The Art Of Rewriting (Or, The Ten Drafts Of Cetus Finalis)

Lots of this...Many readers are writers themselves, and take interest in the creative process of other writers. There is a substantiated rumor that Suhail Rafidi’s upcoming novel, Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey, was written and rewritten ten times. Or in Carl Sagan speak: A one with one zero after it. Ten times sounds like an exaggeration for effect, so we went to the source. We asked Suhail Rafidi if he actually rewrote the same book 10 times:

Yes, I actually wrote Cetus Finalis 10 times; though I don’t think it’s all that surprising. Any writing instructor will tell you that the bulk of writing is rewriting.

draftHow do you know when one draft is over and another begins?
Because I start at the beginning each time. What I consider a “draft” of a novel comes in two layers, or coats. The first draft is just that, a kind of soup stock. Once it’s written, I number it 1 and print it. Once printed, I begin reading the manuscript for rewriting.

What happens next?
For the first coat, I put the manuscript on my workstation with a blank notebook next to it. Then I read the manuscript with a colored pen, one word at a time, and mark it up, change things, delete things, rewrite things, add things. If the edits fit in the margins, I write them there. If I make a larger addendum – a paragraph or some pages – I inscribe a number with a circle around it on the manuscript. Then I write the same number in the adjacent notebook and compose the passage there.

Open notebook with a ballpoint pen in the centerYou still hand write your drafts? Why?
For the first coat, yes. I feel that I maintain considerably more focus when using a pen and paper. Though the power of desktop computing can’t be understated, holding a stylus and marking the page is an ancient human physical practice. I think it will take longer than a century or two to displace the efficacy of that writing process. Dante had no word processor.

writingSo, who types it up?
I do. Once the manuscript is read and marked up, and the notebook filled with new writing, I take the marked up manuscript and the notebook to my computer. I open the original file of the draft and enter in all the changes, now laying the second coat of the same draft. During the second coat, I do not read every word of the manuscript, I just enter the changes. Sometimes while entering the changes, I make a few more. So, the second coat does allow for that.

So every one of your drafts is TWO drafts?!
I don’t see it that way, but I understand what you mean. I don’t consider a draft done until it is ready to be printed out of the computer again. After I finish entering all the hand written changes, I save the file as the next draft, number it 2. Then print and repeat; on to the next draft.

And you got all the way to draft 10 doing it that way?

How much of a change is there between drafts?
Sometimes it is rather drastic; others less. I can’t keep a lot of what I write. The stuff I can’t keep often needs to be rewritten. To give the changes a sense of proportion: the 6th draft of Cetus Finalis contained 42 new numbered passages in the notebook, in addition to the markups I made on the pages. The 7th draft contained 37 addenda. The 8th draft contained 11.

Drafts of Galatea, by Rachel Swirsky
Drafts of Galatea, by Rachel Swirsky

Tune in next time when Suhail Rafidi goes into more detail for aspiring writers about editing Cetus Finalis: A Gray Whale Odyssey, including discarding rewrites, the role of his editor, and the editorial process which refines a novel’s relentless rewriting.

Learn a great deal more about whales, and Cetus Finalis, at the author’s website,


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