Making your first draft your second draft

by SJ Griffin

It’s an odd process, the second draft. Full of dizzying highs and crushing lows but beneath that a sense of ‘this is going somewhere’ and then the usual ‘I think.’ Someone once said to me, because they read it somewhere, that the difference between someone who wants to write a book and someone who has written a book is the second draft. I think it’s the ninth draft but given that this person was probably quoting someone venerable we’ll go with them.

Let me now describe to you the things that I do while I am working on a second draft, as I am at the moment. I’m on chapter thirteen, thank you for asking.

1. Apparently you are supposed to leave the first draft to marinade. Put it in a drawer and forget about it. Or do what Richard Ford did with Canada and put it in the freezer for over a decade. Canada the book, not the country. I fail at this every time. I get so excited and anxious I can hear the damn thing chattering away in the middle of the night. Let me out of this drawer, it says. Let me out. So I do. Let’s ignore step one. Yes?

2. I go through all the notes I wrote while I was writing the first draft. I have a pocket moleskine, because I think I’m Hemingway or someone I guess, and in it I write hilariously incomprehensible notes like ‘white USB, Red USB, black USB’ or Minos is angry with her in a cold way, there’s ice rather than fire.’ The notes are ideas I’ve had about chapter five when I’m on chapter eleven (never stop and go back on the first draft), things I know don’t work and want to take out (never stop and go back on the first draft), developments that I want to make and might forget about as I go forward (never stop and go back on the first draft) or character stuff and colour I want to add in (never stop and go back on the first draft).  I write each note or new idea on a post it note and then allocate them to chapters. You have to know the plot really well to do this so it’s quite a good way of testing whether you believe narrative flows properly.  This results in a big pile of post-it notes all over the place.

3. Next I annotate my first draft by using track changes and comments. Or how ever else you want to do it is fine. The important thing here, for me, is that I go through it strategically and structurally, rather than line by line because that comes later. It’s about the shape not the taste. You can really tell the bits I’ve made up and the bits I’ve read here, can’t you? The taste? Let’s move on.

4. Start at the beginning and do what your notes tell you to do, add in, take out, lie on the floor and cry. So, in The Replacement I’ve just got rid of a whole group of characters and made quite radical changes to another. It’s easier to deal with these big chunky changes at this point and then you can go through your third draft line by line.

5. That’s it really, although I should mention that in this draft I think it’s OK to go back and forth and move things around. For example, yesterday I as writing something in chapter thirteen and I realised I’d got a continuity error in chapter twelve so I went back and changed it. If that was the first draft I would have noted it down and carried on. This is for two reasons, the first is that you don’t endlessly want to start at the beginning and work to the end at this point, I imagine that would be boring, and the second is that from this draft onwards we are turning on the critical part of our brains which I think it is IMPERATIVE to switch off while working on the first draft. More of this later because I think it’s an interesting point.

I think it can be more daunting to start revising your first draft than actually writing the thing. But although you do have to start confronting the things you’ve done wrong or could do better, there’s also the odd moment, the very odd moment when you go ‘hey, that works’. ‘I think’.