My point of view, second draft, Writing

Write the Novel — How many drafts are enough?

Since January, I’ve blogged about writing a novel, starting with a global theme and working through the zero draft (an unfinished manuscript), which becomes the first draft when we finish it. And the second draft, which serves completely different functions from the first.

How many drafts are enough? Because we each write differently, and because for any writer finishing a entire first draft is an enormous accomplishment, my standard for the zero/first draft is, simply, finish it. I don’t care how, but get all the way to the end of the story.

My standard for beginning the second draft is one question, “Am I writing this for publication?”

There are only two answers: yes or no. I don’t think I’m a good enough writer, but maybe a miracle will happen and someone will want to publish it is not an answer. It is a daydream. The reason that the answer needs to be a firm yes or no is that the beginning of the second draft is a major crossroad. Say yes to publication and we go in one direction; say no and we go in a completely different direction.

Saying no to publication

We’re likely to say no to publication if

  • the material is highly personal or dangerous, and we’re not ready for the rest of the world to see it
  • the story is just the way we like it, and we don’t want to submit our characters and story to the meat grinder of editing and publishing
  • we don’t have the health, time, or finances to participate in the publishing/marketing that the book will need. Keep in mind that neither traditional publishing nor self-publishing is a free ride. Traditional publishing requires that we submit what the publisher wants, when they want it. There are less of those restraints in self-publishing, but a well published/well marketed self-published book (e-book or print) will cost the author $2,000 to $10,000 and take hundreds of hours to accomplish.

If we say no to publication, there are no limits to how many drafts is enough. Keep writing, keep revising as long as the story holds our interest.

Say yes to publication

If we say yes to publication, initially two, maybe three content drafts are enough. A content draft focus on character development, storyline, raising the stakes, maintaining continuity, etc. This is completely different from editing drafts.

After the second or third content draft, the book needs to go to at least five beta readers. Beta readers are people we know well enough to ask them to read our manuscript, but aren’t so close to them that all they’ll do is say how great it is. Finding five good beta readers is tough, but it’s the best way to find out what really needs honing. Beta readers are looking for minor plot tinkering, typos, grammar, and spelling mistakes. Readers have to make a commitment to getting the manuscript read and back to us in a timely fashion.

Taking comments from beta readers into consideration, another one to two content drafts will need to be done. Here are questions to ask ourselves after the beta readers are through.

What is this novel worth to us?

  • How much more work do we plan to do before we submit our book?
  • How will we know when our book is ready to submit?
  • Have we set a personal deadline for when this book is to be finished?

How strong is our voice?

  • Read sections we suspect are problematic aloud to examine our voice.
  • Is it strong and clear?
  • Are there places when it seems to disappear?
  • Are there places when it overshadows the story?

By this time, we will have done a total of three or four content drafts, half before beta readers and half afterwards. Then comes at least five editing passes

  • the first is attention to format, how the work is presented on the page
  • the second is a general clean-up
  • the third gets rid of book killers
  • the fourth gets down to the nitty-gritty of grammar and spelling, word by word
  • the fifth is the final, what-have-I-missed fine tooth combing

So the answer to how many drafts is enough — my personal opinion hat is firmly in place here — is three to four content drafts; at least five beta readers; and five editing drafts.

Then we’re ready to either go looking for a publisher or to take the self-publishing route.

Next week, Tuesday, November 25, we take off our writer’s hat and put on our editor’s had for Editing Pass 1 of 5 — Paying Attention to Format. Hope to see you then.

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My point of view, second draft, Tips, Writing

Write the Novel — Dawdle and Plant Seeds

We’re almost done with the second draft. We’ve looked at how this draft is the place to strengthen our voice, build emotional muscle, knead a story into shape, and let go of things we may love, but which aren’t working. The final thing to do before finishing this draft is to dawdle and plant seeds.

Dawdle? Are you kidding? I’ve been working on this book absolutely forever. I want it done. Now! No way am I dawdling at this point.

Think again.

In the first draft, the focus was on two things

  • Goal, motivation, and disaster: Who wants what? Why do they want it? What’s preventing them from getting what they want, or if they do get it, how is it different than they thought it would be? This is the builder’s equivalent of preparing the lot, digging a basement, pouring concrete, framing, and roofing a house. It’s where the heavy lifting gets done.
  • Satisfying the demands of the genre. For mysteries, this means clues, red herrings, detective work, and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Following the building analogy, this is all of those choices to be made. Carpet or hardwood floors? Paint, wallpaper, or paneling? Appliances? Faucets and taps? Lighting?

The second draft is where interior decorating happens

  • Enhance every chapter’s first and last lines.
  • Where can the story’s volume be adjusted up or down? When should the story go over the top? When should the story be a seductive whisper?
  • Sprinkle flash symbols through the book. A little hazy on flash symbols? Check here.
  • Mix and match characters, narrative lines, settings. Elements that serve more than one purpose or function enrich the story’s density. The rest of this list was taken from Chris Roerden’s Don’t Murder Your Mystery. I strongly recommend this book to all mystery writers.

Deepen the context

  • Appeal to the senses
  • Establish a sense of place
  • Evoke mood
  • Provide texture
  • Sketch a description

Humanize the characters

  • Change sexual tension
  • Establish or betray trust between characters
  • Ground or anchor characters (needs to be done periodically, not just once)
  • Increase a character’s insight
  • Increase what is known about a character

Offer a perspective or counter perspective

  • Juice up the plot
  • Change pacing, emotion, or suspense
  • Raise the stakes
  • Use violence as dialog

Embellish with

  • Buried agendas or secrets
  • Foreshadowing
  • Comic relief
  • Irony
  • Surprise!

And, finally, there’s the landscaping: plant seeds for future books. This is especially important if the book is part of a series. We may know what seeds we’re planting, or we may have no idea at all. Knowing isn’t important. The idea is to plant possibilities than can be explored in subsequent books. Seeds may be as simple as a single line of dialog or a short description.

  • “I had a brother, but he died.”
  • Marcy had seen enough of Chicago, thank you very much. As far as she knew, the warrant for her was still outstanding.

That’s the second draft. When it’s done, take a break.

Put the manuscript away for at least a couple of weeks. Like making bread or aging fine wine, the material needs a chance to settle down before we begin the final content revision.

And that’s just what we’re going to do. Next week, November 11, will be a Remembrance Day blog. We’ll resume our writing the novel journey on Tuesday, November 18, with Final Content Revision. See you then.

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second draft, Writing

Write the Novel – Letting Go

Writing a second draft isn’t a matter of tidying up. That comes later. The second draft is where we take things apart, cut away the dead wood, and reassemble the remaining pieces so that the seams hardly show. For the second draft, the questions for each sentence, scene, and chapter are not do we like this or is it fun to write?

Does it work?

The question is, is it working? Letting go of writing we love that isn’t working is one of the hardest things a writer has to do.

Prologues don’t work. Neither do epilogues. For the second draft, ditch them both. Don’t panic. You still have copies of them and, if you decide later it’s absolutely necessary, add them back, but try at least one draft without them.

Here’s an unfortunate truth, the harder a scene is to write, the more likely it needs to be written that way. Other things that don’t work include long telephone conversations; scenes where people are cooking, eating or driving; monologues; too much back story; and expository lumps. All of those are writing the easy way out. Change backstory to context (See my earlier backstory blog), and rewrite everything else.

The Big Reveal

The big reveal in a mystery is two-fold: who did it, and, often more important, why they did it. We’re talking stakes. Large public stakes (what matters to the world in which the character lives) and large private stakes (what matters to the character). What’s wrong with these big reveals?

  • He forced me to end my pregnancy, and now I can’t have children.
  • I had to cover for him. He’s my real father (or fill in the relationship of your choice).
  • What no one knew was that there were two babies born that night. Identical twins, one destined to be raised with every advantage and one pushed aside to live in poverty.
  • I built this company from nothing. He was going to ruin it. I couldn’t let that happen.

If  your answer is the stakes aren’t high enough, you’re absolutely correct. All of these motivations have been used to the point of boredom. What we want is to keep the reader awake nights.

Is the ending untidy? — It should be.

I don’t mean those time we spend behind a closed bathroom door because we want to avoid keeping our significant other awake while we read until two or three in the morning. I mean those times we lie awake in the dark thinking of the implications the ending created for the character (private stakes) and the character’s world (public stakes). What we want to do is resolve the story without solving the issues.

Pro Se was an episode of Law and Order that I saw in 1996. That was what, eighteen years ago? It still keeps me awake.

A brilliant young man had a severe mental health condition. If he took his meds life was, as he described it, “I feel like I’m pawing through a wool blanket. I get so damn tired just holding on to reality.” He could go through a daily routine, washing, eating, etc., but he was incapable of any productive mental activity. He couldn’t concentrate enough work, read, or follow a television program.

If he stopped his meds he’d have a few productive weeks before he spiralled downward. By the time his spiral began, he was no longer capable of choosing to resume his meds.

He became so unstable that he picked a clothing store at random, and attacked everyone inside with a bayonet. The public stakes were huge: commit him to a mental hospital and, when he was released — as he inevitably would be — he’d eventually go off his meds and likely kill again. The private stakes were huge, too: the longer her was confined to a mental ward, the longer he took his meds, the less likely he’d be to function when he was released. It was a completely no-win situation.

In the end, he was ordered confined, with no possibility of early release to a mental hospital for between 6 and 18 years.

Story resolved, issues not resolved. A great story often has an untidy ending.

Next Tuesday, November 4, we finish up this second draft series with Dawdle and Plant Seeds. The final purpose of a second draft is to slow down in some places and plant seeds for either future books, or for untidy endings if this is a stand-alone.

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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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second draft, Tips, Writing

Write the Novel — Build Emotional Muscle

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.

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