How I Got From First To Final Draft On “Sauerkraut Station”
“Rewriting is writing,” goes the old saying, but so much of writing advice focuses on first drafts. I don’t think there’s nearly enough discussion on how to get from first to final draft… And yet that process is critical for most professional writers.
I once asked my Clarion teacher, Neil Gaiman, how close he came on the first draft. “I’d say 95% there,” he answered, and my heart stopped. Seeing the stricken look on my face as I realized he tossed off 95% of award-winning stories the first draft, he quickly added, “Oh, no, Ferrett! That five percent takes all the time. It is, as Mark Twain says, the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
Inspired by Jake Kerr’s post on his herculean efforts to get the science right in his own Nebula novelette “The Old Equations,” I’m presenting the first draft of my Nebula-nominated novelette “Sauerkraut Station” as a Word document, with sixty-plus comments explaining what was changed, and why. After writing this, I finished one more draft before presenting it to my online writing group, The Wind-Tossed Coalition, who gave me much useful feedback. I wrote two more drafts, taking about three months between rewritings, and then gave it to my real-life writing group, the Cajun Sushi Hamsters — which was the big test, since the group includes Geoff Landis, who is a NASA scientist who would doubtlessly call me on my bullshit science. (Which he did. I even listened to some of it.)
Since the Hamsters gave it a thumbs-up on the whole, I did a final draft, at which point it had ballooned to 20,000 words. I then 10% Solutioned it down savagely to 17,000 words and started sending it around.
Ann Leckie, the editor at Giganotosaurus, bought it and asked for minor changes before publication — mostly around my inaccurate descriptions of sauerkraut (which I actually hate) and the removal of a small scene she considered too melodramatic and out-of-tone for the rest of the novelette. From there, it was straight to publication.
So that’s five drafts from start to finish… And while the bones of the story have remained absolutely the same, the way the scenes have changed in tone and effectiveness are, I think, quite worthwhile for someone looking to separate lightning from lightning bugs.
I’ve added several notes as to why things were changed, to show you some of my thought processes along the way.
I strongly urge you to read the finalized story first at http://giganotosaurus.org/2011/11/01/sauerkraut-station/, as I’ll be assuming you’ve read it. Then download the Word document to compare and contrast. I’m happy to answer any questions about why things were changed, if there’s an interest; leave a comment here or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.