The Big Comeback–5 Things to Look for in a 2nd Draft

Authorial Essentials
Authorial Essentials

In an earlier Blog Hop post I mentioned editing as a big part of the process. This likely doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been doing this for a while. At least I would hope it’s not a surprise. But coming in, you might not really get how important editing is, and how involved that process can be.

Professionals edit. And rewrite. And edit again. You can certainly self-publish or submit to markets without all that work, but that doesn’t mean you should.

Some writers might be under the illusion that the second draft is nothing more than fixing grammar and spelling. While that’s a big part of it, you should be prepared for a lot more. Because unless you shit bestsellers, no first draft is perfect. And while ultimately you’ll want to filter your work through an outside editor given an opportunity, there are still things you can do to tighten up your manuscript before handing it off.

As I’m deep in the middle of that fight on one book now (with another two looming), I figured this was a good opportunity to share my list of 5 crucial things I look for when doing a second draft. Individual mileage may vary. But it’s important to note that I generally don’t get working on the real second draft until I’ve let it sit for a bit. A little distance from the manuscript makes it easier to look at it critically. If I dive right back in, I find that I’m still familiar enough with the story that I’m not approaching it as new reader.

So, give it a week. Hell, give it a month. But once it’s had the chance to rest, drag it into the garage, lay down a tarp, and get to work.

Everyone ready? Ok, let’s get our hands dirty.

  1. Continuity: Does a character have blonde hair in one chapter and auburn hair in another? Is that unique character name spelled the same all the way through? Is the kitchen on the right or the left of the entry hall? A lot of this can be avoided with good set up before staring the first draft–solid character notes you refer to as you write, maps if necessary. But even with that, people make mistakes. If you don’t catch it, you can be damn sure someone else will. I love my little notebooks for this (in particular, I love my Field Notes, which have a super-slim profile so I can carry it with me everywhere. If writers could get sponsors and wear their logos when they work, I’d do it for them in a heartbeat). When I’m doing the read through, I keep a page open and jot down any important detail that might come back and reference the notebook when it does.
  2. Pacing: There are two things to look out for here and both can usually be caught by reading out loud. First, sentence length helps set the flow. Long sentences are relaxed. Short, clipped sentences are tense, fast, direct. Sentence length is like the throttle on a motorcycle and it controls the perceived speed of what’s happening in the story. Mix it up. Vary the speed if even just a little. Second, (and this is crucial for me), is to look for stream-0f-consciousness. When I’m writing, exposition and action sometimes jockey for priority. Sometimes it comes out in the order it needs to. Other times you have to strip that whole section out, take it apart piece by piece, and put it back together in an order that makes more sense and flows more cleanly.
  3. Sensory Details: Ideally you’ll be putting sensory details in with your initial draft. But sometimes you might go pages without them and you lose that connection with the story happening in a real place. This is your chance to fix it. Consider background sounds, smell, heck, even taste if you can make it work. “He smelled lilacs on the wind,” is okay. “The cloying sweetness of lilac blossoms assailed him,” is stronger because it’s more than just dropping in the word of something that smells. But how about giving it an emotional resonance? “The scent of lilacs brought a sad smile, reminding him of the last time he had seen his mother.” Some authors have a threshold of one sensory details every page. I’m not saying you should stick to that standard, but every few pages is not a bad idea.
  4. Flow of Information: You know how the story ends. At least you have a good idea if you’ve bothered to outline. The second draft is a good opportunity to make sure you don’t reveal anything big too early. It’s also a great opportunity to foreshadow in ways that you couldn’t without having the full manuscript laid out before you. In a mystery, this is a good chance to polish up the Red Herrings and put the clues to the truth in in0btruisve places so the reader has a chance. In the revisions I’m working on now, I realized that I gave up the identity of the big mover/shaker too early. I needed to scale that back and not give the readers a clear view of the bad guy’s master plan, so I ended up making some big cuts.
  5. The Fat: Speaking of cuts… There are likely to be several places where you delve into back-story, history, and motivation in your first draft. It’s important to know that stuff when you’re writing. But you may not actually need it the story itself. In the second draft, now that I have the whole thing laid out, I’m bit more critical about what needs to be there and what’s slowing it down. When I find those places, I find it helpful to open up a blank document or two and do surgery on these sections. I take that one or two pages on the hero’s childhood (for example), copy them into a blank document the cut them from the manuscript. Then I take a hard look at those pages as a separate entity. What’s essential? I condense it as much as possible. Heck, a few well chosen words or a sentence or two might be all that’s really needed. I can imply that information, give a hint, but I don’t smother your reader in it. And I don’t want it to slow things down. It needs to be lean. Sleek.

If I consider those five things when I’m going through the solid second draft I feel like I’m in good shape to send off to another reader.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get up on a soap box here.

This is the BARE MINIMUM level of edit that you should subject all of your work to if you intend to publish or submit elsewhere. Ideally, you’d get feedback, incorporate that in another draft, and do a nice, smooth polish on all the rough edges as well. But if you’re not doing at least this much…well…good luck.

Now, go out there and edit. Edit like the wind!

2 thoughts on “The Big Comeback–5 Things to Look for in a 2nd Draft

  1. Your section on pacing reminds me that it seems like “forever” since I was last able to attend one of your readings. I wonder if they just have not happened for a while or if I’ve just been too busy and inattentive to have noticed them?

    Also, reading this reminds me of a thought that has occurred to me now and again in the reading of your blogs. I wonder if you have ever considered being a teacher at a college or university somewhere. Through the years, I feel that I have read enough wisdom won through trial and effort in your posts to fill up at least a couple of syllabi.

    1. I’ll be part of a reading on Friday, June 20th at the Wayward Coffeehouse. I haven’t done one in a non-convention setting for a little while, so it will be nice to get back to it.

      As for the teaching thing, my lack of a college degree makes an official gig pretty unlikely. However, I’ve run the occasional workshop on writing, particularly plotting & outlining. And I’ve had a dream of running series on the History of Horror Cinema, complete with viewings, that touches on eras and groundbreaking movies and changing themes. Could be fun if I could find a place to host it.

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