Surviving the Draft: Pushing Your Book Over the Finish Line

Author Tayari Jones introduces us to 'Surviving the Draft'--How to push your book over the finish line.

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People often ask me what the biggest challenge I’ve faced has been in getting my novels published. Without blinking I say, writing the book. Until the project is complete, the next step in your process is going to be to finish. Let’s say you are such a charmer that you end up with an agent and a contract based on your brilliant pitch alone. You still have to finish the book. Let’s say you save Oprah from a burning building. You’ll still have to finish the book before she can make you the star of the book club.

The title of the this column, “Surviving The Draft,” is inspired by a piece of advice given to me by my mentor, Ron Carlson. When I met him, I was a great admirer of his work and I hadn’t yet written my first novel. R.C. was such an excellent teacher and a beautiful craftsman that I would have done anything that he said would make me a better writer. Sometimes, I would ask him questions about process. I was writing with pen and paper, was that okay? And how often should I go back and revise? Is it okay to read other authors while I am trying to write? Finally, he smiled and said, “Tayari, do whatever you need to do to survive the draft.”

Surviving the draft is getting over the finish line however you can. I’ve written three novels and for one I sprinted across the line, for another I limped, and for the last one, I crawled, but the point is that I did it. Surviving the draft often ain’t pretty, but it’s always possible.

The way I see it there are two things that can help you reach your goal. One is arranging your life to be more productive. This column will offer tips that range from how to turn your home into more welcoming writing space to strategies for filling out winning applications to attend writers’ colonies. We’ll talk about ways to change your life and sometimes just ways to change your mind. All to help you survive the draft.

The second focus is the craft of fiction. One of the mysterious things about writing is that you never really know how other writers do it. Upcoming column topics include choosing names for your characters, pacing your novel, approaching revision and finding the right title. If it has to do with craft or process, you’ll find it here.

What you won’t find here is discussions about “book hotness” or “notness”, the implications of the ebook or endless discussions about what agents are looking for. Why not? Because this column is all about surviving the draft. The Kindle will not help you survive the draft and neither will looking hot in your author photo. Even the best agent can’t write the book for you. Knowing the details of another writers book deal won’t add to your word count. It’s not going make your character become better rounded and it won’t fill in the holes in your plot. “Surviving The Draft” is all about helping you connect with your story and helping your pen connect with a page. Once a week, we will talk about setting one word down next to each other, setting one chapter beside the next. In other words, this is a place all about getting it done.

Before we go any further, I would like to hear from you, SheWriters. When you've gotten across the finish line, what pushed you over? If you're not there yet, what would help you get there? What topics would you like to see discussed here? Help me help you to survive your draft.

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Tags: #process/craft

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Comment by Kusum Choppra on July 6, 2014 at 12:44pm
In my historical novel titled Mastani, it was my passion , perhaps my obsession with that much maligned eighteenth century Indian princess that kept me going through twenty five years of research and then three years in writing to finally complete the book which perhaps India's first one with two alternate endings.
Kusum Choppra
Comment by Hillary Waterman on March 22, 2012 at 1:49pm

Writing is easy for me--my challenge is storytelling. it's not my best talent. I write interesting characters, and I have a story for them, a few chapters done, and then I just don't know where to take them, how fast, how directly or indirectly, what I can realistically subject them to...Is the answer more planning on my part, or just plunging into the pages and letting them decide?

Comment by Shonda on February 25, 2012 at 4:14pm

I've only written one book, a romance fiction and at times I thought it would never end. It was painful, it was addicting, it took a part of my soul while writing it, but some where good, bad and in different I finished. I crossed the finish line.  I felt like the story just had to be told, like I owed the characters in the story the right to be heard. Right? I'm going crazy, but I've started the second installment.  I think the story would continue in my head regardless if I wrote it down or if it remained in my head.

Comment by Susan Noelle Bernardo on December 27, 2011 at 4:09pm

I'm so close to birthing this first novel of mine...but I think it's a lot like actual childbirth.  There are times when I PUSH and it feels so good to make huge progress, and other times I need to rest, gather my strength and refill my creative well...deadlines help:  entering the She Writes YA contest gave me the motivation I needed to completely revise my first chapter - for months I had felt it just wasn't the right entry point into the story....when looking for the best 10 page excerpt in the book, a friend suggested the third chapter...and I realized I could actually move things around and make that the first scene...so even though it was a major revision before the ending is completely worked out, it has brought new energy to my writing process.

Comment by Telisha R. Garris on May 18, 2011 at 11:58pm
Writing was the easy bit for me - in no time flat I had a three book series each book around 100,000 words. Story line is good. I have done several edits and revisions. book three may change but the story is good. For me its the getting published part I am having a hard time with! Finding people to review and check my work before I start agent hunting. and then help writing a query - honest I would rather write another book than try to put everything I have on my book into one tiny page!
Comment by Medina Tenour Whiteman on November 11, 2010 at 6:53am
Hurray! This is EXACTLY what I need right now, 7 (read 'em and weep) years into a novel which is finally nearing completion after thousands of mini-edits. I am eager to know how I can reshuffle my life to fit writing in consistently , so I am not trying to scribble with my 6-month-old baby squirrelling about on my hip and my 2 1/2 year old boy wrecking the place. Is the answer simply coffee??
Comment by Suzanne Linn Kamata on November 11, 2010 at 1:27am
Basically I start with the idea that I will finish. I only work on one novel at a time. I've finished five, and published one (the fifth one!) Now I'm revising the sixth, which I hope will be my next published novel. When I started this one, I bought a little Japanese daruma doll. They don't have eyes. You're supposed to color in one eye when you set a goal, and then the other when you've accomplished your goal. I've had this sitting next to my desk for the past three years.

I also think it's important - for me, at least - not to revise as I go along. It's better to forge ahead to the end, knowing that I can always go back and pretty things up later. And I rarely show others my work in progress, though I did write much of my first published novel while part of a writing group. I shared bits of it as I went along, and that time, at least, having readers waiting to read the next installment helped to spur me along.
Comment by Dana DuGan on November 10, 2010 at 6:32pm
Thank your for sharing, in advance. There is virtually nothing to beat the wise words of wisdom from some who has accomplished what one wants to do themselves. I am looking forward to this column, especial advice on how to build suspense towards the climax, utilize conflict, and work on character development. Cheers
Comment by Debra Rosenberg on November 10, 2010 at 3:33pm
I'd love to know how you stay excited about your story after revising over and over and over again. Now that I've read each of my chapters about 5000 times, I find that my story and my characters are starting to bore me. How can I keep it fresh?
Comment by Ginger McKnight-Chavers on August 24, 2010 at 1:01pm
I would love to hear you share your wisdom and insights on surviving the endless revisions of the draft as well. Not the self-imposed ones, but the ones shared by writing groups, editors, agents, potential agents, etc. I have had a couple of agents express interest in my novel, but they keep sending me back to make one or two "small" revisions to make the manuscript more submission-worthy to editors before any of them will commit to representing me. Of course these "minor" suggestions always take me months to implement. It took me about a year and a half, maybe two to get a good first draft done, and I've spent close to four additional years tweaking and re-editing. I usually want to just ditch the project and start in earnest on all of the other projects I've been itching to dive into, but I've spent so much time and energy on this one - and received so much positive feedback - that I keep putting everything else I want to write on hold and doing more revisions. It's driving me mad, however. My schedule/life right now won't allow me to take an extended writing retreat, and my resources won't allow me a second stint with a very expensive independent editor. So I would love advice on this subject. Thanks for your informative posts.

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