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How to Write a Novel

Step Fourteen: Second Draft

Right, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and dive back in (and try not to mix metaphors).

If your planning was done well, there shouldn’t be too much requirement for heavy hacking and serious redrafting. However, if things have come a little unstuck or drifted from your plan then now is the last chance to get things straightened out. It can be painful, especially when you’re first starting out, but you have to work hard to not be precious about scenes and elements that you adore, but actually don’t add that much to the story. Cut them. Get over it.

Once you're happy with your flow and structure it's time to get into the redrafting process. Most first drafts, even those by seasoned authors, contain all manner of errors and dubious sections. This is to be expected. While writing your first draft, the main goal was simply to get the story down on the page.

Now that you have the story written, it's time to go through and polish it until it shines.

This is an interesting time because you have so much material to work with, and it's so satisfying to rewrite, cut it up, cut bits out, rearrange sentences, swap paragraphs, and generally hone and polish. At the second draft you will probably end up rewriting pretty much every word, but hopefully it won’t feel like it.

This is where you’ll really start to feel you’re getting towards a finished product (you’re not, it's still miles off, but it’s a nice feeling anyway).

Now is the time to obsess about completely eliminating anything that's not perfect. Doesn't add to plot, atmosphere or character development? Cut it. Description a bit waffly? Compress it. Sentence clunky? Restructure it. Every word should be perfect.

As you rewrite, check your theme, weather and time notes, and below are a few more pointers to help perfect your skills.

The Action >> Reaction Cycle

When you write, you will usually have a mix of things that are happening around your protagonist, and things that your protagonist is thinking and doing.

If you don't know any better, you will switch between these things randomly, putting down whatever 'feels' right. Many talented writers will naturally put things in the Action >> Reaction Cycle described below, but some of us benefit from learning the nuts and bolt of it in a more formal fashion.

Action

In one paragraph, you should have an outward description of the action. This should be completely detached from the characters point of view or opinion on the matter. FACT only. No bias based on the protagonist. This is easier said than done.

Reaction

Reaction can be split into three parts: Gut, Instinctive, Rational. Let's look at those in more detail.

Gut - this should be a visceral, bodily emotional response to the Action that's been observed. Something like a cold chill down the spine, a tightening of the throat or a twisting in the gut. It doesn't involve any movement or controlled thought.

Instinctive - This is still controlled by the body rather than the mind, but it will be more deliberate. It might be leaping back, or reaching for a gun. How useful this action is will depend on the character and how well they deal with the Action and their gut response to it.

Rational - Finally, now we've got through all the gut, instinctive stuff (which probably only took seconds, or less), we can get to the controlled part of things, where the character gets to express themselves. They may have a thought: "Not again. Oh no. Not again.", or they may carry out a controlled, deliberate action: "She raised the gun, aimed, and fired." Or both.

When you write, you should cycle your paragraphs between Action and Reaction. The Reaction paragraph does not have to include every part (gut, instinctive, rational) every time, in fact, it would get a bit weird if it did. But it should include at least one, and they should stay in the correct order.

An Example

We'll start with an example where it's done wrong, with all the elements mixed up and in the wrong order:

Lorelei hugged her legs, remained fixed in place, control stolen from her body. So this was it. She was going end up just like all the others, she thought as she watched the figure at the other end of the beach walking towards her, slowly closing the distance. She felt gripped with a mixture of fear and desolation.

You may think that reads okay, or you may not. But either way, let's compare it to what happens if we rewrite it to follow the Action >> Reaction Cycle:

There was a figure at the other end of the beach, walking towards her.

Fear gripped Lorelei, stealing control of her body, so all she could do was remain fixed in place, still hugging her legs, watching helplessly as the figure closed the distance between them.  So this was it. She was going to end up just like the others.

In this example the first paragraph is only a single line, but it is an, external, indisputable fact. There's a figure, he's at the other end of the beach, he's walking towards her.

Next we have the Reaction, first the gut (fear gripping her), then the instinct (all she could do was remain fixed in place, watching helplessly, etc), and finally her rational thoughts about the matter (deciding she's about to meet her doom).

Hopefully you'll agree that the second version is much stronger, and  plunges into the story so it feels more real, much more so than the first one.

So as you’re going through your second draft, try to apply the action >> reaction cycle as strictly as possible, and you should find your writing that much stronger for it.

Too many adverbs

Overuse (many creative writing tutors say any use at all is overuse) of adverbs will scream amateur louder than anything else.

In case you don't know, adverbs are words which modify (if you don't know what modify means you should probably consider switching to photography) a noun. They often end in 'ly'.

Examples:

  • He said, knowingly.
  • She dropped the knife, meaningfully.

The problem with adverbs is that they are often redundant, re-stating something that is obvious from the dialogue or verb. And if it's not obvious in the dialogue or verb - why isn't it?

Adverbs are often a marker of lazy description, and showing, not telling (see next mistake).

They’re also a key indicator for weak verbs. You can think of the ly as a crutch.

For example:

  • He walked weakly to the door.

Might be replaced by:

  • He stumbled to the door.

Try to avoid using adverbs where possibly, and see if you can find more succinct, verb based ways to describe the action.

Telling not showing

If you haven't heard this yet, brace yourself. You'll be sick of it within months. It's very common for new writers to try to explain things to their readers, as a kind of omnipotent narrator, rather than allowing the reader to experience everything themselves through the protagonist's senses.

For example, if you tell me that:

  • Martin Cousins was a very dangerous man.

I'll be yawning before you get to the next sentence. So what? And anyway, so you say.

However, if you say that:

  • Martin's knife sliced through the soft flesh of his latest victim.

Then the point is made vividly and we might even have a shiver of fear. Also, we're not being preached at, we're observing the cold, hard facts with our own eyes.

Try to avoid telling (it can take a while to get the hang of recognising telling, but it’s worth practising), and where you find instances, replace with direct description – showing.

Task Fourteen: Rework the first draft of your novel into your second draft.

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