second draft, Tips, Writing

Write the Novel — Kneading the Details

Here we are plowing through our second drafts. We’re working on strengthening our voice and building emotional muscle throughout the story. What are we going to do about those ragged lumps?

Ragged lumps

Chances are that we wrote a lot of our first draft without close attention to detail. We liked a character’s name or made up a business name, and used it. Perhaps we have a character with an easily misspelled name and have a sprinkling of Johnsons and Johnsens and Jonsons, all referring to the same character. We set a scene in whatever place occurred to us: a coffee shop, an office, a service station and so on. Likely, we also have notes to ourselves to check facts [Can penthouses still be rented rent on the Chicago Loop or are they now all condos?]

The second draft is where we knead these ragged details into something smooth and shiny, just as bread dough is kneaded.

Names

  • Set up a table with first and last name columns. List each character, with their name correctly spelled. How many characters have first names beginning with the same letter? With the same last letter? If there are two characters with the same name — first, last, or both — is that an accident or an intentional choice, made because it is intended to increase confusion. If needed, rename characters, spreading their names throughout the alphabet so there aren’t, say, five characters whose last names begin with L.
  • Have we inadvertently created a series of names? I read a story recently in which the three main characters were named Sears, Macy, and Bloomingdale. It was very distracting.
  • Do a quick Internet search for each character’s name. Quick means to look at the first 1 to 2 pages of results. What we’re looking for is to make sure we haven’t inadvertently used the name of a sports star, performer, politician, CEO of a major company, etc. That my protagonist has the same name as a woman running a flower shop in Cincinnati won’t stop me from using that name. However, I’d seriously consider changing a character’s name if it turned out he is a well-known quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals or a U. S. Senator from Ohio.
  • Do the same kind of quick search for any businesses for which we created a name. Turns out that there are at least six Longhorn Construction Companies, in four different states. This is not a really good name for my fictional company, which is about to unleash an ecological nightmare.

Places

Rather than using random locations, if we set scenes in places that reinforce our theme, we have a subtle and powerful way of focusing readers’ attention. Let’s imagine that our story is about greed. Where would we find greedy people? Where would we find the opposite, altruistic people or needy people? Instead of the random coffee shop, office, and service station, let’s relocate the scenes to a downtown mission kitchen, a bank president’s office, and a Mercedes-Benz dealership. The locations are essentially the same — an eatery, an office, a car place — but by tweaking them slightly we add texture to the story.

It’s also a good idea, if we can, to reuse locations, having each visit serve a different purpose and a different outcome. Have our protagonist visit that bank president’s office three times. The first time he’s in awe of how palatial it is, and he gets asked to leave. The second time, he comes with more clout, maybe a warrant, and realizes it’s just an office with great carpet. The third time, the previous bank president is no longer there and his successor is having it redecorated. It’s going to be even more palatial, but now the protagonist can distance himself from the greed represented by the decor and walk away.

Killer research

The second draft is the place to tie up all of those niggling research questions because when we move into the third draft, we will be spending our time dealing with nitty-gritty editing details. It pays to have the story as right as possible by the end of the second draft.

Yes, it is possible to rent a penthouse in the Chicago Loop. My character is paying $6,500 a month in rent for one. Hmm, wonder where he’s getting all that money?

I hope you’ll be back next Tuesday, October 28th, for Second Draft — Making Hard Choices. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but some of our favorite parts are likely on their way out.

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