Writing Process: The Second Draft

Yay!  The first draft is done!  I have now finished (at best) thirty percent of the work.  It is very possible (especially on my earlier novels) that I have actually in fact finished less than five percent of the work that I will eventually put into a book.  I once had a professor who said that great papers are not written, they are rewritten.  It is certainly the case for me that a readable novel is not written; it is reworked over and over.

Whenever I open a first draft to begin to work on it, I make the same comment to my husband.  “This is so literal,” I will say.  And it always is.  My characters say what they mean.  They explain (constantly!) what they are thinking in exposition.  They know exactly what they want, and can tell you about it (at length!).

The same goes for description.  In my most recent first draft I found this fantastic kissing scene: I leaned in and kissed him.  And he kissed me back.  Great, Janci.  I might as well have written [kissing happens here].  (I try not to do that, because it makes me feel lazy.)

For a long time this frustrated me.  But I’ve come to realize that I write in layers.  In a first draft I can get down a voice, a basic plot structure, and a main character with motivations.  But my first drafts always have all the same flaws: the side characters are underdeveloped, the beginning needs to be reworked, the end moves too fast, and, of course, there is literalness everywhere there should be nuance.

Those literal sentences?  That exposition?  It’s a necessary placeholder.  Because writing a novel is a lot like doing an Irish dance while juggling chickens and balancing begonias on your head.  There are just so many things to handle at once, and I cannot accomplish them all in one draft.  I leave the literal statements everywhere to remind me what building block goes here, and then I can slide it out and replace it with something more subtle–an image, a metaphor, a sideways line of dialogue.  It’s not that hard, as long as I’m expecting to do it.

Fortunately, I don’t have to publish my first drafts.  I don’t have to let anyone read them, in fact.  (And I don’t anymore, beyond those first few chapters.)  I can go through my List of Badness and fix all the problems first.  I can comb through the paragraphs and rewrite all the literalness.  I can go over the character arcs and rewrite parts of them to make them smooth and dynamic.  I can add to the ending; I can rewrite the beginning.  And I do.

At this stage, my drafts usually end up 10-12k longer than they were before, and that doesn’t include all the words I cut and then replaced, which I’d figure is at least ten percent of the book, though that’s a guess.  It could be a lot higher.

This process is sometimes shorter than the writing of the first draft, and is sometimes longer.  It  depends on how clean the first draft was, and how much work I’ve decided I need to do, and what else is going on in my life.  My last second draft I was working on for about four hours a day, and it took me six weeks, so that’s somewhere around 140 hours.  And that second draft was on the lighter side; some of my first drafts require much more work to get into shape.

Once I have a second draft, now it’s time to get full feedback, which is one of my favorite parts of the process.