Different strokes*

If I wasn’t already convinced that there are many different ways to write novels this quote from Cynthia Leitich Smith would clinch it for me:

it is a regular part of my process to write a full novel draft, print it to read once, and then I throw1 it away and delete the file. Really. It’s my way of just getting to know the characters and their world. If I were to build on those first, fumbling efforts, my stories would have pretty shaky foundations. I’m not saying this is for everyone. Some folks can fully envision their work right out of the chute. But me, I figure whatever survives when I open the new document deserves a fair shot. Whatever doesn’t . . . doesn’t.

Oh. My. Elvis.

And, yet, I can kind of see where she’s coming from. My first drafts are pretty shaky foundations. I just prefer the security of having them to having nothing at all. As I demonstrated in this post, my first drafts are often vastly different to my finished books. They can change points of view, or whether they’re told in first person or third or whatever. Characters’ motivations, names, ages—everything can change. I throw huge chunks away. Not a lot of the first draft survives into the final.

But throwing a whole novel out?

What if I just wound up writing another shaky first draft? Do I throw that one out too? And start over again? Couldn’t that go on forever?

On the other hand, my first drafts are a lot better than they used to be. So maybe if I adopted this strategy, they’d improve even faster?

It also occurs to me that it might be a really good strategy for making my short stories work. I’ve got kajillions of broken short stories. What if I started over from scratch on the promising ones? I’m a much better writer than I was last time I attempted to write one.

Hmmm . . .

Yet throwing an entire novel away? Deleting the file?! My brain it hurts! My eyes they bleed! Gah!

Also what about the historians? What about tax deductible donation of your papers to a library collection? I hear some of them even pay for such things. How do you donate them if you throw them away?! Think of posterity!

Deep breaths, Justine, deep breaths. There are many different ways to write a novel. Also not everyone is into donating their work to libraries. Quit thinking like an historian.

*Am I the only one who finds that expression “different strokes for different folks” vaguely obscene?

  1. I’m sure she meant into the recycling. []


  1. lili on #

    Oh. Oh. Oh.

    (lili goes and hides under her desk for a moment)


    *checks that drafts 1, 2 and 3 of novel are still safe and sound in their electronic folder*

    Yeah. I don’t want to do that.

  2. Penni on #

    That’s like my worst nightmare.

  3. cecil on #

    you know, it’s funny. Or not. But when my computer got stolen last summer and I lost the new scary WIP novel that i was working on, and it was the second time i had done so, I was very depressed. Tobin emailed me to tell me that Cynthia L-S did this deleting and that i should not despair and pretend that I did it on purpose. I emailed Cyn in disbelief and she affirmed that she did it.

    This gave me the strength to go on and start from scratch. I think that I learned that we are sometimes more married to the idea of what we wrote being better. Somehow it anchors us, but it could also weigh us down.

    I think the draft I ended up writing with just the essence of the story was more solid.

    I don’t know that i would purposely delete, but, I won’t be afraid again if i lose something or accidentally do.

    I think it is courageous. Bravo, Cyn. (and thank you)

  4. Colleen on #

    Okay, I not only have the current draft on the laptop but back it up every few days on the litte mini portable drive – so even if my laptop gets trashed or stolen, the draft is still available and fairly up to date.

    Can you tell where I fall in this debate?

    I do rewrite a lot but I rewrite constantly. (Or rather continuously.) As I move forward and get a different idea about something, I will go back and rearrange stuff to set up for it better. Technically I guess I’m in a first draft but some parts have been rewritten more than three or four times already. I’m more of an “evolving draft” type writer. By the time I get to the end, much of this book will no longer be even close to how it was when I first started writing.

    I couldn’t delete it when I write “The End” as most of it will be in final draft form by then.

    Plus I think I would pass out or something………

  5. tricia sullivan on #

    that is a brave woman. does she also base jump and helicopter ski? because i think this is the literary equivalent.

    the closest i have come to doing this is with the book i’m working on right now. but i didn’t throw away a whole draft, only about 30,000 words. and i didn’t actually delete the file. i still have it, and if i want to refer to it, i will, although so far i haven’t.

    doing this was extremely scary and so my hat goes off to cynthia for sheer courage.

  6. A.R.Yngve on #

    (Crow T. Robot voice) Aah! Aah! Aah! It’s madness! It’s madness!

  7. jessiegirl on #

    i heart footnotes.

  8. maureen on #


    I kind of like this idea, to tell the truth. I don’t think I’m going to do it—but it interests me. But then, I do a lot of changing between drafts one and two.

  9. Rebecca on #

    um, i still have all nine drafts of my first novel. i also have everything i’ve ever written since first grade, possibly before, including a file on my desktop full of seven+ years worth of school work. when i moved to college, i dragged an entire trunk of notebooks and drafts up with me.
    granted, i have been known to start things over from scratch myself, but throw the old drafts away?!?!

    “my computer got stolen last summer and I lost the new scary WIP novel that i was working on”
    okay, now that is my worst nightmare.

    footnotes kick arse. you are in the company of e. lockhart, after all. everyone should use footnotes. 😀

  10. Elizabeth S. on #

    It can be a *great* way to work if your first drafts are horrid. Mine are handwritten and scarcely legible, so the difference between typing them in and rewriting from scratch isn’t always as large as you’d expect.

  11. Mary on #

    Throwing away a draft of my novel would be horrifying. However, I do like the idea of tossing a short story. My short stories have good premise, but they’re stuck in their poor writing. I try to revise them, but all I do is rewrite the same thing over and over. If I start completely anew, perhaps I can get out of that rut.

    I about died when my hard drive crashed a couple of years ago. I only had two chapters of my novel, but bajillions of notes, and I practically held my breath for the few months it took to get what we needed to restore the data. The idea that it could be gone forever scared me to death.

  12. Chris S. on #

    Have you ever heard Terry Pratchett on this subject? He only ever keeps one draft, and it’s the one that ends up in print. Also, he gives excellent footnotes.

  13. klages on #

    I throw nothing away, drafts, scribbles, old files, notes.

    I shudder at the thought.

    I still have the novel I was writing in 7th grade. (Bad. Sooo bad.) My best friend, also in 7th grade, threw out the novel she was writing, because she thought her sentence structure was immature. Duh. She was 13.

  14. jennifer on #

    I am actually considering doing this for the novel that I have stalled out and haven’t finished.

    Scares the crap out of me, though. I don’t know how this girl does it, unless she writes really fast.

  15. suzanne on #

    As a historian (and archivist to boot), I a) love footnotes and b) shudder and cringe at the thought of people throwing away drafts of entire novels, but of course I can’t stand at folks’ desks and scold them.

  16. erin on #

    I’ve been thinking about the start-over-again method for awhile now, and the idea’s starting to grow on me. I really like the structure and the characters in my last novel, and big chunks of the dialogue, but most of the other prose is sort of icky. I’m not very good at editing my own stuff; I think I’m too afraid to make any radical changes.

    PS – Justine, the bit with the cat in Magic or Madness – creepiest, scariest thing I’ve ever come across in literature. Creepier even than baby-Voldemort in Goblet of Fire.

  17. Kristen Painter on #

    Just found your blog – just finished your book. Loved it. I’m (obviously) new to your work and M or M was an awesome read. I look forward to reading more.

    And the whole throwing an entire first draft out scares the cats right out of me. Merciful Joseph! I can’t believe that actually happens!

  18. Dawn on #

    I couldn’t do that!!! I think all my writing is like a new, precious child…even if its horrible at first. Even babies aren’t cute all the time.

  19. hope on #

    excuse me. have you won the norton award yet? or did scott?

  20. Justine on #

    Wow, Scott bans me from the internet for a day just to make me, you know, actually work, and you lot go crazy commenting. Yay! So very pleasing.

    Thank you so much for all the kind words. It still blows me away that people read and like my books. *Blush*.

    And, yeah, I do think there’s something to Smith’s method. i’m totally going to try it for my short stories. If anyone else gives it a go—do please report back.

    Hope: The Norton Award won’t be announced till May. I’ll keep you posted. Honest!

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