4 things you notice when writing a 4th draft
1. there's a lot less to work with.
I mean, obviously. I've cut approximately 15,000 words from Privateer over the course of three drafts and it's still way over a normal YA novel wordcount. My goal has been to put the integrity of the story before wordcount, and cut without compromising that... but now that I'm on the fourth draft, honestly, I've gotten a little bit desensitized. I look back on my second draft self and want to pat her on the head. Poor widdle Second Draft Self, so traumatized by shifting one paragraph down the page...
Look, man, I've cut pages and pages (AND PAGES) of material. I am feeling a little bit dead inside.
2. i'm returning to a first draft mindset.
My first draft was for getting stuff on the page, awful metaphors and awkward scenes that don't make sense included. My second draft was for finding the single thread that tied all of that stuff together and following it to the end. My third draft was for chopping ruthlessly, saving only the most necessary-to-the-plot parts.
My fourth draft is for putting heart back into the story, just in a lot less words than before.
I hesitate to say that "heart" ever really left, but let me explain what I mean. This isn't everybody's method, but right now, I have even more of a skeleton of a story than I did in my first draft. I know many people write first drafts that are more like bare bones, but my first draft was bones and muscles and internal organs and tendons all jumbled together in a severely overwritten disaster that I both loved and hated writing (135K words, thank you, thank you. *cries*).
So this time around, I'm sort of returning to where I was when I wrote my first draft—I'm letting myself fall in love with it again. I'm no longer asking questions like the ones I asked in second/third draft season ("Why does this deserve to stay?"); I'm asking questions like, "What does this need to be beautiful again?" It's currently thinner, but it also feels like something's missing. So I'm actually going back to my first draft and re-adding lines I deleted in the second draft, because I've very nearly lost sight of the original tone.
If you didn't have a reason to save all of your drafts... welp, there's one.
3. my characters have CHANGED.
Sharpened. Flattened out. Revealed true colors. Revealed idiot status.
My characters are not who they were when I first started writing this story. There are some characters I've deleted entirely, because I added them on a whim in my first draft and never returned to flesh them out. There are characters I've combined with others because I realized that they were two versions of the same person. My antagonist has changed personalities more times than I can count. The number of ways in which a person can be EVIL is actually starting to freak me out.
And then there's my main character. Charmaine.
In the first draft, she was a woman insecure about her authoritative position and her femininity. She was struggling to be taken seriously, and yet she was reckless—there was precious little that was likable about her. That was a PROBLEM, considering that she had to convince an entire crew of men to follow her lead.
For a while, I thought that she was afraid of losing control over her life. But over the next few drafts, I began to realize what it was that she was actually afraid of: losing herself. Becoming someone she couldn't bear to face in the mirror. Becoming someone who had built walls too thick for anyone to demolish.
I recently told one of my lovely beta/Figment readers (a dear friend of mine now) that Privateer was never about Charmaine's love life or even rescuing her sister Kitty. It was always about Charmaine discovering that independence doesn't have to mean carving everyone out of her life. But that was something I don't think even I entirely got when I was writing the first draft.
But now that I know that, I can draw it out, I can weave it into seemingly insignificant moments. And that's exciting, because that's what makes this story important to me, and hopefully it will resonate with other people one day, too.
ALSO, there's Kitty, a character I knew virtually nothing about in my first draft. Recently, I realized that (this is going to sound weird) I had allowed the way Charmaine viewed Kitty to influence the way I wrote Kitty. And in doing that, I'd accidentally created a stereotype in a story that worked so hard to break stereotypes, especially involving women.
I know I wrote both of these characters, so it may be bizarre to say that I let one of my characters shape the other, but Kitty doesn't come into the story until very late in the game. Up until that point, all we've gotten is Charmaine's memories of her sister from when they were children. Charmaine has ALWAYS seen Kitty as weak, the damsel in distress that Charmaine never wanted to be, but it occurred to me a few weeks ago that just because Charmaine sees Kitty that way doesn't mean that Kitty actually HAS TO BE a weak damsel once we meet her.
Unfortunately, that's sort of how she came out in the first few drafts. So this time around, that's going to change. Along with many other things, I'm sure.
4. i've realized how much i love this story.
I wouldn't be writing a fourth draft if I didn't. I finally understand why so many people tell you not to become a writer unless you truly, deeply love it. Because I've already spent years of my life living in an imaginary world that I created—refining it, tuning it, caring for it, going a little loony over it. *eye twitch* A lot loony, actually. Seriously, it's not worth it unless you love it.
And I do. Good thing, too.