How I Write a Book — Second Draft

Last week, I began a series taking you inside my process for bringing a story from idea through to published novel. (Read the first installment, here if you missed it.) I’ll continue today by examining how I create my second draft.

What Did I Write?

I have a basic rule I follow when I’m penning the first draft of a novel (or really any piece): Just get it down.

I don’t worry too much about the quality of the writing on that first draft, nor am I overly concerned about structural problems in the manuscript. I have found that the hardest part of writing a book is finishing it. So when I’m involved in the actual creation process — the writing — I am only concerned with finishing. Get the ideas out of my head and into the computer.

Consequently, when I’m finished, I’m not sure exactly what I have. It might suck. It might have plot holes large enough to drive my pickup truck through. Characters might have changed in illogical ways from the start of the novel to the end.

Moreover, I’m not wholly sure what the story is. I don’t have a good sense of it. While I’m writing, I am hyper-focused on the small picture. I am looking at the book on a chapter-by-chapter, sentence-by-sentence basis.

Notes in the manuscript for GHOST OF A CHANCE.

Notes in the manuscript for GHOST OF A CHANCE.

So the first thing I do with my first draft is read it. I print it out, because I find I see things better in print than on the computer screen, and I sit down with a red pen and read through the manuscript.

This is the most critical reading I give the book. Over the course of the writing process, I will end up reading it five or six times. But this is the most ruthless examination of the text I make.

Not only am I getting a grip on the narrative as a whole, I am looking for major problems. Occasionally, I’ll see a turn of phrase or a plot element I’m pretty proud of, but for the most part, I’m looking for mistakes and things that need improvement. I’m harder on myself than my editor is, because I want to write the best book I possibly can.

Tear It Apart

Reading the manuscript at this stage is a difficult exercise. It’s not that I’m upset with myself because I don’t think I did a good enough job. I am expecting flaws, because in the first draft, I was just trying to get it down instead of worrying about structure or craft. That’s that the subsequent drafts are for.

The issue is that identifying a problem isn’t enough. I have to come up with a solution.

One of the most common changes I make between drafts 1 and 2 is shifting the order of events. Whole chapters move from one place in the book to others. Sometimes events are taken out of one chapter and placed in another. That changes chapter length, so then I have to look and see if a chapter is too long or too short. In general, 1500 words is what I feel is the minimum length for a good chapter. I will write shorter ones towards the end, to keep the reader turning pages, but for the bulk of the narrative, anything less than 1500 words doesn’t feel like a chapter to me.

Likewise, I don’t like my chapters to run longer than 4000 words. Even when I am writing a traditional fantasy, I model the thriller format heavily. I want the reader getting caught up in the story and feeling they can’t put the book down. Longer chapters tend to bog down the narrative and slow the action. So I don’t want things running on too long. Shorter chapters with cliffhanger endings encourage more page-turning.

I also look for plot holes and other inconsistencies. I rarely make wholesale changes to the plot, but I have been known to eliminate, alter, or add important scenes. I am constantly asking myself the questions, “Does this make sense?” and “Is this plausible?” If it can’t pass my own logic test, it has to change.

Getting Ready Again

With the manuscript read and marked up, it’s time for me to outline again. Fortunately, I don’t have to plot as extensively as I did for the first draft. But since it’s very likely I will be moving scenes and chapters around, I need a map for how to do it.

I therefore get out my notebook again and draft a new chapter order. If necessary (and it often is), I summarize which scenes are going where.

If I have to add something new, I outline that as well, just as I would have in the first draft. This is especially important, because new scenes are the result of me seeing something missing. Every added scene has a critical role to play in smoothing out the narrative and making it read better. This, I have to execute them correctly, and as I mentioned last week, I am a Plotter.


With all that preliminary work done, it’s time to start the rewrite. Obviously, this goes a little faster than the original draft, since I already have most of the words in front of me.

However, it is still a slow process. An effective rewrite, especially one where I am making large changes or reorganizing the material, requires me to have my head deep in the manuscript again. So I put that marked-up first draft in front of me and read it again. Every time I come across an editorial note, I stop and make a change in the electronic version. If my outline calls for me to move something, I do. If I am supposed to add a scene, I refer to my plan and write it.

I do pay attention to my sentence structure at this point, trying to improve on phrases and cutting unnecessary words as often as possible, but that’s not really my focus at this stage. Right now, I’m really concentrating on organizing the novel, so that I have a well structured story that reads well and is entertaining.

By the time I’m done, the book usually looks a lot different than the first draft. I’ve taken the time to really craft the structure of the story.

With the second draft finished, it’s time for the most terrifying part of the process — letting someone else read it. I send the book to my editor and wait on pins and needles to see what she thinks.

I’ll explore that stage next week, when I look at the third draft.


One thought on “How I Write a Book — Second Draft

  1. Pingback: How I Write a Book — Third Draft | John R. Phythyon, Jr., Author

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