Last time I gave you the second draft for the opening scene based on the Melvin Backbreaker outline I wrote weeks ago. As it was a second draft, I cleaned up a few mistakes, changed the scene flow and added a new sub-plot. Let’s go over the changes. Continue reading Writing a Novel: Streamlining Sample
A few weeks ago I presented the first draft of the opening scene of the Melvin Backbreaker story, based on the sample outline I wrote before. As it was a first draft example, it was intentionally bad in many ways:
- Too much telling, no enough showing: I often said what characters felts instead of showing it other ways.
- Not enough sensory input: the first draft you can hear, but you can’t really see or smell it.
- Introduce useless characters, such as the clerk brining Melvin the letter.
- Some unnecessary info-dumps.
- Inconsistent characterisation for Melvin, making him seem more manipulative and in control than he should’ve been.
You’ll find a revised version below. Mind you that this is a second draft, meant to address some storytelling issues from the first one as well as introduce new elements that I didn’t the first time around. Because of this, the text might end up longer than before, but that’s why the next stage, in a few weeks is the Streamlining, where I’ll cut out the fat and just leave the important bits.
“What the fuck do you mean I don’t have the right papers? I looked it up on the rect!” The big burly man in biker outfit shouted, indignant, pulling out a folded sheet of paper from his breast pocket. Melvin pushed himself as back as he could in his chair to avoid the man’s tobacco and cheap whiskey breath, which made it through the thick protective glass between them. “For Twelve-A in duplicate, forty-b, driver’s license and DNA sample!” The customer recited. “It’s all here!” he pushed the paper against the glass, making the thick crystal strain and groan. Roided by the looks of it this one.
Melvin looked at him apologetically, as he did to every customer, perfectly practiced, convincing and completely insincere. “Oh…dear…” He let the words hang and sighed, shaking his head. “You read the old site. The new one asks for other documents. Here.” Melvin leaned to the side, careful not to slip out and fall off his hover chair, opened a drawer and pulled out a stack of papers thick enough to kill rodents. “I compiled this guide myself!” He beamed proudly, once again practiced and even more insincere. “It’ll give you everything you need to know.”
The biker flipped through a few pages and his brow furrowed in confusion over the twenty different forms, in triplicate, certified, notarised and with every judge’s DNA sample and official document copies he should bring. Melvin could see the muscles in his arms bulge and his skin turn a sunrise-shade of red. “Is this some kind of fucking joke?” The biker bellowed, slamming a fist against the glass, triggering the alarm. The emergency sound blared loudly from the speakers and securobots emerged from the walls. “I don’t have the fucking time to do all this fucking shit, I’m just here to renew my fucking driver’s licence you shithole! Just give me my shit and I’m…wait, get your fucking tin hands off me!” The first securobot crumbled, its face smashed in. “I’ll fucking kill y…” the high-voltage tazer interrupted his rant, leaving him on the ground, in the fetal position, shaking and soiling himself.
Melvin leaned forward, shook his head and pushed the CLOSE button under his desk, obscuring the dual-phase glass. He couldn’t see it but knew the customers on the other side would see CLOSED on the glass.
Melvin leaned back on his seat, turned on the automassage option and rubbed his face. “I hate this job sometimes…” he groaned to himself. The massage took effect and he felt himself relaxing, but turned it off before he dozed off.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and it made him jump up. “I’m awake!” he said, startled, only to find Matilda giggling behind him, she clutched a bundle of papers under her arm. “Oh, Mattie, you almost gave me a heart attack, I thought it was…”
“Thomas?” She said. “Surely I’m cuter than he is!” She frowned, but the mischievous glint in her eye told him it was a joke.
Still, he played the part. “Of course you are, Mattie, I wouldn’t dream of comparing you!”
“Good!” She nodded and then had to push her red hair out of her eyes. She often cut it short, with just a long bang over the front, combed to the side, but it was more rebellious than expected. When her hair was in its proper place again, she handed him a brown envelope. “It’s from your solicitor, Mel.”
“I don’t have a solicitor.” He said, confused, looking at the sender’s address. It had been sent from Maccallum, the Backbreaker estate’s homeworld. “Shit…”
“What is it?” Mattie leaned closer, and he could smell the soft vanilla oil she used and feel the soft wool of her sweater on his uncomfortable dress shirt.
He glanced sideways at her, the way he always did when she wasn’t paying attention, then shook the thoughts away. “It’s from my dad…”
“Oh…” she let the words hang. “Maybe he wants to talk to you, get back in touch?” She said, but couldn’t manage to sound convincing.
“Nah, he’s probably croaked!” Melvin said casually. “Ow! What was that for?” He rubbed his arm where she slapped him.
“Don’t joke about that!” She reprimanded him, her stare hard.
Oh crap, her dad…he thought, remembering it had been a few months earlier. “Sorry Mattie, but me and my dad aren’t the same as you and yours. He’s a mean old bastard, and he’d die before he ever apologised.”
Melvin opened the envelope and pulled out the long document. He skimmed through it, disregarding or filtering out the legal speech. “Well, what do ya know…” He said numbly.
“I was right…mean old bastard did croak!” He chuckled once, but it was weak. He looked in disbelief at the letter.
“Oh Mel, I’m so sorry!” She hugged him tight, then looked at his quizzical expression. “Are you ok?”
“I don’t know…” He admitted. “I always figured I’d be happy, but it just feels weird…”
“He was your dad, of course you’re not happy!” She said sternly, then her eye caught some of the letter’s content. “It says something about an inheritance there!” she pointed at the page.
Melvin skimmed the page, fast reading as they taught them when they started this job. “Wow, that’s weird and so like the old man.” He shook his head.
“What is it?”
“According to this I need to go to Maccallum to the family estate and jump through some hoops for the inheritance.”
“I don’t have a clue, it doesn’t say.”
“I think you should go!” She said firmly, locking eyes with him.
“I don’t give a damn about the inheritance!” he said offhandedly, but too loudly, making heads turn towards him.
“Just go, you need the closure!” Mattie insisted, her voice lowering to a whisper.
“I’ll think about it, ok?” He grumbled when he saw the adamant look on her face.
“Good.” She nodded and returned to her post.
Melvin did the same, pressing the CLOSE button again and forcing himself to deal with more customers.
At the end of the day, tired and still numb from the news, Melvin left the Ministry, finding Mattie waiting for him outside. “Hey.” He said flatly.
“I knew it!” She said, wiggling her finger accusingly at him before the summer breeze made her hair go wild and into her eye. “Ow!”
Melvin chuckled and helped her. “Thanks!” He said.
“I need a good laugh.” He grinned.
“You idiot!” She shook her head. “You going home?”
“Yeah, lots to think about…” he said, patting the satchel on his side.
“Want some company?” She moved in closer, locking eyes with him.
“Uh…uh…yeah…” he mumbled and she nodded.
“Great, let’s hit the off license. We’ll get you properly hammered!”
“Your dad just died! You shouldn’t spend this night sober, my friend!”
She grabbed his arm and pulled him with her.
Later that night and after three cases of beer and three bottles of wine, Mattie looked him in the eye. “So you goin’?” she slurred.
“You know what? I think I will!” He said, wobbling.
“Just don’t forget us little people when you’re richhhhh!” she said, taking another sip from the current victim, a bottle of rum.
“Why don’t you come with me?” He blurted out what he was thinking. Not all of what he was thinking though.
“Are you serious?” She said, the slur slapped out of her by the shock.
“Yeah! I need you there with me!” He said, the alcohol making him more honest than ever.
“I’ll need to ask for vacations, and my cat and…” She flustered and blushed.
Oblivious to it all Melvin continued. “Let’s talk to Thomas tomorrow, no way he’ll stop you from joining me to go pay my respects to my dad!” He grinned.
“Ok…” Mattie said, nodding several times before taking long gulp from the bottle.
Hope you enjoyed this version a bit more than the first draft. Next time you’ll have the finalised version of the scene, streamlined to trim the fat and with a few other fixes here and there!
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!