Redrock and Milky Way, by Betsy James

Molecules and Metaphor:

Betsy James
On Writing and Teaching Speculative Fiction

On Drafts

First draft:

In your first draft you get to be Wild Being of the Woods. Write crazy. Stop and start, veer off, break rules, color outside the lines. Let the story discover itself. Later you can figure out what to do with it.

Revision drafts:

Don’t kid yourself, bruh. It’s not submittable yet. Start another draft.

Never revise right onto an earlier draft. Copy the first, number and date it, and preserve it in a folder labeled “Obsolete.” Chances are you’ll need to refer back to it. Work on Draft 2. Or 3. Or 8. Or 28.

It’s in the revision drafts, plural, that the Wild Being’s howls shape into story. You begin to understand your characters, their histories, why they behave the way they do. You build tension, mostly by beginning to intuit the shape of the story: cutting away what doesn’t serve its shape and flow, even though things that may be lovely in themselves. Colette: “You must kill your little darlings.”

Be cautious about letting others read your unfinished work. Too many opinions can muddy the water.

Remember to keep a relatively current copy somewhere outside your house or workplace. Think fires, burglars, digital Armageddons. Hemingway once left a briefcase full of stories on a train, and no, he never got it back.

First readable draft:

Once the story has its soul and can defend itself, give it to a couple of trusted “beta” readers. Hope they will gnaw it like a bone. Advice from an engineer: “For robust design, build it, then break it. Build it again. Break it again. Repeat.”

However: before you give it to your readers, be sure they know the basics of peer critique. Ask them to follow these rules:

  1. First, they must say what worked for them. They must find something, no matter how small: that description of dawn, or that great place on page 2 where the alien pees on the electric fence. Ask them to tell you what they remember, what interested them.
  2. Next, ask them to say what didn’t work for them: what “threw them out of the story”; made them say, “Nah”; or “Ho-hum.” Don’t let them tell you what to do about it. That’s your business. Their job is to be clear about what stopped them, where their attention wandered.

Praise and acknowledgement must come first. When they don’t, we close our hearts and give up. When they do, we have something in hand to build on.

More revision drafts:

How many? You tell me. The more years you write, the more you revise. To submit a barely-revised draft is novice behavior: adorably middle-school, hilarious, completely unpublishable. You don’t want to end up as entertainment on a list like this:

Finished draft:

Finished = worthy of submittal.

The piece isn’t finished, of course. When a novel is accepted both agent (often) and editor (always) will critique it and expect changes in response. A short story will probably save you from the agent but not from the editor.

When they do, you know the drill: Copy the critiqued draft, number it, put it in Obsolete folder. Open the new document; begin to feel your way through to publication.

Betsy James is the author of 17 books. Her latest novel, Roadsouls, was finalist for the 2017 World Fantasy Award. She lives in Albuquerque, NM, where she teaches, paints, and hikes in the wilderness. Find out more at