Rules for the Second Draft (1)

Many of you have already crossed the finish line of 50,000 words. Congratulations. You should have your well deserved break and celebrate your success.

Now that you have won NaNoWriMo, we need to remind ourselves two things. One is that this is only the first draft. The other is that the objective of NaNoWriMo was to finish that pesky first draft disregarding its quality. Your NaNo draft needs to go through several more drafts before it can be called a completed novel.

Some busy bodies are already trying to turn your first drafts into your second draft. Don’t. DO NOT TOUCH YOUR FIRST DRAFT. Leave it on the shelf for at least a month. Try to think as little about it as possible until at least New Year’s Day. Stay away from your first draft until you can look at it with a fresh eye. You can work on all the plot bunnies that distracted you during November, but it will be better if you spent the time reading some books. If you must, read books about self-editing and novel writing, but if you cannot keep your mind off your first draft and how it can be improved, this may not be the best time to study editing techniques. If you must, you might want to read Writing the Block Buster Novel by Albert Zuckerman and The Man From St.Petersburg by Ken Follet. Zuckerman was Follet’s editor and tells how The Man From St. Petersburg evolved from the first draft to to final draft.

Here are some of the basic rules of writing the second draft:

  1. DO NOT start the second draft before you finish the first.
  2. DO NOT start the second draft immediately after you finish the first.
  3. DO NOT try to write the final draft when you are on the second draft.
  4. DO NOT send your manuscript to beta readers, editors, or God forbid, publishers at this point.

What IS a second draft?

When you first come up with a story idea, you think it will start at point A, go through a series of steps through point B, and climb straight up a series of steps right to the conclusion. Then when you actually write down the first draft, you get stuck, you sputter, you languish, then the story takes a left turn, carries you through places you never imagined, and throws you off the car at the conclusion. The second draft is when you take that mess of a first draft and turn it into a smooth arc that leads from the beginning to end and carries the reader without any uncomfortable bumps. The second draft must make these things clear: What the main character wants, why he wants it, and how he attains it. How the main character starts out and how he evolves. Why these events happen. How each character, place and event are different.

What ISN’T a second draft?

The second draft is obviously not a final draft. It is not even a draft you can show your beta-readers. It does not have the perfect dialog. It does not have the perfect world descriptions. It does not have the best possible choice of words. At the end of the second draft, you still might have redundant characters that need to be deleted, redundant scenes, subplots and chapters that need to be erased, so you should not spend a lot of time polishing the sentences at this point. What you DO NOT HAVE in the second draft are MISSING characters, scenes, subplots and chapters. When you go from second to third draft, the book should become shorter, not longer.

A NaNo novel is typically about 50,000 words plus change. Some people keep writing until they feel the story is finished, but they still usually finish around 100,000 words or less. A typical traditionally published debut novel is about 80,000-100,000 words long. Water for Elephants, a best seller which started out as a NaNoWriMo project has 100483 words in the final draft. Night Circus, another book to start out as a NaNoWriMo project has 120937 words. If you have a 50,000 word NaNo novel (and you might have employed some cheats to inflate the word count) you will still have to add substantially to it before the second draft is done.

Some of the things you really need to check for in the second draft are:

  1. POV problems. Make sure the POV is always clear.
  2. Plot holes. The story should be plausible.
  3. Offensive language. A writer should never offend the reader by accident. You want a racist cop in the story, fine. You want a bad guy who jokes about child rape, fine. But you must delete all unintentional offences. Any character can be as evil as you want them to be, but the book itself must not be racist or bigoted.
  4. Story arc. The main character must evolve. The villain never does. It is probably not obvious in your first draft. Make it clear. What is the main character like in the beginning, how does he change by the end, and what is the event(s) that changed him?
  5. Mix of mannerisms. Each character must be different. Often in your first draft, every character partly mirrors the author. Thus some characters share mannerisms, figures of speech and/or habits in the first draft. They all seem to look out the window a lot while they are talking or reach for the coffee a lot between sentences. They all wipe their hair out of their face when their hands are idle. This should not happen. Each character should have clear and distinct mannerisms or the reader will get them mixed up.
  6. Differentiate the settings. In the first draft, every room feels the same. Just as every character seems to have the same mannerisms in the first draft, places tend to share the same atmosphere. Ask yourself why the scenes are different places and make the descriptions fit the reasons the characters are there in the first place. Don’t make every scene daytime or night time. Places should be as different as people.
  7. Story movement. Ideally the story should hit the ground running and slide in sideways to the conclusion. You start with a corpse on the first page and a shootout in the last chapter. If you have long expositions in the middle, you must find a way to weave it into the action. The story must constantly move. If the story lags anywhere, sort it out.
  8. Story structure. You need a beginning, middle, and end. Each of the three must also have a beginning, middle and end. Each of those have a beginning, middle and end. So the simplest story structure has 27 parts, but there are variations. One of the best known is the Star Wars structure. There are others. (Seven basic structures, give or take a few, depending on who you listen to.) If you are a plotter, your story should fit a structure already. If you are not, retro-fitting your story to a given plot structure will help you make the story flow more naturally.
  9. Setting the climax. In the first draft, you might not be clear which part of the story is the central climax. There should also be smaller climaxes rhythmically placed throughout the story. Big-Small-Big-Small. Or any variation. Every climax must resolve a conflict.
  10. Foreshadowing. In the first draft, you have not foreshadowed sufficiently because you did not know where the story was going. Now that you know how the story goes, you have to go back to the beginning and plant the tripwires. Try not to leave any loose ends. We have to know who killed the chauffeur.

Remember, when you go from first draft to second draft to third draft, the second draft is the longest. Once the second draft is complete, you only delete, delete, delete. And polish the details.


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