A few months ago I was working in a job that afforded me a bit more down time than I was used to and so, knowing that the first draft of my book was almost complete, I spent a lot of that time reading as much advice as I could on how to take a rough first draft and turn it into a polished finished product. Some of that advice seemed obvious, some of it less so. Some parts contradicted others, a few common points emerged. Having just finished the second draft of my book here is what I found from going through the process.
Possibly the most ubiquitous of all the advice available was to take a break between drafts. The only variable that I saw was what different people considered to be a suitable amount of time to leave. The shortest I saw was one day, which seems a bit short to me. I ended up leaving it about a month over the Christmas break, but when I sat down to go through it one month didn’t feel long enough. I wanted to create some distance between myself and what I had written so that I could look at it with a more objective eye, but it was also difficult not to work on it. There is a balance to be struck between giving yourself that time to create objectivity and leaving it so long that you either lose interest or forget what it was you had in mind when you started. So I don’t know what the correct amount of time to leave it is, but definitely leave it some amount of time.
The other common piece of advice is the much repeated ‘kill your darlings’. I thought I would be quite good at this one. Ruthlessly tearing out the unnecessary excesses seemed a fundamental and I don’t consider myself to be a particularly precious person. (When I used to paint I had canvasses that had had multiple paintings layered underneath the one I finally deemed worthy of not being destroyed.’) Still though, there were times when it was easy and times when it was difficult. Writing that was both clumsily written and that didn’t add to the story was easily severed. The bits that I thought were nicely written but superfluous were much harder to get rid of. It was uniformly true however that once they had been removed the whole was better for it. So, like every other word ever written on this subject I’m going to jump on the cliché bandwagon. Kill your darlings. Anything that interrupts a smooth flow, no matter how nicely written, is more damaging than beneficial. It was astonishing how often a gigantic delete was the right fix.
The same is true of plot. It’s not just poetic little passages that need to be trimmed. One of the things I paid a lot of attention to while reading through the first draft was structure. Any bits that didn’t add to the overall story needed to be removed or merged with other bits. There were some sections of what I had written where the plot points overlapped like they were playing leapfrog. There always seemed to be forward momentum, at no point was the story not going somewhere. These were the bits where I felt happiest with what I had done, it read like a proper book by a proper writer purchased from a proper book shop. There were other bits that made the story feel like it had run aground and left me feeling like the story wasn’t going somewhere worth going. These were the bits where I could imagine myself putting it down and losing interest. I tried to make sure the plot points overlapped in the second draft. Before one plot point was resolved the next would be introduced.
One of the things I read a lot was the magical second draft formula.
Second Draft = First Draft – 10%
Let me state clearly my opinion of this. Bullshit. For a start, nothing so neat could ever be true and even if it were generally true generalisations are meaningless when you are concentrating on the one book that you have written. The important thing, surely, is to get it right. If that means removing words, fine. If it means adding words, fine. The word counts of my two drafts are roughly the same. That doesn’t mean the drafts are the same. There are some chapters that were completely overhauled, and some that were left much as I had written them. I found the further though the draft I went the less there was I wanted to change. The oldest stuff from early 2008 was in need of a lot of work, both to unify the writing style and to make sure the beginning and end made sense with one another. My overriding concern was with getting all of it as good as it could be. Blindly assuming you have written ten percent too much and then looking for what to chop out seems foolish. It doesn’t need to be anything other than as good as it can be.
As for second draft technique, I’ll admit, I got a bit excited about colour coded notation systems. I should have realised I’m not the kind of person to work in this way. I bought a green pen, a blue pen and a red pen. Each was given it’s own remit. I have since lost the green and blue pens but the red was well used. As I found something that could be simply fixed – a spelling or grammar error – I fixed it. If something would require a bit more fixing – a clumsy phrase, wooden dialogue – I wrote that it needed to be fixed and then kept reading. Later I went to it and spent time on each point coming up with a solution. If I had tried to fix each problem as I found them the whole process would have been a lot more frustrating. Also, as above, often the right solution was to simply delete the offending passage. Big problems, of which there were a few, got written onto a list of major fixes. This included rewriting the entire first chapter. Not something that can be done lightly. The major fixes required getting back into a writing mindset, away from the editing mindset I had been in for quite a while by this time.
One pleasant surprise I found was just how clearly the solutions to problems presented themselves. Passages I remember wrestling with during the first draft suddenly seemed easily fixed. Delete a line, add a word, done. Why had it seemed so impossible at the time of writing? I guess that’s the distance created by not thinking about it for a long time.
It’s surprising how different writing and editing are. I found I was working in a completely different way. A more methodical, technical way. It made me realise just how much fun I had had writing the first draft, and was making me keen to finish the second draft so I could start something new and get back into that creative swing. But I refused to rush. I didn’t want three years of hard work to be sabotaged by me suddenly losing focus at the end. I doubt this novel will be published, the odds seem too stacked against it, but I want to at least give it the best shot. I’m now going to give it some more time to ferment before I read it again and get started on draft three.