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Jason Gurley

By day, I'm a user experience designer; by evenings/weekends, I write novels from my home in Scappoose, Ore. My newest is Awake in the World, due February 2019 from Roaring Brook Press; my most recent, Eleanor, was published by Crown in 2016 and has since been translated into German, Portuguese, and Turkish.

The draft after the draft after the first two drafts

When I'm elbow-deep in a writing project—as I am now, rewriting and revising a shoddy draft zero of my next project—my reading habits adjust accordingly. I can't handle books of substance during these hard-work periods, so I naturally shift into escapist reading (thrillers, usually, or, weirdly, workplace fiction).

There's one exception, however, and that's books about writing. When I'm revising, a good writing book can give me a kick. I've encountered quite a few of those good ones over the years, though sadly not nearly so many as terrible books about writing.

I've just finished reading Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, by John McPhee, which I might have missed if not for Laura Joldersma's lovely writing blog, Ampersunder. (Which, I might add, you should absolutely follow. She offers a newsletter edition; subscribe.) McPhee's book is a tidy one, short and compelling and filled with enjoyable anecdotes about his years as a New Yorker staff writer, with visual depictions of various challenging structures he's adopted in his writing, with odes to fact-checkers and copyeditors. His bio reads:

John McPhee is a staff writer at The New Yorker. He is the author of thirty-two books, all published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

All published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

I'm not sure that happens anymore. In February, my second book from a major publisher will be released into the wild. Two books. Two publishers. 

The book validated an experience of my own, however. In the titular essay, McPhee writes of participating in a panel. There, he tells the audience about his solution for writer's block: to stop trying to write the thing about the bear, and instead write a letter to your mother, telling her of your struggles trying to write the thing about the bear. 

And then you go back and delete the ‘Dear Mother’ and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.

That isn't the part I appreciated, though. His daughter challenged him on this anecdote, accusing him of leaving out the best parts of writing. 

“You know it isn’t all like that,” she said. “You should tell about the good part.”

And then he does, noting that it's true, not all writing goes so terribly. First drafts do, but after that, you've got something to work with. You know the shape of the thing. He mentions a particular book, the first draft of which took him two years to write, then notes that the second, third, and fourth drafts—in total—took half a year. 

My editor phoned recently to discuss some final edits to Awake in the World, and when we'd done that, she asked after the project I'm currently revising. She hasn't seen that first draft yet, and won't for a couple months. "It's going well," I said. "When I send it to you in August, it will at least be the shape of a thing, even if it isn't the right thing." 

I've written about first drafts before. So have many other authors. As a younger writer, I fussed over my first draft, often stopping and rewriting it before I'd gotten ten thousand words in. Eleanor spent years in that phase of her development, and when in 2013 I'd finally completed the proper first draft, I learned that there were still four or five more drafts required to shape her into something readable. Awake in the World's first draft was written in about four months' time, and has spent the subsequent year and a half being revised six or seven more times (and that's leaving out some of the minor drafts along the way). 

So, I told my editor, "expect the first draft to have a beginning and a middle and an ending. Just know that they'll probably be in all the wrong places, and they won't be the correct beginning and middle and ending, anyway." 

But just wait until that second draft. Or the fourth. 

Writing in the gaps

A book is never finished