This post specifically relates to getting from the first draft to the second draft. This rewrite is key to the whole rewriting process. Further down the line changes in small details and polishing of the text become important, but at this stage the transition from raw material to story-worthy narrative is what’s going to keep you interested in coming back time and again in order to get the story told. By establishing exactly what the story is about now, you can save yourself a lot of trouble later.
At some point you will have a complete first draft. Whatever genre, style or approach you take getting it done one thing is for sure: It won’t be good. If you look at it and think, Hmm, not bad, ninety percent there, then you are either a genius like none before you, or you’re just plain wrong. It’s going to be all over the place.
But terrible is perfectly acceptable because it isn’t meant to be good at this stage. It just needs to have a beginning, middle and end, a good sense of who the main characters are and their roles, and as much plot development as you could work out.
What people are wearing, what the weather is like, how big the local town is, all this stuff can be in there, but that isn’t the focus. It might have helped you get an idea of the characters personalities and inspired you to come up with various scenes when writing the first draft, but that isn’t what you need to concentrate on. There’s no point picking out the paint colour for a wall you may decide to eventually knock down and build somewhere else. The focus should be purely on the action. What happens in this scene? Is it interesting?
Let's say you have come up with a series of scenes (by whatever method) like this:
1. A man is released from prison. He travels from inside the dark oppressive innards of a hulking jail, to the bright, open sunshine of freedom. And he feels totally lost. Doesn’t know what to do, has no one there to pick him up.
2. He gets on a bus full of people. The way people are dressed, how they talk, it’s all alien to him. Talking on iPhones like they’re in an episode of Star Trek. He’s taking it all in but feeling hopelessly out of his depth.
3. He arrives home to find no one there. His family have gone. There’s a stranger living there now, no forwarding address.
I think you can see the kind of story I’m setting up. The characters, the vibe, the sense of dislocation is there. But each scene accomplishes its purpose in a very simple manner, and that purpose is pretty predictable.
This is also why many people find writing to an outline to be a painfully tedious task. But once you have your first draft down, what you are working with is basically a long, detailed outline. Everyone who writes, writes from an outline by the time they start rewriting. Every draft is an outline for the next. The reason you may not find it an enjoyable experience and end up bored is very simple: you’ve written a boring outline.
If you strip down my first scene, ignoring dialogue and description and internal monologue and just concentrate on action, what is happening? A man is walking out of a prison. Is that interesting? Could it be more interesting? What does it tell us about him? Because everything that happens in a story should tell us something about the people in the story. Actions reveal character.
He was in prison. Now he isn't. That seems rather basic for an entire chapter. All the other stuff is important and adds to the scene, but the foundation of the scene is what’s happening. Not how important it is to later events, or how well it reflects what it’s like to leave prison after twenty years, but what’s interesting/memorable/surprising/unexpected/emotional/suspenseful about it. Because if it doesn’t have anything like that going on in it you’ll be bored of it well before you hand in the final draft, never mind the reader.
The other thing to take into account when writing Draft 2 is that you now know where the story ends up. You know the ending. Things may change, but there’s no way to second guess that, you have to approach the rewrite knowing events as they are — and use them to make the narrative stronger.
Let’s say my ex-con is a model prisoner who always maintained his innocence and doesn’t want to get into trouble again. But it’s going to turn out that he is a devious son of a bitch who although not guilty of the crime for which he was imprisoned is actually guilty of a number of other crimes.
Now, in order for this first scene where he leaves prison to have some sort of resonance with the themes I have in mind and to be interesting in its own right, just having him walk out the prison with the warden waving him bye-bye isn't really going to cut it. I may know he’s faking it, and the end of act one switcheroo will blow the reader’s socks off, but most readers are going to glaze over well before then. At the same time, I don’t want to show my hand too early and ruin the reveal.
The thing is, the complexity I have now added to the mix will make my writing job harder. To make him appear Johnny Nice Guy, and not make it feel contrived when he turns, and not lose the reader’s sympathy for him, that’s going to be tough (good thing I have no intention of ever writing this story). But that’s the craft of writing. Not in coming up with fun characters you want to hang out with no matter what they do, but in making those characters do things so interesting you want to find out what happens next even if they aren't so fun. And man walks out of prison is only potentially interesting. By Draft 2 the time for ‘potentially’ is over. Now you have to deal with ‘actually’.
1. A man is about to be released from prison when a new inmate loses it and attacks the guard escorting our man out, holding a shiv to his throat. The kid is new and can’t take it anymore, even though he’s only been there for a month. Our guy talks the kid down using humour and charm to calm him down and convinces the guard to not report him. So we learn our guy is a cool customer. He can talk his way out of a bad spot. He has some kind of good in him. However, what we learn later is that our guy was only really interested in avoiding bloodshed because it would have delayed his leaving prison. He saved the guards life because the guard is on his payroll and later they hook up for nefarious reasons. And afterwards he kills the guard himself.
I’m making this stuff up so don’t pay too close attention to it, but that’s the level of detail and complexity I would expect in any scene, probably more so if I was really working on this story, in order to keep me interested through the thirty or forty drafts it would take to get a polished manuscript.
However, that doesn’t mean every scene needs violence and physical conflict with the threat of death to make it interesting.
2. Outside the prison is a bus stop. Our man waits for the bus, while a black SUV with tinted windows sits across the street. Is it watching him? The bus arrives. Our man gets on and is perplexed by the weird clothes and conversations. He sees the new fangled phones and lifts one from someone’s pocket (I think I could get away with making this work if the guy he stole it from was an ass). He also hears words like Facebook which he doesn’t really understand and ends up using incorrectly when trying to chat up a girl. He is embarrassed but handles it with good humour. But he also keeps an eye out for the black SUV that’s following the bus.
What I’m doing is establishing him as a criminal, but also as a (seemingly) good guy, while at the same time not squeaky clean. He still experiences the new world through the bus journey as in the previous version, but now he isn’t just observing, he is interacting. Taking what is being observed and finding a way to turn it into action is the slight shift that can make a dull scene an engaging one.
Before you find you have an extremely polished but boring manuscript, take some time to go through each scene and ask yourself what is happening here? What would be a more interesting way of conveying that? What else could be happening? How can I add something unexpected? It doesn’t need to be any of the things I’ve mentioned, but it does have to be more than Jack is hungry so Jack eats a pie.
The earlier you do this the better.
Once each scene has something at its core that isn’t straight forward, that doesn’t seem obvious or predictable, it still won’t be perfect, but you’ll find even on Draft 56 you’ll enjoy going over it one more time.
What's your approach to rewrites? If you're a pantser, how do you deal with working within the confines of the previous draft?