingers on the keys and get that rough draft down as the story unfolds in my mind. I follow it, pounding away at the keys as the characters develop and the story moves forward, not worrying about little details, until I get to the end.

I did all that alone, but after my first novel was released, I learned of an annual event called NaNoWriMo, which translates to National Novel Writing Month, which is sponsored by a nonprofit organization that “promotes creating writing around the world. Its flagship program is an annual creative writing event in which participants attempt to write a 50,000-word manuscript during the month of November.”

I like the idea, though I never signed up on their website, but the premise is solid, in my opinion, and it boils down to one true thing.

Sit down and write the damned novel!

Better yet if you can do it in a month. Fifty-thousand words translates into those old mass market paperbacks of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Think Louis L’Amour, Micky Spillane, and even more recently when Nicholas Sparks wrote a short novel that did pretty well, coming in at 52,000 words. The title was The Notebook.

Robert James Waller’s blockbuster novel, The Bridges of Madison County also came in at 52,000 words. Hummm, is there a connection here?

Take a look at this list of 50,000-word novels that I lifted from WikiWrimo, they aren’t Stephen King-size doorstops, but they’ve all been pretty successful.

  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxyby Douglas Adams (46,333 words)
  • The Notebookby Nicholas Sparks (52,000 words)
  • The Red Badge of Courageby Stephen Crane (50,776 words)
  • The Great Gatsbyby F. Scott Fitzgerald (50,061 words)
  • The Apostle Paul’s Epistles from the Bible (43,293 words. 50,190 if you count Hebrews.)
  • Lost Horizonby James Hilton
  • Shatteredby Dean Koontz
  • Fight Clubby Chuck Palahniuk
  • Of Mice and Menby John Steinbeck
  • Slaughterhouse-Fiveby Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
  • The Invisible Manby H. G. Wells
  • Gadsby: A Story of Over 50,000 Words Without Using the Letter “E”by Ernest Vincent Wright
  • As I Lay Dyingby William Faulkner (56,695 words)
  • The Giverby Lois Lowry (43,617 words)
  • Speakby Laurie Halse Anderson (46,591 words)
  • A Separate Peaceby John Knowles (56,787 words)
  • Fahrenheit 451by Ray Bradbury (46,118 words)

My own novels come in at 90,000-100,000 words, but like Mr. King, I get kinda wordy as the story progresses and the action builds. But here’s the bell I’m trying to ring. Your first draft does not have to be long. Hit that 50,000 word draft. Now you have a novel.

Then go back if you want and expand it with character development, settings, new plot twists that might occur to you, and all those seasonings that make a wonderful, successful book.

Now, put your butt in the seat and get to writing that first draft until you plow through to the end. Fifty-two thousand might be your lucky number.

This entry was posted in Writing by Reavis Wortham. Bookmark the permalink.

About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

27 thoughts on “The Draft

  1. You write to specific market length, and very few current adult-reader traditional markets with the exception of category romances are under 60,000 words. Self-pubs often are shorter under the theory that more books per year are better sales than a few honky big books.

    I certainly agree that books by committee are a bad idea.

    • Even traditional westerns are expanding. They are now stretching out to 90-95,000 words. One editor told me it’s because publishers are trying to give readers more for their money, since mass-market paperbacks have increased in price.

      Personally, I like longer works for the most part. Shorter books often leave me wanting more.

  2. Your process sounds very much like mine, Rev, only I print out the chapters as I finish them and read them in bed. Different environment, different visual, and I make some sketchy markups–not edits, really, just places where I catch a typo, can’t follow the dialogue, etc. If something’s troublesome, I underline and write “FIX.”
    Coincidentally, as I’m working my way back into writing, I caught a Q&A session with Nora Roberts in her JD Robb persona. She stressed that the way she writes is what works for her, and you do what works for you. (She doesn’t outline, doesn’t plot–just lets the story unfold.)

    • On Friday, I had an attendee at an event ask me how I create these stories, since I don’t plot.

      “How do you find what works for you?”

      I carefully considered my answer, and as the room quieted, gave him the answer.

      “I don’t know.”

  3. Yep Rev, I’ve always told new writers, once they get underway, push right on to the end. You learn a lot that way, and more when you go back to fix things.

    Your first draft is just that. It’s a firehose to some as it pours out in a great torrent of words

    The firehouse method of discovery. That’s the really fun part. Only I do spray that thing in the planning stage, having fun each day getting scene ideas and putting them on scene cards (in Scrivener). I write some of the “hot spots” of scenes, and that’s fun, too. I work out “plot kinks” and eventually organize the cards structurally. There’s my outline. Then I write the first draft. My wife reads it. I take her notes and edit. Then I take her out to dinner.

    • The first draft is the most fun, to me. But then I get into the edits, and that’s the most fun at that time.

      Writing is simply a hoot.

      Thanks for weighing in this morning, Jim. Have a great weekend.

  4. Thanks for the story, and sharing your process, Rev.

    I sketch out the story on google docs (a hybrid rough draft/outline) while the previous story is out to beta readers. Then I write the rough draft, usually coming in at about 70,000 words. Editing usually adds 2000 – 4000 words.

    Thanks for the list of 50,000 word novels. I want to go back and read some of those.

    Have a productive weekend.

  5. Rev, I’m one of those writers who depends on critique groups and beta readers for novels. Sometimes I get way out on tangents and need to be reeled back in! But the method I receive external feedback has changed over the years.

    When I was starting out, I used to run every chapter by others before I could move forward. That meant many months to get all the way through the book.

    Now it works better to finish the draft and have betas read the entire ms b/c they can judge the arc of the whole story, not just small chunks. Chapter 23 may be wonderful all by itself but, in the grand scope, it doesn’t fit in the book. Or maybe there’s a big gap that needs an additional chapter to fill in unanswered questions. Critiquers can’t judge that when they read piecemeal.

    Newer writers often need reassurance and CGs can a great support. But I also know writers who labor over every comma and never finish anything.

    In the balancing act of writing, you have to find your own method of staying upright and that method may change over time.

    • I once thought I needed a group, and as an experiment, signed up for a critique class during a writing conference in the DFW area. There were probably fifteen or so people there, and we submitted our opening chapters a couple of weeks before the event.

      It was an all day class, and I was maybe fourth of fifth in line for evaluations. I’d listened to the other discussions with great interest, for this was about eight years before my first novel came out.

      The discussion was good on some of the submissions, lackluster for others, but then came my turn. I didn’t receive any substantial discussion, which was a disappointment. The one thing the other writers honed in on was my wife’s fictional name in this humorous travel story. For the entirety of my time in the barrel, the discussion revolved around her as “The War Department.”

      Beaten bloody, I simply sat there and listened. It. Was. Humor. This was before political correctness in all things took over, and I couldn’t understand why this was the hill they wanted me to die on.

      Afterword: In thirty-two years of weekly newspapers, she has always been the War Department, and my readers love it. I haven’t been back to such a group since, but if it works for you…

  6. God bless the 50,000-word novel. Unless a book is a well-vetted classic (think Don Quixote), I try not to read books much longer than that. I love the old Gold Medal mysteries, the westerns, and the men’s adventure novels for that reason. Taut, no fat, hard-driving fiction. (Not to mention a lack of Wokeness in content).

    • I’m with you on several counts. I love short, taunt novels. I have several hundred old paperbacks from the 1960s-90, and often pick one up to squeeze in between other tasks.

      Richard Stark, Jonas Ward, Brian Coffey, Micky Spillane, and dozens of others still read well, and fast!

  7. Truly getting the draft done is key in my experience, too. I’m an outliner for the big details. Invariably a number of the small ones are either changed when I reach them in the draft or replaced by what I uncover at that point.

    I benefit a great deal from beta readers feedback, on a revised second draft. The same in the past from story editors. I’m an indie, feedback at this point is crucial.

    Each of us walks our own trail in creating a novel, but we all need to do the actual writing. That makes all the difference.

    Have a wonderful weekend!

    • Many beginners, myself included, get stuck on that first draft for sure. I have a couple in a drawer that stalled between 50 and 100 pages.

      It’s a good thing, too.

  8. I’m someone who can take critiques during my first draft. My strategy is to be many chapters ahead of what I submit so I don’t lose the flow of the story. The biggest change I made in draft was to switch a chapter from one POV to another, but most of my group’s comments go into a file for me to look at second draft.

    As for outlining, I simply say this: ideas come at me much faster than I can write. It’s not just a firehose, it’s the difference between walking speed and hyperspeed on the Millenium Falcon. So, those ideas end up rearranging themselves into an outline, and they change even after I start writing, especially for second half of the novel chapters.

    Definitely we each need to find what works for us.

    • I think your last sentence is a chapter unto itself for beginners.

      “We need to find what works for us.”

      Because there is no right or wrong way for an individual to get those words down. As I said earlier, sit down and WRITE!

  9. I can sympathize with Budding Writer’s confusion. I’m not currently in a writers group, but in the past I have, like her, submitted chapters as I go. And the result was the same–being kept in a constant state of turmoil and never really making any progress. I totally believe in the value of writers groups, but were I to join one again, they would not see my work until the first draft was done.

    But I’ve reached a stage in life where I think rather than a writers group, I’d sooner ask a couple of people whose input I trust to give me feedback on a manuscript. I mean if you’re in a writer’s group that meets monthly, it would take eons to get feedback on your full manuscript. And if you’ve finally hit that tremendous milestone of completing a draft, who’d want to wait a year or more to get feedback on the whole thing?

    The fastest I turned out a first draft was, I think, 4 months. I still look back on that as one of the favorite times of my life. At that time there were no other life distractions (other than working around the day job) and it was the one manuscript writing process where I felt focused and concentrated on it the whole time until I wrote ‘the end’.

    By contrast, I’m trying to work on a manuscript now and can’t concentrate worth a hoot, & there are many distractions. But I want that sucker finished by my goal date in early December. I’m about half-way there.

    Regardless, your advice always applies. We just have to sit down and git ‘er done.

    • If you’re halfway, then it’ll flow once you finish the second act (in my case anyway).

      Almost two years ago, I finished a first draft in six weeks, and that novel is now under consideration with a publishing house I’ve never worked with. I’m looking forward to hearing from them soon, in the meantime, I just finished my most recent that began on June 28, and wrapped on September 17. It will publish at an as-yet confirmed date in 2023.


  10. I like critique groups and beta readers, etc., but one has to be selective when following suggestions and advice. You have to know your audience.

    Once I submitted a scene to a beta reader. In it there was the MC, the MC’s assistant and a new client – all women. The MC has a phone conversation with a male detective that doesn’t last 20 seconds. And what did the beta reader want to know – What does the detective look like? WTF? How could that possibly matter? It mattered, to her, because she reads romance novels. If I had stopped to describe the detective it would have shifted the focus and purpose of that chapter.

    I also know someone who writes historical fiction and she is addicted to backstory. She wanted to know the background between two characters and yes, in this case. their background was important. However, that was chapter three and how they know each other isn’t important until chapter eight. The beta reader had a problem with that – she needed to know as soon as possible – she always tells the reader as soon as possible. Yes, she does. And it drives me nuts reading her stuff – something is going on, but wait let me pull you out of this to tell you about the time …

    And someone who couldn’t follow a mystery if their life depended on it can still be a beta reader for a mystery – just don’t get so frustrated you want to pull your hair out when they ask a question you know you have answered.

    • Too much detail and backstory can be as distracting as glaring plot issues. Sometimes authors provide wayyyyy too much info, and if it’s a tense scene that should move forward with all the jets firing, we don’t want too much about relationships, clothing, feelings….

      …just get to the damned action!

  11. I quit writing for years because I kept being told “You have to outljne.” I did try it, but once I outlined, I lost interest. It was done and dead.

    Now I find out a lot of successful writers write the way I do. Better late than never.

    • I know the feeling.

      I once wrote a ten page outline, and abandoned it after the second page in the manuscript because my characters pulled me in another direction.

      That first chapter decided for me, and my editor at that time told me it was the creepiest opening chapter she’d ever read. Good, but it wasn’t in the outline at all.

      Go figure.

  12. Tried a group once, in my salad days – moderated by the woman who taught the ‘Writing the Mystery’ short course I’d just taken at my local community college as a way to get started.

    It lasted for me a couple of times. They wanted me to read and remember a new version of other people’s novels – I have ME/CFS and the brain does NOT like that – so that was it in getting feedback of any kind.

    I go at my own pace now, and when a chapter is as good, complete, and polished as I can make it, it goes to my amazing beta reader (whose feedback: ‘Alicia, you evil woman,’ is the response I crave), and this happens 20 times in a row, until the novels are done.

    Works for me – and I’m an extreme plotter, because the novels are complicated and layered and I need to know where the crossover points are – so far, even with the damaged brain.

    Having other people comment on unfinished work now would be like being consumed by ants – so I don’t attempt it. But, even though illness dictated my methods, I find them just right for me – and can steadily (if slowly) work through, scene by scene, from the notes and the horrible rough draft no one will even see – very purple.

    But then the story itself came, complete, from a couple of ideas that gobbed together out of the ether, and there’s never been a question of how it gets where it’s going, except for the learning to write bit. So far, so good: I’m about to put the third volume in the trilogy through the same process, only I hope it’s a bit faster than 15 and 7 years, respectively, for the first two.

    Do wish I’d known a bit sooner that I’m a plotter – I tried for years to have things form themselves in my mind a la Lawrence Block, and they never did.

Comments are closed.