If real estate is location, location, location, a novel’s second draft is emotion, emotion, emotion. Many writers, myself included, write the first draft focused on what comes next. The second draft is where we need to spend more time on why does what come next matter?
My heroine is a young woman, Marcie, whose best friend, Lorraine, recently died from a poisonous spider bite while on a Caribbean vacation. The island’s police department’s opinion is that her death was a tragic and unavoidable accident. Neither Lorraine’s mother nor Marcie believe that. Marcie has been interviewing Lorraine’s co-workers who were on vacation with her, and she’s sure Lorraine’s death had something to do with a research project Lorraine’s company is doing.
A sub-plot is Marcie ditching her current boyfriend, who’s a jerk, and getting involved with a police constable she meets in the course of her investigation.
I’m working on the second draft of the scene where she breaks up with the boyfriend. Here’s how it played out in the first draft:
Marcie works at a small manufacturing company in an industrial area. She has to work really late one night, so late in fact that hers is the only car left in the parking lot. She doesn’t feel safe walking to her car alone, so she calls a couple of friends who live close to where she works, but neither of them can come and help her. She calls her boy friend, whose watching a hockey game, and can’t be bothered. This makes Marcie so mad that she throws caution to the wind and leaves.
The business has an alarm system, with a time lock and an over-ride code, so people working late can get out, but once the door has closed, they can’t get back in again. When Marcie gets to her car she discovers she has a flat tire. She has to walk all the way home. By the time she gets there, she’s so angry at her boyfriend that they have a fight and break up, thus paving the way for her to meet the constable a couple of chapters later.
How did I do in the first draft?
- Does this scene connect in any way to my main plot, solving Lorraine’s murder? Not really.
- Are there high stakes here? Breaking up with her boyfriend is important to her, but will the reader really care?
- Is Marcie behaving consistently? No. She’s afraid to walk across a parking lot alone, but willing to walk several miles to get home?
- Is Marcie showing that she’s a tough, smart heroine? Not really. She has a cell phone. Why doesn’t she call a cab? Or AAA or a garage to come and fix her tire? Come to think of it, if she’s that worried, why does she leave the building in the first place? Spending the night on the receptionist’s couch might not be comfortable, but at least it would be safe.
- How’s the emotional quotient? Not terrific. She gets mad and does something stupid. Then she gets mad and does something likely stupid. Not much range there.
- Is there anything else about this scene I don’t like? Phone conversations are notorious tension killers and I have three of them – two with friends and one with the boyfriend.
- Is there anything about this scene I like? I do like the one-way alarm, that she can get out of the building, but not back in. That forces her to take action.
Fixes for the second draft
- Find a way to relate this to the main plot.
- Raise the stakes.
- Expect Marcie to behave consistently, and act like a tough, smart heroine.
- Raise the emotional quotient: give her more an emotional range, and varied responses.
- Make the phone calls much less a part of the scene or delete them all together.
- Keep the one-way alarm.
Second draft rewrite
Marcie has to work really late one night, so late in fact that hers is the only car left in the parking lot. She doesn’t feel safe walking to her car alone. She considers spending the night on the receptionist’s couch, but she’s emotionally drained after spending all day talking about Lorraine, and she wants the comfort of sleeping in her own bed. It’s a wide open parking lot and her car is parked under a light. She could see if anyone approached her. She calls 911, explains the situation to the dispatcher, and asks her to stay on the line until she’s safely in her car. The dispatcher isn’t keen to do this, but Marcie stands up for what she needs, and the dispatcher agrees.
When Marcie gets to her car, she’s horrified to discover that her car is full of snakes. She screams.
The police dispatcher gets a lot more interested in what’s happening. She’s sending a patrol car and advises Marcie to go back inside the building, which she can’t do because of the one-way alarm. She sees an unmarked car turning into the gate at the far end of the parking lot. It has a flashing red light on it’s dashboard. Relieved, Marcie commends the dispatcher for getting a car to her so quickly.
The dispatcher says she hasn’t yet dispatched a car and, in any case, it would be a patrol car, not an unmarked.
Marcie runs for her life. The car speeds up and aims straight for her. She manages to hide and hears a siren approaching. The person in the unmarked car pulls a U-turn in the parking lot, and crashes through a wooden barrier to get away. The patrol car tries to follow, but the car gets away. The patrol car returns.
The dispatcher convinces Marcie that this is the officer she dispatched, so Marcie comes out of her hiding place. The officer, who’s going to be the new boyfriend, is very kind to her. Together they go back to look at her car. Not only is it full of snakes, but there’s a note taped to the steering wheel. “There are a lot more where these came from. Stop asking questions.”
Now that has emotional muscle.
I hope you’ll be back next Tuesday, October 21, for our next instalment about second drafts — how to knead a story like a baker kneads bread. It’s vital to make raggedy bits come together.