Sunday, November 16, 2008

Second Drafts

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Shitty First Drafts. Today I continue this series, which will include one or two more posts. The information I shared last time and will share for the rest of the series is taken from a workshop that I give at writers' conferences focusing on editing.

The second draft of a novel is when a writer should look at plot, structure, characters, and story elements. Is the book saying what you want it to say? Have you surprised the reader, or is the plot predictable? Is the ending a satisfactory conclusion to the story, or is it contrived? Have you taken the reader up to mountain peaks and down to valleys, or is the writing flat?

The essence of story is drama, and drama naturally flows out of action and reaction. Is that happening in your story?

Is your cast of characters appropriate? Are they interesting? Do they all add something to the story? Are they balanced throughout, or have you given secondary characters too much time?

Some writers, like Eileen Goudge, who’s written several books in a series set in Carson Springs, California have so many characters it is hard to keep track of them. When I reviewed one of her later books, A Wish Come True, I found sub-plots that didn’t always connect to the main plot. I think she made one of the basic mistakes series writers sometimes do, and that was to introduce the reader to the whole community in every story. Information about these characters was repeated almost every time one of them took the stage, which made for some ponderous reading in places.

I skip-read through parts of the book, and as an author, you never want to give your reader an opportunity – or a need – to skip read. Most readers who really love to read want to be able to savor the words as much as the story.


We all start off with a lot more telling than showing and that's okay. It's part of the shitty first draft. To me, the biggest creative challenge comes in the second draft when we try to make the story come alive with active scenes and vivid details that draw the reader into our work.

Some people are better than others at first drafts, but most good books go through one or two complete rewrites.

Then, too, there are some that get published without the rewrite, and we wonder why. Which is why I advise clients not to necessarily pattern their writing after what they read.

For Example:

I consider this weak writing: "I need a pain shot," she said with some difficulty. Her mouth was dry. (Robin Cook - MUTATION)

To me, this is much stronger: Dagget's anxiety threatened again. He felt boxed in. By the traffic. By this obese man sitting next to him. He could feel his hair turning gray. (Ridley Pearson - HARD FALL)

In the second example the reader is pulled into the moment and the character, feeling the anxiety with him.

Next up: The fish-cleaning approach to editing. Stay tuned.


Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Visit her
Web site for information about her books and her editing services.

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  1. Maryann,
    The second draft may be the hardest because of all the things you point out need to be done at that stage. Thanks for this excellent advice.

  2. I was surprised for years when I would come back and rewrite the same story for the fifteenth time, but every time it felt like it got stronger and stronger. It was like finally achieving the original idea in all its splendor. Sometimes for me, the ideas don't come out on paper or screen the way I saw them in my head originally, but those fine tuning drafts and rewrites really do help you get there.

  3. This is a topic I would like to see more of. I have books galore on character, dialogue, plot, grammar, but nobody tells you what to do after you've finished your first draft. How many courses are there on writing the novel? How many on revising the novel? I had to learn the hard way plan my drafts and set different goals for each. So often I will hear a writer say they are nearly finished with their novel, but when I probe a little more, it turns out what they meant is that they are nearly finished with the first draft. It seems cruel to tell them they're not finished, that they've just started.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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