I’m in the midst of one of these right now, and while you see a lot of attention given to the first draft and to the overall editing process, you don’t see quite so much attention given to the second draft specifically. But there should be! The second draft is a peculiar animal. Interstitial. Imperfect. It’s frequently the growing pains draft, where two limbs grow and two limbs shrink and by the end of its hormonal transformation it’s the same creature as before but also, entirely different. The second draft is the teenager of manuscripts. Awkward, pimply, full of faux confidence and bravado, and something-something pubic hair.
Okay, maybe not that last part?
Anyway. Let’s talk a little bit about the second draft.
Psst! You Didn’t Write The First Draft
Yeah, no, I know you actually did write the first draft, but shh, shhh, we’re trying to be tricksy hobbitses here. By the time you get to the second draft, your best way forward is to somehow convince yourself that Some Other Asshole wrote this book. Because you can be cold, clinical, dispassionate when you’re attacking the draft if you think it’s not yours. It’s like having children — you can look at other people’s kids and be all like LOOK AT THOSE SAVAGES HANGING FROM THE CEILING FANS, but then you see your own kid drinking out of the toilet like a dog and you’re like, awww, he’s pretending to be a puppy — he’s gifted.
You’ve gotta treat this book like it’s some rando’s kid. Baby Rando.
Rando II: First Blood.
You have a few tricks by which to accomplish this. You can put in a lot of time between first and second draft. You can take the second draft and edit a printout of it instead of editing on screen. If editing on screen, you might consider changing the font, font size, margins, anything to make it look unlike the book you wrote. (Just don’t use the Wingdings font.)
A lot of writing and rewriting is tricking your audience.
But it’s about tricking yourself, too.
The Second Draft Is Often The Hardest
For me, this second iteration of a manuscript is always the hardest. It’s like, I just don’t know what to do yet. I’m still a blind man in the dark feeling for an elephant. It’s not like your novel is a simple little thing. It’s not a picture hanging crooked on the wall. It’s roughly 100,000 words of bewilderment and mystery. And every word has the potential to be hot garbage or high fashion. So much of writing a first draft feels like running a marathon while drunk — you’re just gallumphing about, yelling and laughing and crying and praying to Sweet Saint Fuck that the end is near. And then at the end you collapse in a puddle of your own liquorsweats.
The second draft is a major shift, though. You’re no longer in that period of unfettered creation. You now have to pick through the wreckage of your first narrative and find what’s salvageable. (Really, the first draft is all barf and LEGO bricks. The second draft is picking those LEGO bricks out of the barf. Also, pro-tip: don’t eat LEGO bricks.) Intellectually, it’s a different act — yes, the second draft may require considerable rewriting, but it’s still organizational. It’s still taking the ideas and notions you’ve ladled onto the page and figuring out what to do with them. It’s incisive, cruel, calculating. First draft, you’re Clotho, wildly spinning the threads of fate.
But the second draft, you’re equal parts Lachesis and Atropos.
Measuring the thread.
And then cutting it.
For me, at least, follow-up drafts after this one get easier, if only because you settle into the comfortable discomfort of ripping apart your own work.
But until you sit in the pool for a while, boy does that water feel cold.
Deadlines, Tracked Changes, Redundant Backups
Before you do anything:
a) Set a deadline if one has not been set for you. A reasonable one. Not too tight, but not so far out that it’s meaningless. Tomorrow is too soon, and 2038 is probably when we’ll all be dead from GLOBAL HEAT DEATH, so, give yourself a proper window. I don’t know you, but for me, it’s a month, maybe two, maybe three.
b) Make sure you turn on track changes. It is very, very helpful to be able to go back through and see how you molested and mutilated your poor first draft. I turn track changes on, but I leave them hidden until I’m done. Also, I make liberal use of comments to myself and any potential editors or readers who might be going along on this cuckoo bananapants journey with me.
c) HOLY SHIT, back up your work. Back it up always, back it up obsessively. I save as I go and I backup to the cloud and I back up to the hard drive and I do this daily with a separate file for every day’s worth of work and I have Time Machine on my Mac so that everything gets backed up regularly to an external hard drive and I also carve my manuscripts onto the backs of various transients that I have chained to the radiator ha ha ha I’m just kidding I don’t have a radiator.
Re-Read, And Do It Aloud
I think very few pieces of writing advice are “true” in the sense that they are universal.
And this one may not be, either, but for me it’s damn close.
You need to re-read your work.
And you need to do it aloud.
I don’t mean like you’re doing a performance in Central Park. I mean — a quiet reading of the prose out loud. Even if you don’t read the entire manuscript that way, read those spots about which you’re unsure. Reading your work aloud is equivalent to closing your eyes and running your hand over a broom-stick or bannister: you will feel the uneven parts, the splinters, the popped-up nails. Even those you would’ve missed with your big dumb eyes.
Outline Anew For Mad Organizational Mojo
Make a quickie outline.
A new one to match the finished first draft.
It doesn’t need to be a book in and of itself, but go through the quick beats. Outline each chapter, maybe — one sentence per. Or outline the arrangement of tentpole plotpoints (meaning, those moments in the story that are vital to hold the whole thing up). You can get detailed, if you want — I’ve gone through and used Excel to chart the minutiae of a story (plot, character beats, thematic punctuation, appearance of certain motifs). The reason for doing this is — your novel? It’s a big trash bag full of who-the-fuck-knows. It’s the forest and you need to see the trees. An outline lets you get your hands on it. You can break it down, break it apart, and feel more comfortable understanding how individual components contribute to the whole.
Two Lists: Shit That Works, Shit That Sucks
Now is your time to be like a housecat on a countertop — you will use your paw to select the things that have violated your feline majesty and you will paw them onto the floor, FOR OH HOW THEY DISGUST YOU. Fuck this shit. Fuck that. Not that. Also that.
Go through your whole draft. Find things in the draft and put them in one of the two aforementioned lists — THIS IS BALLS AND I HATE IT or OKAY YOU CAN STAY. (You might have a third list, which might be roughly titled BLOODY HELL, NO IDEA, or simply, ENH…? In this third list go all the things that you can’t figure out if they’re total pants or utter genius.) You don’t need to commit to doing anything yet with this list — but it’s a good jumping off point for getting you to think about your work as an agglomeration of Things That Work and Things That Don’t.
Those things that work can, at least temporarily, remain unpoked, unprodded.
That which does not? Well, you’ll have to decide what to do.
Or eradicate outright?
I Reach For Low-Hanging Fruit First
Entering into a revisions on a second draft, I am both lazy and timid. I pick and fritter and wince. I rarely make any motions right away that would startle the beast — I’m basically doing the equivalent of poking a teddy bear in its soft, round tummy. I don’t just scoop up low-hanging fruit; I look for the rotten stuff on the ground that’s already acting as a buffet for hungry bees.
I attack things that:
a) I know are super-broken because I probably knew it when I was writing it (“Mental note: in chapter 4, I call the protagonist Dave when her name is really Annabeth, and also I got high and wrote a random leprechaun sex scene so that needs to get chopped out with a fire ax.”).
b) I know won’t mess up anything else if I fix it — so, removing the aforementioned leprechaun lovemaking scene doesn’t then cascade through the rest of the draft.
So, in other words:
Obvious and easy.
I do this because again, I’m lazy.
But I also do this as it lets me get my bearings. It’s like warming up with stretches. I feel like I’m still accomplishing things. It lends the revision momentum, and once I get a little momentum…
Then I Just Start Fucking Shit Up
It’s like flipping a lever. For a while — a week or two — I do the gentle tweaking and tickling of the teddy bear, but then it goes all torture-porny as I suddenly wade in with a leather apron and start chainsawing the teddy bear down to the stuffing and buttons. I go from 0 to 60. Comfort, once gained, lets me move more swiftly and more dramatically. Chapters killed. Characters culled. Entire sections rearranged. It’s like having a room which doesn’t quite come together: you sit for a while and stare at it, but eventually you have to start moving some motherfucking furniture around. You gotta throw paint. Rip up carpets. Only way you make change is by doing the work.
The Second Draft Might Be Worse Than The First
Here’s a tough reality to the second draft:
It might be worse than the first draft.
It’s a weird phenomenon and you think it shouldn’t be that way, but if you think of your story as the wandering of a maze, sometimes in that wandering you must be forced to choose a new direction and in choosing that direction you discover you just ran like, 10 miles the wrong way. Dead-ends do not reveal themselves immediately and sometimes must be written toward —
Sometimes you have to write the wrong thing to figure out how to write the right thing.
It Might Be Your Last Draft, Or It Might Not
You might complete your second draft and the angels will descend upon you, skateboarding down their crepuscular rays while blowing shiny God-forged trumpets and you shall be done, hands clean, draft fixed, story gonna story, huzzah, game over, goodbye.
But you might need a third draft, too.
Or a thirty-third.
OR THREE THOUSAND AND — okay at that point you might just wanna give up. We can’t all be writers. Some of us are meant to be detectives, superheroes, and secret Vatican baristas.
But still, the point remains: finishing your second draft is not a guarantee of finishing the work. It may be time to hand it off to an agent, reader or editor at this point, yes — but it by no means guarantees the tale’s true completion. You rewrite till its right. Because, as I am wont to say: writing is when we make the words, editing is when we make them not shitty.
Good luck on your second draft, ink-flingers and word-slingers.
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