Lessons from working on the 3rd draft (The Ghost of My Father)

The book in progress, The Ghost of My Father, is a memoir and it’s no surprise the process of writing it has been different than my other books. To help me sort out what I want to do and how to do it I’ve read dozens of memoirs and several books about memoir writing (recommendations post forthcoming). I thought I had a strong grasp of my own goals and the nature of writing these things. How wrong I was.

The funny thing is every book I’ve ever written has a moment where I realize how wrong I was. That’s part of the journey of writing. You have to possess a certain madness to believe you can take on something as big and unknown as 300 blank pages and shape it into something other people will want to read. For all of my books there has been a point like this, somewhere late in the middle of the work, where it hasn’t all fallen together yet in the way I want and I naturally wonder if it ever will.

The thing I’ve learned is when any creative work isn’t falling together yet it means something bold has to be done. Usually it’s concision: removing something big to give everything that remains the space it needs to blossom. Sometimes it’s shuffling: changing the order in which things are told. Other times it’s far more subtle, and I need to write a new beginning for the book that has better aim for carving through the rest of the material. For most of my books the first chapter that appears in the published version was written from scratch late in the process, to my dismay each and every time. The original first chapters, as hard as I’d worked on them, no longer fit the book they’d started. Maybe if I fill that shelf, I’ll have enough abandoned first chapters to make a book out of them.

This week I’ve been reading through the entire 2nd draft of Ghost. It’s the draft I’ve had 5 people read and give feedback on. I call these sessions where I read through the entire manuscript The Big Read. It’s a big deal psychologically and I force myself to do it. Rewriting and revising is far more fun than reading drafts. I’m convinced it’s worth it as reading the whole manuscript is the only way to put back into my brain what the book actually is at the moment. Books are big and my brain is small. Without rereading the whole thing I’m working with my imagined idea of what the 2nd draft is, which may be pretty far from what it really is like. Reading the entire draft also lets the feedback I’ve heard from others land properly, as while I’m reading I can see for myself where the feedback is accurate, or not, and make notes accordingly as I go. As strong as the urge is to jump to the computer and fix things, I resist. I want to wait until I’ve experienced the whole thing before I change anything.

As I’m reading the 2nd draft I’m noting the problems I find. Some problems are structural: why is this section before that one? Why is this story even in the book, but not this other one? How does X fit with Y, if at all? Other problems are craft: underwritten paragraphs, overwrought metaphors, experienced told but not shown. Craft is far easier to fix than structure. Craft is polish and you can revise a book, even a deeply flawed book, into polished writing. Some excellent books are structural disasters with craft so fantastic you barely notice (I’m looking in awe at you, Mr. Updike). But structure, pace and tone, things that have to line up throughout the entire narrative, are far harder to get right or to experiment with.

I have a novel I’ve worked on now and then for years. I once decided to switch the entire book from 3rd person to 1st, a task I decided could only be done by typing in the entire manuscript again, shifting the point of view as a I went. Some experiments and changes can only be tried at large scale. That’s the burden of long narratives like books, or films. The upside of books, and all writing, is you can always go back. Unlike a painting or a sculpture where a bad choice is irrevocable, in writing you can always go back. Writers should be brave in revision for this reason: there’s always a safety net, so be bold.

It took until I was halfway through this big read that I understood what I needed to do for Draft #3. And as much as I want to dig in right now and get busy, I won’t do it. I need to know if these plans I have now, at the halfway mark, will still hold together when I’ve read the whole thing. As soon as I hit publish on this post, I’m going back to the read. I’ll report back when I’m done. Have a good weekend.


10 Responses to “Lessons from working on the 3rd draft (The Ghost of My Father)”

  1. Amy

    Thank you so much for sharing your inside experience with writing. It is very insightful for me as I’m working on several books and I can see how helpful it can be to approach the process as you are. I look forward to reading your related posts and reflections. Enjoy the journey.

    1. Scott

      Several books? I’m impressed. One at time is more than enough for me :)

  2. Heather Bussing

    You not only think about how you think, you can write about thinking about how you think. And instead of going deeper down a rabbit hole, somehow you are able to see it clearly and show others. It’s one of my favorite things about your writing. And thinking.

    1. Scott

      Thanks Heather. Sometimes of course all the holes are rabbit holes! :) That’s part of the thrill of doing new things, at least that’s what I tell myself when I keep smelling rabbits.

  3. Doug Shaw

    Thanks for a useful read, I particularly enjoyed you writing about structure, pace and tone, that’s very helpful for me.

    I can see how a bad choice when sculpting could be irrevocable, and I don’t agree with you when it comes to painting. Sure – sometimes that bad choice sends the work in progress straight to the bin, yet sometimes mistakes can be worked into the composition, or, depending on the medium you are working with – simply covered up. Trust me – I know ;)

    Cheers – Doug

    1. Scott

      You’re right – it depends on the painting and what change you’re making. You usually can’t decide to cover a canvas in progress with all black, and the decide to go backwards, that’s the kind of change I meant (whereas in writing you can make any change and always recover, provided of course you’ve saved a version first)

  4. Rajesh

    Voting request for your next book’s cover design has prompted me to read more about your next book. Just today, I’ve realized that your writing style attracts readers to go to next link or next blog. As I read more of your blogs, it feels to me that you are just in front of me and narrating your story. I like that style.

    Best wishes!

  5. Stormy

    Hi Scott,

    Thank you for this article. I have been struggling with how to approach draft editing as a new writer, so this is really helpful.

    I have a question for you. As I write and edit, then review and edit again, I notice that some of the first drafts have a freshness and power to them that gets lost as I edit them down. As a writer, do you ever see that in your own editing process? Do you ever go back to your original draft or notes to try and keep in touch with your original writing? Do you save or value your earlier writing?

    This is turning out to be a real problem for me as now I am finding myself trying to combine pieces of text in older drafts with newer text. And though I see tremendous value in this, Im wondering if this way of editing is more about the fear of letting go of my thoughts.

    1. Scott

      Hi Stormy. I know exactly what you’re talking about.

      It’s a problem in all kinds of creative work. In theater or film a scene can be over-rehearsed. Some directors prefer not to rehearse much (or at all), to prevent this from happening.

      There is no easy answer to this. It comes with the territory as it’s very subjective which versions of a paragraph are strongest and why.

      I find that the most helpful thing when editing a project I’ve worked on for awhile is to get away from it. Only when I come back with fresh eyes can I see how to combine different sections from different versions, or see a new way to rewrite it so it works. You often need to throw away lots of work to do this, which is why getting away from it helps so much – it doesn’t hurt nearly as much to cut things as it would if you’d just written them.

  6. Leona

    Hi Scott–

    This sounds like an important book for you, and very different, as you say, from the others you’ve written. If I may offer an observation or two, one hopeful writer to another (I’m in the middle of a novel and a memoir myself)–

    –First, based on what I read on your Kickstarter page for your memoir-in-progress, about your Dad leaving only “about a year ago,” you may be trying to write this too soon. Meaning, you may not have had enough time to really digest and understand the situation in order to have the distance and perspective you need to write about it. Perhaps it’s too raw right now (to say a 70-year-old man, for instance, “abandoned the family,” may show you’re too close to it right now, given the children are all grown). Please forgive my forwardness — I don’t know you or your family, after all — I speak only as an outside observer and fellow writer. It may be part of why you’re having trouble, though.

    –Second, I think the more interesting story may be your father’s story, not yours. Might I suggest shifting the perspective from you to your father and writing from his point-of-view, step into his proverbial shoes, see through his eyes. As a reader, I think that may be a more interesting story; rather than give your reaction to his story, give his story directly. I’m much more interested in why and how a 70-year-old man comes to make this decision (it’s late for a midlife crisis, and perhaps, taking moral judgments out of it, brave). In this version, of course, you become a minor character, and you’d likely need to throw out most or all of your current draft, but it could be very interesting, sort of an Eat, Pray, Love, from an older male perspective.

    Alternatively, you could go back and forth between your p.o.v. and your father’s, like James McBride does in his memoir, The Color of Water, alternating chapters between his mother and himself as narrators. At least then you could keep and build on a lot of what you already have (McBride addresses the issues of family and identity a lot in his book, too). I think this goes to the structural difficulties you’ve been having. You’ve only been working with, potentially, half the story (not having read it, I can’t say for sure, of course). Perhaps consider a different title, too — something, frankly, more original, and personal. Just some thoughts–

    –Finally, as you’ve noted, creative writing like this (the memoir or novel) is a very different animal from the other books you’ve written. You’re as much a novice at it as the rest of us, sorry to say! From what I’ve read, though, you clearly have the writing chops to see any project through, but, if I may, those with great writing chops don’t always recognize their best material. For future projects, and to some degree this one, don’t make the mistake, in my opinion, of thinking you have to write about yourself. Take those great chops of yours and expand the possibilities (I have a couple of historical novels in mind, for instance — find what intrigues you; even in my current novel, based on my brother’s life, I’m not in it, not directly — of course, we’re always in there, in anything we write, in some respects).

    In any case, good luck, and, as I always say, the world being full of advice, take what’s useful, if anything, and ignore the rest.


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