The great thing about the first draft is that it can be as stupid as you want. All you have to do is type shit into the keyboard. Then, after 80k words (or, you know, whatever) and one month to forget about it, you can go back and treasure hunt for your actual story. Wheeeeeee!
Or, if you’re me, you let your draft cool for six months. After said cooling-off period, you pull out a hard copy of Draft One_Novel Two, your trusty highlighters, and your favorite ballpoint pen. The second draft is when the fun begins!
NEGATIVE. It’s where the pain begins. Enter the house of despair.
Note: The rest of this post includes a lot of profanity.
There’s nothing like a fresh pile of shit on a page to make you doubt your storytelling and writing abilities. I naively thought that because I had already written Draft One_Novel One and completed X number of revisions of the first novel that I would be well prepared for the second draft of the second novel.
Nope. Approaching the second draft of a second novel really does feel like the first time. Apparently, I didn’t learn shit from the first novel because if I had learned shit from the first novel, I wouldn’t feel like I have to Ctrl + A + Delete my entire document. Or at least that was my gut reaction when I reached “The End.”
After reading the first draft, I asked myself: Should I flesh this out or should I flush it?* But I’m not a quitter. I’m a rule follower. Lacking any consolidated rules to follow, I broke down, opened up my journal entries, my photo albums, and other Novel One paraphernalia and created my own.
Rule 1: Find something — anything — to like about the shitty draft.
There has to be something about this novel I like. Think. Think. Think. Find it. “Find one thing!” I yelled to myself. I opened up an empty Word doc and wrote down my likes and dislikes. Typically, I dislike a lot more than I like. But that’s my personality, so that’s a bad gauge.
Instead, I wrote down the things I can remember, things that stood out to me as: Hmm, that’s not altogether uninteresting.
Rule 2: Read writing books.
Drag all of your writing books and other “lift me up” books off of your shelf. Collect them into a pile.
Debate which book to read first. Scan them all over the course of one afternoon, stopping at the places where you’ve already underlined or highlighted or starred the text multiple times. Place all the books back on the shelf. Pour yourself a glass of wine. Take a bunch of deep breaths.
Assess your current situation.
Rule 3: Ignore your draft and read other novels.
I’m a firm believer in finishing what you start. But my rules are bit more loose when it comes to the timeframe to finish.
I will write something and not revise it for years. Flash fiction I wrote in 2008 finally got revised and subsequently published in 2012. Between the first draft of Novel One to its current state, it’s taken me 8-10 years (I’ve lost count). I don’t beat myself up about my pace because I long ago accepted that I am slow. When I attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, I mentioned to one of my workshop leaders, Steve Yarbrough (who is a wonderful human being and workshop leader), that I am a slow learner. He said, “Me, too.” Little confessions like this are worth their weight in gold to frustrated learners such as myself.
During the conference, I was at one of my low points with Novel One. Nothing seemed to work, no matter how many times I pushed and pulled the narrative. After working on it for years, I decided to set the novel aside and not think about it for a long while. Instead, I threw myself into reading Steve’s novel, The End of California. My Novel One has very little in common with Steve’s novel, but reading it triggered an idea for my own novel and unblocked me.
Read widely. Read often. If no ideas are triggered and no epiphanies are had, tell yourself that your subconscious will send you the lessons while you’re sleeping and you’ll collect them another day.
Rule 4: Write something else.
I currently have 12 novels in progress with varying word counts and various start dates. I know how that sounds.
One of the formative books of my youth is Go, Dog, Go, by P. D. Eastman. I like being busy, and I like having all my novels lined up in a row, ready to go. Sometimes, one idea will gain traction and pull ahead, and the others will fall back, far into the distance. Other times, I have two novels that compete for my attention and I work on both.
I never have an excuse that I don’t know what to write about. I have lots to write about. What I lack is confidence once it’s written and read.
Rule 5: Write encouraging notes to self.
I have notes all over the house. I have them in books and writing journals, both electronic and paper. They are pasted on the walls. They serve two purposes: To remind me not to lose heart and to remind me that I have work to do.
Rule 6: Outline the shit out of your novel.
I have a notebook filled with pages and pages of varying chronology for my varying novels. Sometimes, I write the same plot, structure, and chronology over and over without any changes. I don’t know what this is supposed to do, but it helps me to move my fingers so they don’t atrophy from inaction.
Sometimes, I change the entire plot, structure, and chronology of the book. The idea is that if I can outline it, I will be one step ahead of revision and can avoid some of those “bad drafts.”
Rule 7: Accept that you have to write all the “bad drafts.”
In revision, it’s totally fine to go overboard, right? Well, sure. But that’s why I have many drafts. It’s a goldilocks, iterative cycle that goes something like this:
Draft 1: Not enough.
Draft 2: Too much. Do you need ALL of those guns?
Draft 3: Better, but slooooooow down.
Draft 4: Not that slow.
Draft 5: Oh, for fuck’s sake, now it’s too fast.
Draft 6: Ease off the brake.
Draft 7: Settle, settle.
Draft 8: There you go.
When it comes right down to it, second drafts and the drafts that follow aren’t so bad (I begrudgingly admit). They’re the drafts where you get to do things like write threesomes and shootouts. These are things I’ve never done in real life. Without these drafts, I’d be living half a life.
Rule 8: Remember the peak when you’re stuck in the valley.
Time for your cheesy metaphor. In writing, there are peaks and valleys. The peak is finishing the first draft. The valley is the second draft, and in the valley lies the following:
On second viewing, I realize that the chart looks like a uterus, and I think that’s appropriate because second drafts are like one giant menstrual cramp. But when the cramp is over, there’s relief and joy. And once you’ve completed the second draft, you get to go through the cycle yet again. Month after month. Draft after draft.
* If you’ve ever had to brainstorm, someone around the room will inevitably ask the group to “flush out an idea.” Often, I nod along and think, “Oh yes. That is a good idea to flush out. Flush it right down the toilet.”