Rules for the Second Draft (3)

“Write drunk. Edit sober” said Hemingway.

We all write drunk. We write drunk on the awesomeness of the stuff we write. We are all crazy enthusiasts when we are on a roll. We stop and edit when we lose that drunkenness.

NaNoWriMo is an attempt to finish the first draft while you are still drunk. A draft thus written has to be edited with a sober eye.

Or does it?

“Write drunk. Edit sober” is the general rule. But how sober? You want to retain some of that enthusiasm that made you think you were a genius while putting down that first draft. Sober is not the same thing as self loathing.

If you are trying to write a debut novel of the 80,000-120,000 word range, and you have a first draft is a NaNo project of 50,000 plus change, your second draft of 120,000-15,000 words should be written more drunk than sober. I do not recommend burning-rubber-on-a-scotch-and-meth-cocktail drunk, but creatively enthusiastic. Don’t go cold turkey just yet. That comes a little later.

The second draft is 30% longer than the third draft because you are still piling on background elements that will later be fused with action scenes or deleted. All those elements are there to make the story more gripping. If they don’t, you delete them.

Now wait just a minute, you say. I just nearly killed myself trying to finish a 50,000 word draft in November, and now I’m supposed to write 100,000 more knowing that I am going to delete 30,000 words? Well, yes. That’s exactly what I expect you to do. Nobody said it was going to be easy.

You need to keep the first draft on a shelf for about a month to three months before trying to turn it into a second draft. But NOT more than a year. When you are writing the first draft, your story seems awesome because you know the atmosphere. You know the back story even though you have not written it yet. You can feel the characters. After leaving the draft on the shelf for a month, you can no longer feel the background elements that were there but you still know that they are supposed to be there. You realize now that you need to add those background elements so that readers, people whom you do not know, will understand why your story flows in the way it does. If you leave it on the shelf for more than a year, you might not be able to remember what it was that you neglected to describe.
Ten minutes after you finish your first draft, you cannot see the need for these background elements because they are already in your mind as a matter of course and you see no reason they need to be explained. More than a year after you finish your first draft, you have forgotten what was supposed to be there. You need moderate distance to know what it is that you need to add.

The final product, if all goes well, is a book the reader cannot put down. That is your goal. (Unless you are trying to write Infinite Jest.) The second draft is a step toward that goal. Readers do not flip pages because the words are perfect, the sentences are extraordinary, or the wise cracks are clever. They flip pages because the story is gripping. You still have time to get the words just right later. (Or not. E. L. James never bothered to write perfect words. Look where that got her.)

You need to write your second draft with this goal in mind. In the first draft you wrote the story. In the second draft you fill in the stuff you thought the reader would automatically see, but won’t. And in the process you cut the fat, streamline the story arc, line up the little climaxes and knead the ground-up back-story into the dough. But you have to keep feeling that your story is awesome.

If that is granted, you are free to make the words perfect, sentences extraordinary and wise cracks clever in the third draft.

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