The Much-Needed, but Sometimes Dreaded Second Draft
Jessica P. Morrell
“I don’t write easily or rapidly. My first draft usually has only a few elements worth keeping. I have to find what those are and build from them and throw out what doesn’t work, or what simply is not alive.” — Susan Sontag
|Jessica P. Morrell|
This column is especially meant for those plucky souls who have recently survived November’s hellacious, glutton-for-punishment and yet exhilarating challenge—NaNoWriMo or National Writing Month. But then every writer faces a second draft. And a third….and we could keep counting here, but let’s focus on the second one of a book-length story or memoir. Because you’re in for a deep rewrite along with analyzing, musing, and asking a lot of questions of yourself.
Your second draft focuses on larger issues, consistency problems if the plot hangs together and the architecture makes sense. A lot of second draft fixes solve structure problems; fix places that needs bolstering or sections that need to be eliminated or relocated. You’re also judging plausibility and motivations. You’ll be making your major revisions at this point, deciding whether you need to change the beginning, ending, or viewpoint. This means you’re searching for scenes that don’t accomplish much, big plot holes, unanswered questions, and wimpy stakes. You’ll make certain your key events occur in the right order. And remain open to change: would allowing for some unplanned, newly-inspired twist transform or deepen the story even if it’s different from your original plan?
Start with a plan. Your first trick is to achieve psychic and emotional distance. Stephen King’s advises letting the manuscript cool for a few months, but for most writers that cooling off period can turn into a deep freeze and you might opt to avoid the hard work needed. A few weeks helps just fine, especially if you’re on a deadline. No matter your timeframe, print it all out in a different typeface than the one you wrote it in. Many mistakes you won’t notice by reading it on a computer screen will become apparent because you’ll be habituated to ignore them.
Next schedule a solid bock to time for reading, note taking, and heavy analysis. It’s best to undertake this in a different place than where the story was written, thus adding even more editorial distance. It’s also helpful to work in a location where you can take long walks while you ponder whether your story is working or needs a major overhaul. I suggest an ocean view or lakeside cottage or mountain hideaway, but that’s just me. Plan to use a lot of colored ink and highlight sections that need moving or trimming.
Create a story bible if you haven’t already done so. Your bible ensures consistency and connectedness— what this reading and rewrite should achieve. You might want to list all the scenes in the story along with the change that takes place in each scene. Scenes require change and then fallout. You might want to title your scenes. Note their time and location, the characters involved and their ranking, their main physical and psychological traits. If it’s a complex story with a sprawling cast, design a family tree or a web of connections.
How do your protagonist’s goals and motivations deepen throughout the story? After Act 1 often the protagonist’s goals will change, become more personal. A search for a missing person uncovers a human trafficking scheme. And then someone in the protagonist’s family becomes endangered by these heartless criminals. Perhaps at the end your characters want something far different from what they fought for in the opening. Perhaps he or she is seeing the world with new eyes. Stories where the characters’ priorities and worldview evolve are powerful. Stories where they don’t can seem predictable.
Pay attention to events or motives that are never explained or spelled out as if you’re whispering stage directions to the reader. Note if there are too many dangling subplots or simply too many subplots. Often this draft will be loose and sketchy, lacking in the narrative flow and glue that holds a piece together. Or, it might be written in summary, thus the intimate details and moments that bring the story to life will be missing. This means you’ll be replacing summary with scenes. Notice if the viewpoint is consistent, or if head-hopping is going on. Determine if your story contains surprises, intrigue, and forward momentum
Make certain that you need the first chapter or scene. Many stories are strengthened by a beheading because they start far before the first crucial actions. Generally backstory isn’t needed in Act 1. If it’s a thriller you need to start with a crisis or disaster, not a tour of the CIA headquarters. It it’s a love story, collide the lovers as early as possible.
Checklist for the First Revision:
· A good story begins with turbulence or a threat. Has your ‘ordinary world’ been introduced and does this intro include tension, something amiss before the trouble starts?
· Do your main characters have a physical presence on the page? Have you added to their presence as the story proceeds? Is the whole visual enough?
· Have you identified your protagonist’s inner conflict?
· How about your midpoint? Is it a game changer? Did the story take your readers in a direction they couldn’t have predicted? If so, does the inner logic hold up?
· Can readers understand where scenes are taking place and the timeframe for the scene? Do you need transitions to bridge events? Is your timeline consistent?
· Is the story question and main subplot clearly resolved?
- Are most scenes built from obstacles?
- Can a scene be cut without affecting the main story?
- Does each action cause more actions and reactions?
- Evaluate the order of your scenes—is this the right time to include this action or should it wait?
- Do you need to add twists and complications if it bogs down, especially in the middle?
- Is description dispersed in small increments throughout and via a character’s viewpoint?
- Do you need to add flashbacks so the characters’ motivations and goals make sense?
- Do the flashbacks contain action or mostly summary?
- Do you need to strengthen or add subplots? Or cut some because the story is wandering too far afield?
- Have you created a plausible tie-in or between the main plot storyline and the main subplot?
- Are you noticing that a lot of the pages have the same emotions, tone and mood? If so, how can you mix it up?
If you find major problems, don’t panic. Instead create careful notes as if you were an editor addressing a client. Chances are at this point you might need to expand or cut backstory, deepen main characters, cut or combine secondary characters, expand or cut subplots, reorder the scenes to heighten the tension, beef up the middle so that it contains a potent twist, and refine the ending so it truly concludes the plot. I repeat, don’t panic.
Thanks to Jessica for guesting again. Please check out Jessica's website for even more terrific writing advice and help. I can personally recommend her books as they're sitting on my shelf. Thanks, But This Isn't For Us can be purchased on Amazon.
Do you dread the second draft? Did one thing on her checklist really click with you?