13. Writing the Second Draft of your Novel


Congratulations! You’ve finished your first draft! You deserve a big cigar, glass of champagne or whatever it is you celebrate these things with. Feel free to take a few days or a week off, you’ve earned it.

But then, back to work! You may think that now you’ve thrashed out a first draft, the hard part is over, and you’re reaching the finish line. Afraid not. There’s a whole lot more slog to go. But don’t be disheartened! You’re still further then 80% of people who say they’re going to write a book. Don’t give up!

Most of the large scale structure of your book should be relatively fixed by now – if you planned well, it will mean less serious redrafting is needed (for example cutting out entire chapters of characters), so you can focus on fine tuning.

We’ve already looked at some of the mistakes that will instantly mark you out as an amateur, now let’s take a look at a few aspects of writing that you can perfect to take your writing from mediocre to excellent.

Note - if you're looking for a guide to the various different drafts of a novel, you might be interested in this article.

Have you over explained your characters?

The core of this is the good old ‘show, don’t tell’. Make sure you’re not explaining the character’s personality to your readers, as they’re likely to find it dull and distancing.

Compare:

‘Jane was a slob. She hadn’t tidied up in months.’
‘Jane kicked the mouldy plate off the bed and rummaged around for the least stiff pair of jeans from the piles strewn on the floor.’

In the first example, the author makes a statement about a character, and then backs it up with a little evidence, but they’re still just giving their word. In the second example, the author is keeping out of it, just describing the action and letting the reader draw their own conclusions about the cleanliness habits of Jane.

Also, new writers often feel they need to give the entire life story of a character early on, but this isn’t a good idea. It stalls the action, and anyway, it’s more natural to get to know people in a slower, more gradual way. When you meet someone new, you don’t immediately learn everything about them, that happens over time.

By just giving consistent broad brushstrokes, you allow your reader to use their imagination and fill in the gaps, in many cases creating a character with more layers than even you thought of.

Another useful technique for building character is to use what your character notices to give information about them. When they enter a room, do they notice all the pretty girls; the stains on the carpet; or do they note all the exits and times to reach them? What they notice tells us a great deal about their outlook and priorities.

Is the Point of View clear?

A nice way of thinking about point of view is ‘whose skin are you in?’ 

This doesn’t mean that you need to write your story from the 1st person (using ‘I’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’), or even that you have to use the same character’s point of view through the whole book (although the latter may not be a bad idea if it’s your first book – learn to walk before you run).

However, it is critical that the reader knows whose point of view they are following in any given scene, and this shouldn’t change within a scene.

This is because changing point of view character within a scene is very disorientating for the reader and it breaks their suspension of disbelief, as they have to mentally adjust.

Writing from a particular character’s point of view is more than just where they are standing; it’s also about what they notice. As mentioned above in the section on characters, different characters will have completely different experiences from exactly the same environment. 

For example, you’d be unlikely to have a teenager commenting on the ancient gothic architecture (unless that’s a strong part of their character), and an old lady might notice a gang of louts hanging on a corner, but have no idea what the gang bands on their arms represented.

Also, remember that you may be able to mind-read the Point of View character even if you’re writing from the third person, but you absolutely cannot read the minds of anyone else (unless your PoV character happens to be psychic), so you’ll have to get across their opinions through what they say, how they say it, actions and body language.

How proportionate is your plot?

How does your prose balance? How much is action, dialogue or description?

In general, no sentence should be included if it isn’t critical to the plot, but this doesn’t mean there’s no time to stop and smell the roses. As long as the roses have some relevance to atmosphere, and they are described in a way that reflects the mood of the scene.

If you’re going to spend a lot of lines describing something, make sure it’s relevant. For example, don’t spend two pages describing the interior of one building and two lines on another, unless the first building is central to the plot. Because you can be sure your readers are going to think it is.

Likewise, if your character is doing something, such as cooking, or fixing a saddle, don’t describe it in too much detail unless it’s important to the plot or builds atmosphere. Just because you find a hobby interesting, doesn’t mean your readers will.

On the other hand, if there’s an action scene which is central to the plot, shows key aspects of a main character and throbs with atmosphere – then break it down into moment by moment detail.

Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules to follow about how much description to have and how much detail to include in a particular spot – it’s all about balance.

With the second draft in the bag you can see the finish line. It's time for Step 14: Refining the Final Draft of your novel.

For more guidance on novel writing, click here.

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