This blog was featured on 02/26/2018
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.

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.


* This post was originally published in August 2010.

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  • Emma Foster

    When I save as a draft it's difficult to come back and work on it again. I always do  a lot of changes and editing until my deadline can't wait any longer. 

  • Kusum Choppra

    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

  • Hillary Waterman

    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?

  • Shonda

    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.

  • Susan Noelle Bernardo

    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 even though it was a major revision before the ending is completely worked out, it has brought new energy to my writing process.

  • 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!

  • Medina Tenour Whiteman

    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??

  • Suzanne Linn Kamata

    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.

  • Dana DuGan

    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

  • Debra Rosenberg

    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?

  • 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.

  • Leigh David

    this is very interesting...i just completed my first novel about three months ago, its been laying quiet on my laptop, but recently i have tried to recah out agencies, they currently having a look at it...i would like to know more about the follow up topics.

  • Rose Deniz

    This is a great column, Tayari! Thanks for helping facilitate meeting points and milestones in completing a draft. I'm not there, yet, using this month as an early NaNoWriMo to crank out everything I've got in one month. So far for me, speed and not looking back are going to be my best tools for finishing.

  • Patricia Woodside

    Boy, am I looking forward to this series. Surviving the draft has been my biggest challenge. But I've recently learned that I need to challenge myself to meet the challenge. 30 days of writing. No targets, no goals other than to open the wip and write something. To move the darn thing forward. And when 30 days are up, I'll celebrate, then start another 30 days. For however long it takes.

  • Chelsea Starling

    I'm just going to toss this out there for anyone interested. I purchased a book called Immediate Fiction which has a really fantastic chapter on revising. I have purchased and read so many books on writing, but this one demystifies the craft and spells it out in the simplest terms. The author, Jerry Cleaver taught the MFA program at Northwestern for a zillion years, and he has just boiled everything down to exactly what you need to know, and left out the rest. For those of you on your third drafts-he points out that the minimum number of times most authors will revise a manuscript is five. Five drafts! With that in mind, and with his step by step approach to guide you, surviving the draft is guaranteed, you just have to do the work! I would recommend this book to every writer, no matter what genre you're writing, and no matter how well you think you know the craft.

  • Surviving the Draft

    I am loving these comments. @Fran, I am going to think about your issue. It's a tough one, but something everyone deals with. And @Xenia, thanks for the vote of confidence. And @Rachel, yep. The next step is always tp survive the draft. @Keetha-- you got this!

    Okay, I gotta run. I have a draft to survive, too! See everyone next week. TJ


    Hey Tayari, I'm glad you've signed up to write this column. Your blog is about the only author blog I check almost every day. You always have something inspirational or newsworthy to say. That said, one thing that has gotten me over the finish line with my next book (which I have been editing for a couple of years), is knowing when to stop editing. For weeks, I would change a word there, move a chapter there, until finally I said STOP. Last week, I submitted to two publishers who had requested the manuscript a couple of years ago. Whether they're still interested, I don't know. But I felt a sense of relief "shipping" it off (via e-mail). I figured there will be time to edit after the professionals look it over.

  • Rachel Hills

    Great article, Tayari. Like many, I'm currently struggling with my draft (very happy with my proposal, but need to write the draft). I'll be following this series with interest. :)

  • Mona R. Washington

    Thanks for a great article Tayari. Putting my tail in my seat and making myself crank out the first draft of anything is painful but necessary. I'm much better with revisions once I have a base.

  • fran schumer

    I have a few first drafts. One ends; the other just wimps out. How do you know/feel whether to work on an old draft more or just give up and move on. Great post, Tayari. Thanks so much.

  • What a great post! This came at just the right time; I'm knee deep in the first draft and finding it at times frustrating to scary to exhilarating. Mostly frustrating and scary.

    I'm determined to do it. This novel may well never go anywhere after it's written but I'll know much better how to write the second one.

  • Tayari --Thank you for Surviving the Draft. And what an accurate title. Craft is so important. I'm on my umpteenth draft of a third novel and it's driving me absolutely crazy! I keep questioning whether or not to give it up, but I've put so much time into it.

  • Myrna Rosa

    I've often said that procrastination is my best friend. I know - a pretty self defeating statement. I've written a memoir, which has undergone at least three revisions. For the last year, it has remained untouched. So, I look forward to your help.

  • Eileen Drennen

    Yay! I'm so glad you'll be writing Surviving the Draft since it's JUST what I am longing to read. Working on first book (well, second attempt at first book, having put fiction aside temporarily and now working in non-fiction) so my only experience with the Finish Line is praying for it.
    Habits that help: First thing in the morning daily committment works best. A writing group -- and that accountability -- has helps immensely. I'm especially intrigued by this line in your first column and can't wait to read more: "We’ll talk about ways to change your life and sometimes just ways to change your mind. All to help you survive the draft." Amen!

  • Kim Kircher

    Very timely stuff! My work-in-progress is a novel. I have finished a draft and continue to re-enter the story through different lenses. I might, say, start a revision session with a certain goal in mind--to further flesh out a particular character, to tighten a particular plot line, to omit needless words. That way, when I sit down to the often messy, many-tentacled thing at my desk, I can work my way through it more easily.