How can I help you (re)write the second draft of your novel? Well, I’m going to offer you some practical advice and explain the creative processes which have helped me over the years. I’ve been honing my craft writing short stories for the past ten years and although I may not yet be a published author, I have just completed my debut novel. So, to reiterate, this article isn’t about becoming the next Stephen King or Ernest Hemingway. Far from it. This article is simply about the craft and breaking down the mystique behind the novel writing process so that you, too, might find some encouragement and believe it is obtainable.

Learn to forgive yourself

“One always has a better book in one’s mind than one can manage to get onto paper.”

― Michael Cunningham

So you’ve done the hard work and completed your first draft. Well done! Congratulate yourself and remember that you are your own worst critic. When you look back at the first draft you will inevitably hate it and wonder why you spent two years of your life banging out this nonsensical piece of trash that Jeffrey Archer could have written in prison. In his sleep. Simply remember that your manuscript is raw material and by no account finished, ready or complete.

It’s just that – a First Draft.

Now you have the unenviable task of rereading your own hastily hammered out manuscript with its abundance of errors, poor sentence structure, lack of suspense, and grammatical nightmares. But you’re not alone because everybody’s first draft looks like this, even famous authors, so take solace in the fact that you haven’t failed. It may look like it on the surface, but believe me, this is where the second draft comes into play.

Soon you will revise the first draft into a manuscript you can be proud of.

But now for some practical advice: Create a copy of your first draft, collate it in Word or your preferred software, then rename it Second Draft with its own unique folder, before you even begin. It’s basic housekeeping and I can’t stress this enough. It’s always good to keep earlier iterations just to see how far your work has progressed, and sometimes you may even prefer old copy to new. You can always substitute parts of the original text if you prefer, further down the line.

Now for the good news – writing a second draft of your novel will take nowhere near as long as your first draft, in fact, you may actually enjoy rewriting it!

AP Hilton The Second Draft Cliche Typewriter Image
The Second Draft

what is the purpose of a second draft?

“Half my life is an act of revision.”

– John Irving

The second draft’s main purpose is to ensure your characters’ MOTIVATIONS are believable.

Throughout your manuscript you need to ask yourself some serious questions about why a character is behaving in a particular way. You need to make their concerns as realistic as possible in order for the reader to suspend their disbelief, and actually care about your characters. This, in a sense, is the essence of making the narrative believable and as real for the reader as much as it is for your characters. For instance, your characters may have some basic motivations in the first draft, but you can also add more drivers that are relevant to the premise. Don’t be afraid to give all your characters agency and let them drive the story, rather than simply participate.

Make your characters layered, psychologically and emotionally deeper by giving them further reasons to pursue their goals.

By establishing their motivations you are giving meaning to their lives, and therefore making your story more meaningful. It’s all very well to write a beautifully eloquent book (perpetually describing the weather to convey atmosphere) with little thought for your characters, but if you don’t care for them, then why should your readers care for them, either?

If your characters don’t have substance or agency then no one is going to care for your pretty words.

IMAGINE you are the reader, and not the writer

“The trouble with writing fiction is that it has to make sense, whereas real life doesn’t.”

― Iain M. Banks

Before you edit a single word, imagine you are the reader and make notes in a dedicated notebook, detailing the experience in as few words as possible. Take a long hard look at your chapters and try to see beyond the poor sentence structures. The author Margaret Attwood talks about this in her online Master Class series: I recommend taking this class for Attword’s incredible insights, and pleasurable company. Here she talks about seeing into the book, and seeing it anew. Then making it deeper. To do this generate revision notes for each chapter and ensure to keep your notes simple and to the point, so you don’t get lost in theorising everything and end up writing another book about your book!

Keep it simple and ask yourself what each chapter is trying to say.

Then ask yourself questions : Is the chapter too long? Is it too short? One of the best pieces of creative writing advice I ever read was from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering The Craft. One phrase of her’s that always stuck in my head was this : How Does The Chapter Advance Your Story?

With this piece of advice in mind you should appraise your first draft and edit down any chapters or scenes which fail the test.

The Edit : Don’t Be Afraid To Slash And Burn

‘Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.’

– Stephen King

The other main purpose of revising your second draft is to EDIT.

When you look back at your first draft the you will notice that your paragraphs will often over-explain to the point of rambling on and on about the same topic, paragraph after paragraph. Avoid this if you can because your readers will easily become bored, check their phones, find another book on Amazon, and possibly never pick up your book again.

You need to make your chapters punchy, exciting, and to the point.

This means removing extraneous paragraphs, rewriting offending sentences and polishing the hell out of it until the manuscript shines like a distant star. Don’t be afraid to edit and delete everything and anything, especially if it sounds clunky. If a sentence doesn’t scan then your new best friend is the delete button, which may happily combine two badly written sentences into more meaningful prose. Try it. Believe me, it’s magic when it happens.

Slash and burn it all to the ground until it’s reborn.

One of the key phrases that always appears in articles about creative fiction is Kill Your Darlings. This phrase was coined by William Faulkner and is often used by Stephen King, who takes no prisoners in his book On Writing : A Memoir Of The Craft. To paraphrase King, you may well have written a beautiful sentence, but if the sentence doesn’t scan or benefit your story, then kill it. Dead. Sure, it will be painful and you’ll always wonder if your novel could have been better by including it. It wouldn’t.

Your novel is not about a single beautifully written sentence.

Your novel is all about telling a story as best you can, and if that sentence sticks out, doesn’t scan, or the paragraph flows better without it, then Kill Your Darling and bury it under the patio where only you know it’s there.

Editing IS polishing. It’s a skill, so get good at it. Fast.

Is Your First Chapter Good Enough?

“A good book isn’t written, it’s rewritten.”

― Phyllis A. Whitney, Guide to Fiction Writing

The first line of any novel is an indication of how well it is written and what it intends to say.

You need to ask yourself : Does your first line or even your first page hold your interest? Be honest. If it doesn’t, then it certainly won’t hold anybody else’s interest, either, especially if a reader is new to your work. When I revised the first draft of my debut novel, Consider Him Human, I spent a lot of time editing down the prologue to make it as succinct as possible. So take out your carving knife and Slash and Burn the first page until it sings.

Ensure your first line, and indeed your first paragraph, is loaded with expectation.

Your readers will then be desperate to read on, and if you’re lucky they may even bother finish reading your book. This also applies to the first three chapters of any novel; which will act as a window to prospective agents and publishers. So make sure those first three chapters are as tantalising and interesting as you can, without giving too much away…

Beware of information dumps

“Don’t annoy your readers by over-explaining–by telling them something they already know or can figure out.”

― William Zinsser, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

What is an information dump? An information dump is usually a huge raft of explanatory text or exposition. You can easily spot them in the first draft when a character gives a lengthy monologue explaining their entire back story for the benefit of the reader. Or when the author becomes far too excited about their favourite topic and works it into the story. (I admit I’m as guilty as anyone else by including musical references, songs and even lyrics in the first draft). Information dumps or author opinions will stick out because they have little relevance to the narrative. Delete them.

Stick to the story, dummy.

Sure, it’s fine and interesting to digress as long as the reader is learning something. But not everyone likes to be preached to. Papa Don’t Preach, as Madonna once said.

So how do you remedy an information dump? Sometimes the best technique is to rework the information by breaking it up into smaller chunks and liberally sprinkling it into subsequent chapters, or turning them into a character flashback. But, whatever you do, try to avoid information dumps because they will detract from the main story and pacing.

do you trust your readers?

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

― Elmore Leonard

Often an author may be tempted to remind readers about the ongoing plot, especially in crime fiction. Don’t do it. Readers can spot repetition a mile away and will wonder why they are being told the same thing over and over again.

It’s patronising to the reader and they are probably two steps ahead of you, anyway.

Just remember to keep your characters’ motivations clear and related to the premise of your story, so if a reader is invested in your story, then they’ll remember everything.

Until next time…when we learn How To (Re)Write The Third Draft Of Your Novel.