Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Tips for Revising the Second Draft of a Novel

Last year, I completed rough drafts of two separate novels, each of which I wrote in very different ways. One was loosely outlined, and then that outline was almost completely ignored in favor of making it up as I went along over the course of a few years. The other was extensively planned, outlined, and then written entirely in the span of a single month with only minor deviations from the original outline.

These are the first full-length novel drafts I've ever completed, hence the drastically different approaches to writing as I'm still kind of figuring out what works best for me. While it was incredibly relieving to finally finish not just one but two full-length drafts after so many years of work, this year I'm tasked with the equally difficult task known as the rewrite. As I've never done a full rewrite before (I refuse to count the time I did massive rewrites to the first story's first draft mid-way through writing it, or the fact that the second story is actually a rewrite in itself), I've found myself in personally uncharted territory yet again. Luckily, I feel like I'm already finding my groove, so here are a few tips for the revision process based on my own experiences thus far:

Tips for Writing Your Second Draft

Rule #1: Nothing is Sacred

The first and most important rule to any rewrite is thus; nothing is sacred. You've got to be prepared for constructive criticism to do away with your favorite scenes, characters, and plot lines if you want to write the best story possible. It doesn't matter if the subject in question is personally important to you unless you can make it just as important to the story and your readers, because in the end a fiction writer isn't some prestigious person to whom all else must obey, a writer is a servant to both the story and the readers.

More important to this rule is that you must understand exactly what is at the core of your story, because if anything is to be considered sacred, it must be that core idea which inspired your story in the first place. Understanding what that core idea is will be infinitely helpful if you hit a wall and become convinced that everything you've written is rubbish. It's in moments like these that you must be willing to toss away all the rubbish and go back to and rebuild an entirely new story from that core. This core can be anything from a setting or character that initially inspired you to write a story around it, or it might be an emotion or message that you want to convey to the reader.

It's Never Too Late to Outline

After finishing the draft of my heavily-outlined novel and then ignoring it for two months, I came back to what appeared to be a horrible mess of a story written by a madman with no sense of pacing, excitement, or tone. Seeing as that draft was the result of me having already discovered the core of an earlier unfinished story and crafting an entirely new plot around it, I was confident that the general outline of my story wasn't the problem, it was the supporting details. The problem was that I couldn't put my finger on exactly what the story was missing.

This is where I turned back to outlines. For days, I did nothing but research plot structures for books, plays, and movies. I refreshed my memory on Freytag's Pyramid and the Three Act Structure, then discovered the Five Act Structure and the Eight Sequences of Film. Having found the Eight Sequences the most personally helpful structure, I poured over definitions for terms like "Inciting Incident" and "First Culmination," then, to the best of my ability, I wrote out what each of the eight sequences were of that first draft. Trying to fit my novel into this structure forced me to not only see that my story wasn't as bad as I feared it was, but helped me understand my own story so much better, which in turn allowed me to see what it was missing. Suddenly, I had a clear understanding for what my main subplot was, why it felt so natural to resolve it when I had, and how to make it even stronger in the next draft.

I'm a firm believer that, while we may have a feel for how to pace a story as we're writing it, it is incredibly helpful to break it down mathematically to understand why exactly it feels good to write it that way. For example, look at the the very middle of your story and see how it relates to the ending. According to traditional structure, if your story ends on a high note there should also be a high note in at the midpoint. If the tone of your middle is a teaser for the ending, you've now got insight into why it works, and if your middle differs from your ending, then maybe that's what's been bothering you the whole time! If traditional structures don't work for your novel, it's still helpful to break down your story to its basics to understand how it moves and what isn't working.

Just Write!

Even after all the brainstorming and outlining, some of my best ideas for revisions came when I actually sat down and started rewriting. I looked at my first paragraph, hated it, tried to think of something more catchy that better prepares the reader for the type of story they're getting into, and came up with an idea that killed two birds with one stone; not only did the new idea check off all the boxes for a great introduction to the story and characters, but out of it came a new subplot that fits perfectly into the story, will help me to tie up many loose threads, and drastically improve the pacing of the exposition.

So when all else fails, just write. Try new things. If you get stuck, take the scene or character that you hate, figure out why you hate it, draw inspiration from popular scenes and characters that you love, figure out why they're awesome, and see if you can apply the essence of that same greatness to yours. Get those creative juices flowing and let them do the heavy lifting.

Listen to the Professionals

Listen, I'm no authority on this sort of thing. Not yet, anyway. But these are the things that work for me, and hopefully I've written something here that will work for you. Otherwise go ahead and research more credible writers, I promise I won't mind.

Oh, and try not to get too stressed about all of it.