You may have different ideas from me on what a second draft ought to be. For Stephen King, if we are to believe his words, his second draft is the final draft. It is about ten percent shorter than his first draft. This is a pretty incredible claim to make, because for most authors, that is the description of the third and fourth drafts. Apparently, Stephen King is so talented that when he puts down his ideas on paper for the first time, he already has the third draft ready to be reduced into the fourth and final draft. Mozart, they say, could write music straight out of his head and have the perfect and immortal composition without any revisions at all.
Not everybody is that talented. If you could write the third draft in the first try, you would not be participating in NaNoWriMo. You definitely would not struggle to write 50K words.
I’ve already stated that a typical debut novel ranges between 80,000 to 100,000 words. Novels get longer for experienced and proven authors. A typical Stephen King novel is around 180, 000 words. The final installment of the Harry Potter series spans two volumes. Your 50K NaNo project is not long enough to be a novel. Your second draft should be 2.5 to 3 times longer than that. Your third draft should be 20-30% shorter than the second draft. Your fourth draft should be (if you haven’t screwed up) 5-10% shorter than the third draft. Your second draft is the longest of the bunch. If you do not have to follow this approach, you must be much more talented than I am. Professional writers and editors tend to think even this is an abbreviated game plan.
Your third draft should be good enough to be read by multiple beta-readers. Beta-readers should not be your admirers. People who respect you for whatever reason make lousy beta-readers. So do not choose people who do. Do not avoid people who do not. These are test subjects, mock audiences for the open market. Preferably, they are people who have written, edited or taught writing, but also represent the kind of readers in your target audience. If you are writing a YA novel aimed at teenagers, it will be difficult to find people with experience in writing and editing. In this case, READERSHIP TAKES PRECEDENT. Choose the beta-reader who has read a whole lot of YA novels. The third draft should be good enough to be liked by people who read a lot in your genre. If you have done your job well, the fourth draft will be a matter of minor tweaking.
Which brings us back to the second draft. The first draft is shoveling sand into the bucket so you can build sand castles. In the third draft, you are placing the little cannons and putting the toy soldiers in place, and in the fourth draft, you are adjusting the placement of the toy soldiers. It is the second draft that turns the sand into the castle.
What happens when you turn a first draft into the second? Typically, the third chapter becomes the first, the first chapter becomes the second and the second chapter practically disappears save for a few key paragraphs. You will also lose much of what you have written after the final climax. This is called “enter late, leave early”. When the book starts, the story is already moving. When it ends, a lot is left to the imagination. When Harry Potter begins, his parents are already dead. Once Lord Voldemort is killed, we skip a few years until Harry Potter is an adult seeing off his own child at King’s Cross Station. The reader enters in the middle of the party, and leaves before the boring stuff sets in. So the beginning and ending tend to get massively butchered.
Back story also bites the dust. If one of the characters has had a traumatic childhood under violent parents, and it is an integral and heart wrenching part of the story, that back story will be wiped out completely and replaced with a scene of the said character witnessing child abuse and reacting with inappropriately vigorous intervention. He will spit out a curt comment about how he hates child abusers while he wipes the blood off his sword. No back story. Part of this is because you should opt to show instead of tell. Part of it is because back story is boring. It is much more entertaining to demonstrate what kind of a killer cure resulted from the traumatic childhood than to take the reader step by step through the history of the process. Back story goes out. Action goes in.
Sub-plots must serve a purpose. If a male character strays from his main romantic interest and starts an affair with someone else, it is going to turn bad and he will have to react to the ensuing situation. The reaction will tell the reader what kind of person he is. Every sub-plot must have a climax. Every climax must resolve a conflict. Every resolution must provide insight on someone or something. If the sub-plot does not do these things, it must be beefed up or deleted.
If you have a three page description of a beautiful woman, pare it down to one line: She was a beauty men would kill for. Now, take that one line description and turn it into an event. Leave the floor strewn with corpses. Descriptions should be turned into events where ever possible.
Once you have turned all the descriptions into events, back story into action, sub-plots into insight and the novel starts after the story is already in motion and ends before things get boring, you can take your time to see if the story flows well. You can try retro-fitting it on to one of the classic plot structures, see if all the smaller and larger climaxes are lined up rhythmically, and weigh if the central character has grown and developed sufficiently. The second draft is finished when all of this is done and you are sure there is nothing more to add, only things to subtract.
The first draft drove all over town, taking you around sudden twists and turns you never expected. But it was YOUR car. You want to give the reader the joys of the same experience, but they are not in the driver’s seat. They cannot see what you do not show them. They cannot make sense of the emotions unless you make them feel them. The trick is to lay out the experiences without sounding like you are explaining to a two-year-old. In the end product, the novel, you have to show enough of the story so that the reader can see it and feel it. But you must leave enough to the imagination so that the reader does not feel like they are given a lecture. The second draft will inevitably be over-written. You will explain too much. You will describe too much. You will prod the reader too much. That is inevitable. And that is why, once you finish the second draft, you need to put it on the shelf again for a while until you can look at it with a fresh, critical eye and start working on the third draft. The objective is to omit the over explanations.
An editor once told a famous writer, I think it was Hemingway, to “Omit chapters ten and eleven”. If that was all he needed to cut, it must have been a damn good draft. A normal writer would need to cut 20 to 30 percent just to keep the draft from looking ridiculous. But that is the function of the second draft. When the first draft is done, the writer doesn’t know why the characters act the way they did. The story just kept taking turns on its own and somehow took you there. Writing the second draft is the act of explaining to yourself why all of this happened.
In the moment before Severus Snape died, he commanded Harry Potter to “Look into my eyes”. Why he said this is not explained. Throughout the entire series, Snape is described as a talented master of dark magic who respected Voldemort greatly, and who climbed his way to be one of the Dark Lord’s closest confidants. The one thing that made him give his allegiance to Dumbledore was his love for Lily Potter, Harry’s mother. It had been explained since the very first volumes of the series that Harry had Lily’s eyes. Snape wanted see Lily’s eyes in the moment of his death. I did not get this the first time I read the passage. J. K. Rowling omitted the explanation.
When you write the first draft, you would not have the foreshadowing early on where nearly every character says “You have your mother’s eyes” when they meet Harry Potter. You do not know yet, while writing the first draft, why Snape wants to see Harry’s eyes when he dies. In the second draft, you would have inserted the foreshadowing, but you probably would have also left in the explanation of why Snape commanded Harry to look into his eyes. In the third draft, you would know to omit that explanation in order to enhance the effect. And that is when you are ready to show your draft to your beta-readers.