tagHow ToWelcome Back to Hell

Welcome Back to Hell


Writing the second draft of your novel.

Finally finished? Blissful freedom? That's not a light at the end of a tunnel, that's an oncoming train.

If you have just finished writing your novel, set it down, take a step away, and lock that sucker in a cupboard. Seal it up with chains. Light it on fire. Destroy it. You thought you had to tear your soul out the last round? Welcome to round two, where your novel comes back from the dead with a vengeance and stomps upon the heart analogy gifted to you by a wonderful wizard (who, might I note, will not edit your novel for you. He isn't that wonderful).

Step one: A novel is like a fine wine. (It might also make you whine.)

Give your novel a bit of time to sit and stew. Like a good wine, like a good soup, like a good many things, a novel needs a little bit of time. It'll let the characters mingle like the oh so magnificent flavors of a good chowder and the fermentation process will do one other thing: it'll let you forget. You need a little bit of time to forget how much it hurt to tear your heart into pieces and mash it onto the page. You need a bit of time to forget how much you hate that scene. Right now, you're emotionally attached to your novel and you need to cut the strings and drown your sorrows in a pot of tea.

Come back when you're sober. Didn't know you could get drunk on tea? Try writing a novel. You can get drunk on anything as long as the words are flowing.

The time you need to take depends on just how involved you were with the novel. Trust me when I say you need the time to forget that you hate this scene and this character, or the red pen will come on too strong. Trust me when I say you need time to forget how much you loved this character and this scene.

The second draft is cruel. There is no exact length of time. A week, a month, a half a year. Come back when you can read your novel with fresh eyes, and be excited to read a sentence you'd entirely forgotten.


Don't take too long to pick up your novel again, though. While it's exciting to read it as though it were someone else's story, you need to keep a little bit of the enthusiastic attitude from completing a work of art as well. Editing is a tough job. I would not personally wait more than a year, for fear of new and exciting sirens calling from the swamp.

Who wants to do the chore of editing when you have a new universe to unfold?

Step Two: Meet your new best friend.

No matter how you wrote your novel in round one, you're about to be acquainted to someone you might not like very much: Mr. Outline. Our friendly neighborhood synopsis will help you control your story in draft two. Where draft one might have been a wild explosion of character diarrhea onto a page, creating an outline is going to help you tame that stomach bug into something a little more controllable.

So write out a play by play outline of your first draft if you didn't write one to begin with and take a look at the cards. Novels follow a few standard patterns and that cohesive plot foundation is going to be what you're building draft two on: the beginning, the middle, the climax, and the end.

You might have fifty-seven subplots, but you need to be able to find a controlled thread through the story, which follows the protagonist. This is what you're going to build draft two on: this is the foundation of your novel.

Chop your novel up into little tiny scene sized pieces and then remove all of the unnecessary bits until you're left with just the plot sized piece. The plot sized piece should finish this statement: "my main character wants this, but..."

Understand there is a difference between a plot and a premise. Imagine that there is a doorway. Yes, it can be a fancy Victorian archway covered in vines. Or perhaps just an ordinary screen door. Maybe it's hooked up to a vast digital system, and maybe the door was handed down from generations past. But it's still just a door. The premise is the door. The plot is what slams the door shut in the main character's face, and how they get it open again. Your premise might very well be "nanobots are causing men to become infertile" but that's not a plot until your main character discovers that he's the only one left on the planet with fertile sperm and must single-handedly save the human race, but in the process destroy his marriage with his very traditional, monogamous wife.

The plot is what happens. If you can't bring your novel down to a sentence about what happens, maybe you need to rethink the action in the novel. What does your main character want, and what's keeping that character from getting it?

Step two might seem fiddly, but it'll save you a lot of pain if you discover the fault in your foundation before you try redecorating.

Step three: The size of a salable novel.

The average novel ranges between 70,000 to 100,000 words. Unless you're writing grand epic fantasy, you'll have a hard time selling a novel with more words and a hard time selling a novel with less words (the market for novellas isn't all that great). If you're not aiming for traditional publishing, don't panic and write whatever you will. But if you are, now is the time to consider the length of your novel. As a firm believer in "it takes as many words as it takes to tell the story", I cringe to give this advice. Yet, as a firm believer in "tell the story that needs to be told, not all of the bullshit around it", I know it needs to be said.

In step two, I told you to become aware of the foundation of your novel. You know what the story you're telling is made out of. Now you're going to look at the walls. With your puzzle piece structure in hand, cut away the unnecessary pieces.

Everything in your novel should relate to the most basic, most rudimentary version of a plot it claims to have. Every scene must have a purpose. And nothing needs to be shown more than once. The subplot about his mother-in-law? Does it show character development? Keep it. But do you need to tell us about his strained relationship with his mother-in-law five times when the story is about how he blasts into space from Winnipeg?

Make the painful choices here. If it doesn't boost the plot, let it go.

If your story is too simple, you may need to take the opposite approach. Try adding a subplot. Add a new character. The amazing thing is how it's so much easier to add than take away. If you're finding it difficult, just be confident in your short story or novella—they have their places.

Make a new outline from your foundation.

And don't skimp. Make it a detailed outline. You're crafting your improved novel from this, you can't write from the seat of your pants this time.

Step four: Extrapolate.

Well? You already figured out how to write a novel. Do it again, but better, and with more dynamics and other buzzwords. Fall in love and break your heart over and over again. This time's the chore, where you follow your brand new, careful outline, trying to make the best out of your concrete foundation.

You've already got your scissors, your cleaver, your robe and wizard hat. Use them.

You'll make it out just fine, and enthusiastically sign the final two words so long as you have the gumption to do it.

You're d—

Oh yeah. I forgot to tell you earlier: you have to break something to fix it.

Step five: Fuck, not again.

Your second draft won't be perfect. In fact, your second draft probably fucked everything up and you find yourself looking at a misshapen child nothing like the beauty you remember giving birth to. Don't let the hate take over, though—your first draft sucked. And now you get to do it all over again. Examine the novel. Examine the structure. Find out where it went wrong, curse yourself and your computer and your novel into a thousand different damnations. You have all the time in the world, but this time, don't let your novel stew. Write it again.

And again. And again.

There's no secret, only patience and a lot of coffee, tea, and rum.

Run it through the refiner's fire again. Only then, once you're satisfied, can you sit back and hand your novel to an editor...

What, you thought this was over?

Have a drink, it's on me.

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