The Incredible Shrinking Second Draft

I have a weird way of handling second drafts, maybe a unique way.

It grew out of my day job, in which I sometimes have to synthesize argument originally made by other lawyers into a final brief. I quickly decided that just dumping someone else’s words into a brief and doing a quick edit wouldn’t work – we all have a different voice, after all. Just dumping was inelegant at best and headache inducing at worst.

Instead, I take the section provided by someone else and rewrite it in my own voice. The final product includes the same information, the same argument. But it sounds of a piece with what came before and what comes after. That’s the theory, at least.

I imported that system into my fiction writing. I take the first draft, print it out (usually as a PDF these days), then work my way back through it, rewriting from word one. That allows me to do a couple of things. Most importantly, it allows me to focus on the words themselves, the really bottom level grunt work of writing. That’s because I already know what happens to whom and where, so I don’t have to worry about plot stuff.

The other thing it does is it lets me fill in gaps that occurred in the first draft. Sometimes they’re gaps I didn’t realize at the time but that, as I go through it again at a brisker pace, make themselves known. Other times it’s because I was stuck on the first draft and didn’t want things to grind to a halt completely and I left myself a note to add something or expand something.

Either way, the usual has been for the manuscript to grow in the second draft. Moore Hollow was just over 50,000 words in the first graft, but grew to about 65,000 in the end. The Water Road, the first volume of the trilogy I have schedule for next year, grew from about 110,000 words to 135,000 in the end.

Which is what makes my experience with The Endless Hills kind of odd. This is the second book of The Water Road trilogy, and it wound up with about 127,000 words in the first draft. But after the second draft (which I finished last weekend), it’s actually dipped a bit, to 123,000. And that’s including a couple of new scenes or chapters that I had left behind in the first draft.

What the heck happened? A couple of things, both of them good (I hope).

First, I’ve become very sensitive about using dialog tags and trying to clean them out of my writing. For those not in the know, dialog tags are those things like:

“This is a dialog tag,” JD said, to nobody whatsoever.

There’s frequently skirmishes on writers forums about the need for them at all and whether, if you use them, you should just stick to “said” and let that be that. Earlier on I went the John Scalzi route and tried to use “said” exclusively and all the time. I think it goes back to my legal writing where ambiguity about who is speaking could be lethal to a legal argument. But for fiction tags can sometimes get in the way, particularly if you’ve only got a two-way conversation going on. So I took a lot of that stuff out on the second draft.

Second, I’ve also been trying to pare down my writing as a I go forward. Trying to do more with less, I guess you’d say. I’ve never been the most verbose of writers, but I’m not exactly Hemmingway brief, either. I think I’m getting better about tightening things up without sacrificing what’s important.

One of the things more experienced writers will tell you (if you listen) is that writing is as much craft as art. Becoming a better writer is partly down to learning how to do things better, from a mechanical point of view. Sitting down and writing something ten years after you started writing completely should be easier and be a better product when it’s finished.

At least that’s what I’m hoping!


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