For well over a year now I’ve been blogging about various aspects of The F Words, but one thing I haven’t talked about is the actual steps of writing the novel. Writers and readers are often interested in how writing takes place. So, for those who might want to know, I will try to recount the steps of writing The F Words.
Maybe twenty years ago (it was around the turn of the century) I decided I wanted to write a YA novel and that it should be about the political struggles for social justice. The title and the opening scene came to me: the image of a teen tagging his high school wall with the f word. The title came at the same time: The F Words. (I knew there would be more than one f word in the book, because in thinking about political struggle I thought of fight, foe, fair, flexibility, freedom.) I filed this decision away in the future-books part of my brain and went about writing other things.
In the year 2016 I attended a huge demonstration for immigrant rights, and it was there that part of the plot of the YA novel came to me. You can read about that in my blog The F Words: Political Protests.
Somewhere around then I began developing the characters for The F Words. This took months. I gave them names, I gave them personalities, I gave them conflict. So far, none of this was on paper, it was all in my head.
In late 2016 I created a notebook for The F Words, giving each character a name, a description, and conflict or conflicts. For me, this is a very important step in the writing of a book. I always use a paper notebook (not computer) and I write down my thoughts — often so fast that I scribble furiously and sometimes can’t read my own writing a month later.
From notebook to first written words was, in this case, a short step: maybe two or three months. Before I started to write, I was sure of maybe one-third of what would occur — the rest I would discover as I wrote. My digital files tell me that I started and finished the first draft in 2017. Ditto for the second draft: I started it in autumn of 2017 and finished before the year ended.
The first draft took maybe seven months. Part of its plot involved the high school newspaper and freedom of speech for teens. But, as it turned out, this part of the plot went nowhere. As I wrote, I found the story moving more strongly toward the attacks on public education and the jailing or imprisonment of protesters. And the mass deportations of immigrants. In the second draft I dropped the school newspaper thread.
I started the third draft on January 3, 2018. I’m not sure what the difference between the second and third draft was. I think that in the third I jettisoned even more subplots, tightening the poetry and tightening the plot. Definitely developing the characters more. By April of 2018 I was writing the fourth draft, and by the end of that year I finished the fifth draft.
I then spent most of 2019 trying to find an agent who would represent the book. I failed to find such a person, and so late in 2019 I began to market the book myself.
In April of 2020 City of Light Publishing offered me a contract, and in September of 2021 The F Words was published.
In the case of The F Words, from original inkling of an idea to signing of a publishing contract was twenty years. But the data that really matters is the period from when I started the notebook in 2016 to when the manuscript sold, early 2020. That was four years of writing, totaling five drafts.
For me, five drafts are a bit more than I usually write. Three or four is more normal for me. I’ve never, ever sold a second draft. Wouldn’t dream of submitting a second draft! I am thrilled if I think a third draft is good enough to submit.
The first draft is the most difficult to write because the writer is creating something out of nothing: creating characters, plot, scene, dialogue. The second draft is very difficult, though not as hard as the first (maybe only because it doesn’t take quite as long to rewrite as it does to write . . . in most cases). In the second draft entire chapters have to be deep-sixed. Characters have to disappear, new ones have to be created. Conflicts have to be clarified, motives developed. On and on it goes: the second draft is where a writer reshapes the entire book into something much, much better than the first draft.
The third draft usually isn’t difficult, at least in my experience. It consists of refining the second draft, dealing with foreshadowing, improving the language, making the book more literary.
And if, in the third draft, the writer failed to weave every thread tightly into the correct pattern for that particular book, then she has to do it in the fourth draft. Or, in my case, the fifth.
This was my process with The F Words, which is fiction. I’ve had similar, but not identical, patterns with my other books.
A couple of examples. The first draft of She’s on First took me three years to complete, as compared to the seven months of The F Words. The first draft of Women at Play (nonfiction) took 92 days. That was due to my publishing contract: I was given 92 days to write the book, period. Very, very intense: I wrote eleven hours a day. With The F Words, I wrote every day, but usually just one hour.
And Jack and Larry was different from anything else. I wrote four first drafts. That’s right. I wrote four different books. First I wrote a picture book, but I decided that wasn’t the way to go. So that first draft ended right there. Then I wrote the first draft of a middle grades book about Jack Graney. I decided that wasn’t the way to go, either. That first draft ended, too. Next came a first draft of a long magazine article. That draft went the way of the others, also. Finally came the first draft of the free verse book: this was the keeper, and from it I wrote the subsequent drafts and published the book.
Writing a book such as Jack and Larry consisted of finding the right format. Writing a mostly straight narrative novel such as The F Words was, for me, a matter of putting the story down in words on the first draft, and then improving that draft until I had a tightly woven story. I suspect, but don’t know for sure, that this is the path the writing of most novels takes.
The F Words is available wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.