It’s a second draft.
For me, that means it’s probably a second coat of paint – but in a different color. It’s time to find places to dive deep.
Yes, that’s a mixed metaphor. So is a second draft.
I’m not talking about typos and commas. That’s different. I’m talking about finishing a story and letting it rest, and then attacking it again.
And it’s an attack.
Because you’re going to be ruthless.
A lot of times we get an idea for a story and the energy just bursts forth, and we start writing – and after a few thousand words the energy is gone and we’ve hit the wall. Writers block. The abyss (one of many you find yourself in as a writer). Whatever you want to call it, you run out of steam.
One way to avoid that is to outline your story so at least you have a direction to keep moving once that initial surge of energy starts to fade.
But there’s also another technique to consider.
Not consider, really. Employ.
Because it’s something I do and I’ve found that by doing it, my stories have gotten much better.
And that is this:
First, finish the story.
First and foremost, you have to do that. Nothing else matters if you have a million great ideas and you don’t finish any of them. So finish.
in that second draft, sometimes you’re taking out stuff that is boring or that you didn’t say very well. Sometimes you add.
My suggestion for removal?
Anything your eyes want to skim the second time through or third time through, highlight it in yellow and think about a way to cut it in half or 2/3 or condense it down to the smallest non-skippable length possible.
That’s what they mean when they say trim it to the bone. I’m good – if I let my manuscript rest long enough. And even then, I’m not an expert. I rely on other people to point out the parts that are difficult for me to trim.
But then there’s the addition side.
There, you have your story “finished” and you’ve let it rest, and you’ve probably taken out some of the boring bits…
but you need to add a second coat of paint.
For some of you, it will be adding emotion.
For others, it will be intensifying the action.
For most of you, it will be heightening the tension.
And to be honest, for ALL of us, it’s ALL of these. How much additional emotion I think my story needs is different from how much you think your story needs, but for both of us it’s MORE. Mine needs 30% more and so does yours. Because 30% in my story to my eye is probably the same amount of work for you looking at your story with your eye. Like, if you go to lift a weight, maybe 20 lbs causes you a 30% strain in your muscles, but for Arnold Schwarzenegger to strain 30% he has to lift . . . I don’t know. A car, I guess.
Wait, what? Which one of us is Arnold?
Okay, forget that. Even though the analogy totally worked, it’s a little off topic.
Anything you add your story is either supposed to be revealing characters or moving the plot forward (according to Vonnegut). But part of that is making people want to turn the page to read on.
And the best way the best way to do that is to have TENSION.
Something we have to turn the page to find out the answer to.
Allow me to explain.
If you have a character cross the room to pick up a pencil, there are two ways to say it.
One is to say:
He walked across the room and picked up the pencil.
Another way is:
He inched his way across the floor to the table where he reached out his trembling fingers and picked up the pencil.
Neither one of those is very good because let’s face it picking up a pencil isn’t that damn interesting.
But what if his daughter is about to be murdered in the next room and he’s a pacifist and it’s not a pencil but a knife or a gun? Now going over and picking up the pencil/gun is much more interesting.
But we would make the same mistake, wouldn’t we?
We’d say he raced across the room and grabbed the gun.
Which is why I made it a pencil first, so you’d all see how dull that writing is. Making it a gun and changing the situation changed the overall tension, but we still need to draw that reader in more!
We might say:
Rubbing his hand over his forehead, he looked at the wall, hearing his daughters screams from the other side. He inched his way to the table, reaching out with his trembling hand to pick up the gun.
See what I mean? Now, we have some dilemma. Tension. We had that before, though.
But we’ve added depth to the emotions. We’ve:
heightened the reading experience for the reader by
showing physical manifestations of the character’s emotions in the scene,
allowing the reader to conclude the character feels a certain way, and thereby
immersing the reader in the story more.
And while it’s perfectly suitable to say he reached over and grabbed the gun, sometimes it’s better to dive deep and amplify what the character is going through at that moment. Don’t say he’s nervous; show his trembling fingers and sweaty brow. Don’t say he hesitates; show him staring at the wall and hearing his daughter and running his hands through his hair.
These are things that physically show what’s going on and allow the reader to conclude he’s nervous and conflicted about what he’s going to do.
And it takes a lot of effort to write the scene, get the characters all doing what they’re supposed to do, and make things as intense as they need to be – all in one take. It’s work! And it’s tiring! And you’re doing it while also thinking about how he rushes in and confronts the bad guys –
so are you 100% focused on the reader’s experience?
You say he grabbed the gun – and you assume the reader totally understands the character’s mindset because YOU do. You see it all, the screams and the panic and the fear . . .
But is what you had in your head what you put on the page?
Not after the first draft, usually.
So you can’t do it all the time, but you’re going to have certain places in your story where you innately want to do it. Those will be fine. You’ll spend time on those because they’re important.
I’m telling you to go back when you’re done with the story and find other places where you can really raise up the tension or emotion or drama. Because they’re ALL important, or they shouldn’t be in the story.
And let’s face it. Reading is an escape. It’s done for pleasure.
If it’s a pleasurable escape,
make sure when you put your readers on the roller coaster you take them to the top of the big hill AND the bottom of the big hill
– and lots of other hills in between.
The twists and turns and all the things that make the roller coaster riders scream with glee are the kind of things you want in your story for your reader to rave about to their friends.