Ashley Stokes talks about how to approach the second draft of your novel.
In my Online Fiction Workshop, several of the group have recently finished the first draft of novels, some for the first time. A common experience is that the author both finds herself facing the second draft with trepidation, and finds the experience of tackling the second draft far less enjoyable than writing the first draft.
So, what can we do to address these problems and learn to love the second draft?
Discovery versus Meditation
The first draft is sometimes called the ‘Discovery’ draft and the second the ‘Meditation’ draft.
Meditating: it sounds far less invigorating than discovering. When you discover, you strive out into the unknown. When you meditate, you indulge in a static and inward activity, process, take stock. The first draft of a novel can take you far from the original intention. It’s necessarily inventive, sometimes spontaneous, surprising. You may have started only with an image in your head from which you have grown an adventure.
However thoroughly you planned and mapped your idea it may well have strayed, bloomed from the initial conception. We will have learned a lot along the way, about these people and their dilemmas and motivations, about these places and moments. The first draft is like a holiday where you planned every day’s activity but veered from the beaten track, went off road, disappeared into the interior. You may have told yourself that you would keep away from the casino but played the tables every night. Blue moonlight fell on the dunes you never thought you’d ever find and maybe will never find again.
The first draft is like a romance, flowering and easy during its first few months until eventually the situation has to normalise, to settle.
The second draft is like a marriage. The passion will not have evaporated but it’s now tempered by responsibility.
The second draft does not necessarily provide the same crazy highs as the first draft. To adjust to this new, stable situation requires a different part of the brain. The creator turns in to the analyst.
Seeing the Spine
An advantage that the analyst has over the creator is that the spine of the story is now visible. You can see the ‘bookends’, the end in relation to the beginning and whether the completed story has earned its climax. Remember that a traditional story has a three-act structure punctuated by Plot Point One and Plot Point Two – major, game-playing shifts, reveals or reversals. These should now be available to the analyst (if not, the draft is a very rough draft). Make sure that all your scenes lead in some way to your major scenes.
When you come to consider the story, analyst-you should now be able to:
1/ Isolate key scenes
2 /Interrogate key scenes
3/ Deepen key scenes
You want to ensure that the plot doesn’t control the characters, isn’t an over-bearing puppeteer that drags the characters behind its formula or whims. The plot should be generated by character decision and reaction, not the other way around. You need to make sure that your characters feel the story and make decisions that we believe in. You also need to check that understanding of your characters deepens as tension in the story mounts. Whatever the genre (realist meditation on what a marriage can become, or cosmic horror, a marriage between the eldritch and the earthly, tension must mount until something irreversibly gives.
In lots of first-draft novels I read, the characters seem unaffected and unruffled, ultimately crossword-puzzle solvers untested by the plot. Things fall into his or her lap to complete the arc. The situations faced are not bigger than the characters. Traumatic things happen with no after effect or ramification.
Having the arc in place also provides a guide as to what can be removed (like kicking away the scaffolding), both in terms of unnecessary description, minor characters and sub-scenes that lead to the major plot points. It is easier to ask these questions of the second draft
The second draft should ensure that your novel is psychologically real and consistent. This is not necessarily commensurate with making it up as you go along, splurging, taking risks or meticulous planning or sticking to the outline invented before the writer knew these people on the page. In a story that found its way during the romantic adventure phase, the parts of the story may not yet gel or feel part of the same story. The meticulously planned story can seem mechanical or lacking in spontaneity.
Mediating means meditating upon these key moments to make sure that they set-up and pay-off and hit the reader hard, as if the reader is there in the same moment as your characters.
Writing is Rewriting
Novels are not born whole. They are arrived at by process. Learn to love the process.
There is a lot to do here, so be nice to yourself.
Don’t be too hard on the first draft
Give yourself a break. It is allowed to be flawed, to fail, to flounder about. It’s self-defeating to expect it to be perfect. It was only ever there so you could have something to work with, to change.
Let the novel settle
Take some time away from it. You need to find that different side of yourself, the analyst that you’ll need to interrogate the story. You need to be more objective now when you could afford to be subjective when you were discovering the story.
When you’re ready, print it out and just read it
Don’t make any notes. Read it to see if it makes you feel like you wanted it to feel (remember that if it can’t make you feel that, it won’t make anyone else feel it – if you’ve written a horror novel and you’re not scared …).
Read it again
But this time make notes about any changes you want to make. Attend to the big things (characterisation and character progression; plot and story arc; point of view consistency; voice). Don’t get too hung up with the surface niceties of the prose. That’s for the final draft.
Learn to love this process
It’s where you’ll in the end do your best writing. It’s not secondary to the more glamorous first draft. It’s where you prove that your novel realises itself.
You May Need More than One Second Draft
There is a lot to do here. As DBC Pierre explains in his book, Release the Bats, it’s an idea to have a draft for each of the major elements of the novel, a draft just for plot, a draft for dialogue, a draft for place, etc.
Don’t try and do it all at once. There are too many plates to keep spinning.
The first draft can be very near to finished or a long way from it, almost roadworthy or more or less on bricks. Some of the issues discussed above, like attending to key scenes, or assessing the coherence of the story arc need further scrutiny to devise an editorial agenda, but we can draw up here a checklist for at least approaching the second draft.
- Don’t be cruel to yourself and your draft (it’s still a baby)
- Give yourself a break
- Read it all through without making notes
- Read it again and make notes
- Fret the big stuff, not the small stuff
- Consider the now visible spine and its key moments
- Consider its psychological depth and plausibility
- Think of this as a staged process, rather than an all-or-nothing dash to completion