Monday, August 11, 2014

Before the Query Stage, and What I've Learned Editing a Second Draft

We hear it all the time. Finish what you start. Complete that novel. And we do. We write "THE END" and jump in the air. (Cue marching band.)

Until we realize, we just completed a first draft. Which is fantastic. But it's still only one piece of the journey. (Send marching band back to the rehearsal room.)

I've done NaNo WriMo before, and even adapted an excel spreadsheet from it when I'm drafting. But for me, drafting isn't the issue. I'm usually good about meeting my word counts and getting words on the page in an efficient manner.

This often feels like this:

But after NaNo ends...then what? We don't hear a lot about what to do after first draft is on the page (or perhaps after the second or third draft is done either). Perhaps it's because drafting is sexier than editing. Editing is work. Drafting is fun! But one of my previous NaNo novels was so messy that I wasn't able to get it off the ground at all, and it's currently sitting in a drawer waiting for me to sell it for parts.

And maybe someday I will. But right now, I'm almost 200 pages revised into the second draft of a manuscript I drafted last year. The story is shaping up much differently than when I first wrote it, which means, after I finish this pass through, I'll need to trunk the novel again, bring it out of moth balls, and edit it at least once or twice more before showing it to beta readers.

This process is more like this:

I was lucky enough to land on this blog post called "Braving Your Second Draft." It said: "Each draft is an essential step on the road to the completed manuscript you’re trying to write." The good news? No words are wasted, despite what I claimed in this previous post. Those anchors aren't always bad, and sometimes, they can be stabilizing, offering further proof that the true joy comes from the writing itself.

So with that in mind, here's what I've learned in my second draft edits this go-round:

1. Instead of word count, do a minimum page count.

I'm forgetting where I heard this advice, so I'm unable to cite anybody on it. But I discovered that if I grapple with at least five pages a day, and get them done, I still accomplish something. And if I do more, great. This breaks the perfectionist part of me that wants to dwell on a word and paragraph level, which is not what I should be doing at this stage, and prevents twelve hour editing binges (you think I'm joking, but this actually happened).

2. Covering a plot hole might make more, so be careful when this turns into a domino effect.

 About mid-way through the draft, I finally figured out my villain's true motivation. It went against some of what I'd written previously, and when I fixed it, more plot holes opened, and soon I was in a gopher field, with my novel progress halted. So I took a step back and only made the changes that were absolutely necessary to remain consistent with what the villain wanted. If there's more to it, I can always address it in a subsequent draft.

3. Don't be afraid of the delete key...

Once the words are down, it's hard to get rid of them, and I carry this anxiety of not getting back what I delete if I need it later. So I created a document where I could put excess stuff (including plot points that went nowhere). And I'm discovering that I'm only drawing from it rarely--it's grown to over 100 pages and 24,000 words. A novella of scraps, in other words. What this has taught me is it's okay to delete words and write new ones that are better--and the more I'm willing to part with, the better the novel will be.

4. ...but also don't be afraid to flesh out those skeletons.

All the novels I've written with the NaNo spreadsheet, even if they took a few months, ended up pretty skeletal, and those drafts always needed more fleshing out. So look for areas of expansion, and remember to go deeper instead of wider.

5. Editing can really be fun. Really.

I'm still having scads of fun with this novel and its growth spurts, so at least for now, the editing doesn't feel like work yet. I'm in the third act, when a lot of previous plot clues are answered--but also found the big reveal wasn't well established or consistent. So I wrote outside conversations between my characters to establish some clarity, which were tons of fun. And lo and behold, a plot point I didn't know was staring me in the face revealed itself, and today I combed the novel to make this detail more apparent throughout. I'm sure there are some places I missed--but I can always catch them on the next go-round.

Of course, none of this is on official deadline--so I'm curious to hear from those of you needing to make these kinds of editing decisions quickly. How do you negotiate the changes you're asked to make? 


  1. "How do you negotiate the changes you're asked to make?"

    So far, I haven't been blindsided by any of my edits--meaning, the big things will have come up in conversations or email with my editor before I get the marked-up manuscript back. It gives them some time to percolate before I have to tackle ALL THE EDITS and so far I've been better able to manage them this way. But I will be turning in book 2 around the end of this year and that will be undiscovered country!

  2. I love #3: Don't be afraid of the delete key. So true!! It took me the longest time to get over that hump and I still struggle with it, but then I just had to tell myself that I'd keep that scene or piece of dialog in my head forever.... and it would still be in that other draft if I wanted to go back and relive the memories of what it was for me. Sometimes I do go back and sometimes I don't. But it's still there, just in case. ;) Thanks for these very wise words!

  3. I don't mind using the delete key if what I'm getting rid of isn't moving the plot forward. Too often side stories creep in that have nothing to do with the getting to the end. I'm one of those people who enjoy the editing process because I know the final version will that much better for it.

  4. Greg--I'm glad you mentioned side stories. I'm cutting out one of those as we speak.


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