Last time we spoke of the last steps of the planning stage, The Outline, and the first actual draft of your novel. With that done, and hopefully after you’ve taken some time off from it to clear your head, it’s time for the next stage:
Part IV – The Second Draft
While the first draft’s purpose is to get your basic story on paper—and for you to actually finish writing it—the second is where you give in to your urges to go back and fix everything that is wrong with the novel.
Take out the documents you’ve prepared with subplots and changes you thought of during the previous step and alter your outline to include them. In doing so, you’ll revise and refine these new ideas and go back to your world building to expand upon them.
One thing I like to do is save a copy of the first draft and rename it Second Draft, so I can work on that one without losing the original. I prefer digital mediums so I can keep what works from the first draft without having to rewrite any of it.
Now that you’ve taken care of all the preliminary steps, you have to read. Starting from the first page of your novel, read it carefully and make amends, rewrite or simply cut paragraphs that don’t add enough—or anything at all—to your plot. Improve the flow of sentences, conversations and scenes. Add in your new (sub)plot details and keep working on everything on a page-by-page or chapter-by-chapter basis.
While the hard rule of the first draft was to never look back, the Second Draft is all about that. Still I would recommend just pushing forwards, revising each chapter, then once you reach the end go back to the start and do it all over again. You’ll probably have to do multiple passes.
Eventually it’ll all reach a stage where you’re more-or-less happy with it—writers are, in general, their worst critics and will never be truly happy with something they’ve worked on.
With my first novel, I did two passes. The first one adding the new plot elements and tightening the existing ones and the second pass working on the prose.
Once you’ve reached that stage, where you feel there’s nothing else you can do to improve it, you’re ready for the next steps, where you’ll realise just how wrong you are.
Part V – Proofreading
DO NOT PROOFREAD YOURSELF!
Sorry about the caps, but it’s very important you understand this. Once you’ve finished work on your second draft, your head will be full of everything you’ve written and you won’t see any of your writing errors clearly. In fact, even taking a short break won’t help.
You need outside help. Get someone you trust, particularly someone with an eye for detail and have them proofread your novel. If you don’t know anyone with those skills, then hire a freelancer, you can usually get proofreading done quite cheap.
I was fortunate that I was seeing someone at the time with impressive proofreading and editing skills. They went through my novel and made so many annotations I was often joyful when I saw an unaltered paragraph.
Depending on the person and the length of your story, this step might take some time, hopefully enough to refresh your mind and eyes.
Once your proofreader finishes—and hopefully gives you brutally honest feedback on your novel, or at least tells you if it’s any good—it’s time to get back to work.
Part VI – Editing
I call this step editing because it’s what you’ll be doing for a while. I could call it Third, Fourth and Fifth Drafts, but that would just get confusing.
With your proofreader’s work done, you need to make all the proposed changes. Depending on their skills, the changes can be simply grammatical or even alter entire sentences. My proofreader added their own suggestions and I used those to work on my text and as I did, I picked up other errors in style and flow that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
Your first proofreader, if they’re someone in your life, is also your Alpha Reader (you’ll get Beta ones before the novel is finished), and you can usually expect some greater feedback from them than from a stranger. Mine made me realise some conversations sounded forced and needed some rewriting.
Part VII – Streamlining
This step is optional but I do recommend it.
It’s said that the average novel length is 90.000 words, and it’s true there are Agents out there that will not take any fiction with a lower word count; but the truth is your novel doesn’t have to have a set number of words. A smooth and easy to read prose will trump any word count.
Streamlining means optimising your novel and you do this in a few ways:
- Take long sentences and shorten them. Say as much as you can in as few words as possible. The closer you can get to that “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn” often attributed to Hemmingway, the better.
- If you have a description or an info-dump that doesn’t add anything to the plot, consider taking it out entirely. During the writing process, we add plenty of world building but unless it adds context to current or future scenes in the novel, then it might be best to cut it.
- In general and very important if you’re writing in the 3rd person, make sure you have as little exposition as possible. It’s best to show than tell.
- First person narrative is more forgiving when it comes to exposition. For example, a Detective character could have pages on connecting the dots and thinking of motives. It’s exposition but since you generally assume the story is the character’s narration or an inner monologue, it’s easier to digest.
- Remove all instances of purple-prose, and by that, I mean overly complicated sentences or visualisation. It’s annoying.
- Smooth out conversations and try to split/cut long monologues, unless the scene calls for it.
- Example, if your character is an expert on a subject. In this case, you could have him monologue for a bit if they ask him for his opinion or advice.
By the time you’re done, you should’ve been able to trim around 20-30% of your total word count and you can be sure your prose will be much easier to read.
With the streamlining done, you’re close to the end.
Part VIII – Final Steps
Yes, sounds dramatic, I know, but in truth it’s just a second/third/fourth/Nth round of proofreading and editing. But your readers in this step are what many call their Beta Readers.
With all the work you’ve put into the novel at this point, you’ll want your Betas to focus on flow, pace and plot, but not without forgetting to check the writing itself.
To give you an example of what my current Betas have done for me: They’ve praised the style, pacing and characters, which I was happy about, but they also told me some of the expositions—aka info-dumps—broke their immersion in a scene and made it difficult to dive back in. They also told me I had to add more ‘senses’ to my prose, not just sound (dialogue), but sight, smell, touch, etc. It’s something I thought I was doing already, but really hadn’t. Do note that you don’t need to add all five every single time, but senses others than sight or hearing sometimes enhance scenes.
Picture a scene with a character opening a door to find decaying bodies. You could perfectly well describe his shock and horror at the rotting corpses, but you’ll enhance the scene by adding smell, such as the stench wafting from the remains, and which he could smell from across the hallway. If you mention his gag or retch to the sight and smell, you’ll add a relatable physical experience that will further draw your readers in.
Beta Readers will help you bring your novel to a finalised state—after a few rounds of editing and re-reading—after which you can consider submissions for Agents or Publishers. For publishers you might consider hiring a Professional Editor to work on your novel. For agents, it’s not important, as Editing is part of the publishing process.
As always, I hope you’ve enjoyed and found this guide helpful. Come back in two weeks for the hardest lesson any writer has to learn: walking away. I’ll explain it all on 17 April. I’m also working on a few examples of First Draft vs Second Draft and beyond. To make sure they’re as good as possible, they might take some time, but you will get them!