The second draft

Commenting on my last blog, John S. asks:

Tess–any advice on how to make the second draft go as fast as the first? Now that I’ve discovered the story, making it work is…much harder work!

You betcha.  In some ways, the second draft is much harder work.  Which is why I’m dreading it.

For me, the very worst stage in the novel-writing process is when I’ve finished the first draft and I finally give it a front-to-back read. That is invariably when I get that sickening feeling that I’ve written the worst book in the world and there is no way I can fix it.  I give myself a day to be depressed.  I mean truly, deeply, depressed.  I contemplate the end of my career.  I try to think of alternate jobs I might be able to do instead.  Organic farmer or itinerant fiddler.  Heck, sometimes the job of donkey pooper scooper starts to sound like a more enjoyable career.  (I’m serious here.  My husband and I just acquired five donkeys, and I so dreaded working on my manuscript yesterday that I jumped at the chance to muck out the barn instead.)  

So yes, John S.  I know what you mean when you say second drafts are much harder work.

Since this is the 20th time I’ve been through the process, I’ve learned what to expect.  I know I’ll be depressed.  I know I’ll despair of ever fixing the mess.  And then I’ll get to work and fix it.  Tackling it gets down to some pretty basic issues.

First, make the plot hang together — make the story’s set-up match the story’s resolution.  In VANISH, I started off with a hostage crisis.  In the first draft, the hostage taker was a man, whose motives remained a mystery to me.  By a third of the way through the book, I ditched the guy and turned him into a gal.  That’s when her motives became clear to me.  By the end of the book, I knew what the hostage crisis was all about.  My first priority, when I wrote the second draft, was to revise the first third so that it was the logical set-up to the rest of the story.

Second, refine and deepen the characters.  My first drafts tend to be somewhat bare-bones.  I’m so busy trying to figure out the plot and the mystery that I shirk a bit on the character development.  My second drafts add detail and more introspection.  I get inside the characters’ heads, elaborate on their emotions, and find ways to deepen the conflicts they face.

Third, heighten the poetry.  I know you’re thinking, “but you write fiction, not poetry!”  But in many ways, I think I am writing poetry.  An important part of narrative writing is reaching the next level of description, a level that goes beyond the mediocre and strives toward the artistic.

Fourth, clean up all the inconsistencies.  Make sure the names and genders and eye colors have stayed the same from beginning to end.

Fifth, re-order the scenes to heighten the tension.  I’m one of those writers who doesn’t write the story in chronologic order.  Since I’m often juggling several subplots, I will often write one subplot from beginning to end, and then write the second subplot from beginning to end.  Then I’ll weave them together.  In VANISH, for instance, I wrote the Jane and Maura hostage crisis story first.  When I’d almost finished that part, I went back and wrote the Mila subplot.  Finally, I intercut the two subplots, figuring out the most dramatic sequence in which to vary them.  But I didn’t do that until the second or third draft.

Sixth — and this may surprise some people — figure out your chapter breaks.  My first drafts are continuous.  I just go scene by scene, without chapter breaks.  It’s only late in the process, usually my third or fourth draft, when I decide where to end the chapters.  I look for cliff-hanging endings, for chapter breaks that will make the reader say, “I can’t stop here!  I’ve got to read just one more chapter!”

I’ve yet to face all these tasks.  I’m still working on the first draft of THE BONE GARDEN, and already dreading my initial read-through.  But I also know that somehow, I’ll find a way to fix it.

11 replies
  1. Cynthia Reese
    Cynthia Reese says:

    Tess, very interesting! After reading your very tightly plotted novels, I was amazed some time ago to find you were a pantser, and I long wondered how you balanced such intricate plots and subplots with a pantser’s approach. Now I know — a lot of blood, sweat, toil and tears!

    I’m more of a Michael Palmer type — foundation, foundation, foundation. I start of with a short synopsis, in-depth character studies, then a longer synopsis, then a chapter outline, and then finally the novel itself. I’m so anal retentive that I actually figure out how many pages each chapter is going to be and shoot for writing a chapter a night.

    That’s not to say that I stick with the outline — about halfway through most of my books, I’ll come up with a great twist, which means I’ll have to re-do the middle part of my story — but I have the beginning and ending in mind when I start off, and they usually don’t change.

    Still, I do a mini-version of your multiple drafts … one thing I always do is check my synopsis and my Goal/Motivation/Conflict against my finished first draft. Do the story’s turning points contain enough punch? Did my characters really grow emotionally when I said they would? That sort of thing.

    I usually wind up with about three drafts (not counting editor requested revisions and line edits) for a book.

    But whatever way works! I’m amazed — but shouldn’t be. You are a very hard worker.

  2. l.c.mccabe
    l.c.mccabe says:


    Once again this was an inspirational post, and I nodded my head many times while reading your description of your editing process. The methods I’ve employed are similar in some instances, but has some distinct differences as well.

    Which is to be expected when you have different people engaging in creative endeavors. No two portraits of the same subject will be alike, nor will two portraits of different subjects ever be the identical.

    After my first draft, one of my critique group members said that I had a “fatal flaw” because I left my heroine out of the book for over 100 pages, whilst a subplot took center stage. That because I wanted to finish one sequence of events before embarking upon another sequence of events.

    It was a hard criticism to hear, but he confirmed my worst fears. It was an area of my story that I was worried about and he was right, it just didn’t work.

    I wound up pouring over my calendar and using sticky notes to move around the plot points, and shuffling chapters as if they were cards in my hand, so that there wasn’t more than about 25 pages where my hero or heroine didn’t make an appearance. That’s the weaving of subplots that you mentioned.

    It was a brutal few days as I wrestled with that plot point problem, but ultimately I think it works far better.

    As for the comment about poetry, I have a friend of mine who is an incredible non-fiction writer who studies the far right and fascist groups. Subjects that most people wish not to think about, yet he investigates them. His undergraduate degree was in philosophy, and he said that when he writes he tries to make it sound as poetic as possible. His gauge is to see how it sounds aloud.

    He has a lyrical writing style, even if the subject matter is horrific.

    I’m now on my fourth draft and trying to embroider details of scenery which were spare while I was busy trying to capitalize on my forward momentum of writing.

    I am surprised by your admission of not writing chapter breaks in the initial draft. To me, I consciously seek out cliff hangers and think of as many as possible while I’m planning things. I deliberately write to cliffies, and then boom, end the chapter. It’s a good day of writing when I finish a particularly nasty cliffie, for I cackle with fiendish glee knowing that people will say, “I can’t stop here!”

    Big dramatic bangs and cliff hangers. I love ’em.

    And don’t think of your mucking in the barn as procrastinating. You’re simply allowing your brain to relax, which will allow your creative ideas to flow when it is not forced. You can allow things to play around in your head when you don’t have pen and paper and you can discard ideas or refine them without pressure. Just be sure to have said pad of paper near the entrance to your house for when you need to hurriedly jot everything down when you come in!

    May your muse be treating you well,


  3. SassyDevil
    SassyDevil says:

    I’m short on time tonight (it’s after 3:00 a.m.!), so I’ll just say thanks for this information, and, you’re a treasure!

  4. JanetK
    JanetK says:

    FIVE donkeys?

    Interesting about the no-chapter-breaks in your first draft. While putzing along on my work-in-progress (first draft about 3/4 complete) I suddenly realized I hadn’t made a chapter break in about 60 pages. “Huh,” I thought. “I guess I’ll figure it out later. Maybe I don’t need to think about chapters at all at this point.”

    And today I find I’m following in your footsteps. Cool.

  5. Gabriele
    Gabriele says:

    When I begin to connect scenes I wrote into larger entities, chapters begin to form. But the break is usally at a logical point, not a cliffhanger. I’ll have to look out for that.

  6. wendy roberts
    wendy roberts says:

    I just LOVE your chapter breaks. I always have trouble putting down your books. Good reading but bad for sleep LOL. Good luck on finishing first draft of Bone Garden.

  7. Marcus Sakey
    Marcus Sakey says:

    If you say so. Personally, I’m a fan of pets that don’t require me to “muck” anything. But it’s good to know who to call should I ever need a trusty steed to, I don’t know, haul my gold flake from the river, or carry my supplies on a buffalo hunt.

  8. Lorra Laven
    Lorra Laven says:

    Wow – talk about timing! I’ve been dragging my feet writing the last few chapters of the first draft because I feared sorting out the mess I’ve made with no well-defined method for fixing it.

    Thank you.

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