Thoughts on Completing My Novel’s Second Draft

Thirty-one chapters rewritten and accounted for

It took an entire year.

In not even counting the two months where I purposely did no writing at all, it took an entire year to write the second draft of my historical fiction novel-in-progress, which amounted to a complete rewrite of my first draft.

It took longer to write than the first draft itself, which I completed in 10 months back in in 2005.

Having been written in 2005, however – a full eleven years ago – a lot had changed in how I perceived this story that I wanted to tell.

(Not the least of these changes was the genre, the story having originally been written in a fantasy world heavily based on 13th century England before I decided I’d already researched and learned more than enough to switch the setting to 13th century England period.)

I had eleven years of growth in both my writing skills and my personal understanding of the world to inject into this massive tome of mine (and it was massive).

Over the course of my year of active rewriting (and my year and two months of eating, drinking, sleeping, and breathing this project), I thus had the following reflections:

1) My best laid plan

My first draft chapters, bottom to top, colour coded by their revision needs

In some regards, it’s not so much that I actually completed the rewrite that’s made me so proud of myself but rather the well-formed plan I executed for taking on such a complex task.

Previously I’d read through a hard copy of my entire first draft, marking up the pages as I went, writing a brief summary of each chapter as I finished reading it, and then binding the pages of each chapter with a paperclip that was either green, yellow, or red based on its overall revision needs.

We’ve all heard the wisdom that the best way to tackle a large project is to break it into a series of smaller projects.

So that’s what I did: I recast my overall objective from “revise this novel” to merely “revise this one chapter”, over and over again, on a soft deadline of a chapter per week (which I obviously didn’t often met).

The result, of course, with the completion of each chapter, was regular process every 7 (or 14 or occasionally 21) days, and hence a regular sense of accomplishment.  One that easily prevented my getting bored with essentially doing the same thing 31 times.

2) The (minor) rewards of writing

My chapter sticky notes, midway through the rewrite.

To be clear, I absolutely stink at rewarding myself for progress on my goals.  I’m just too much of an ascetic to be motivated by dangling carrots.

Upon reaching a project milestone, I usually just end up talking myself out of my prize with the insistence that something I was already going to do anyway doesn’t deserve a reward.

Either that, or else I’ll stretch well past each milestone until the project ends up completed and the 3-4 rewards I missed now seem too self-indulgent taken all at once (or at all).

Thus, while I didn’t indulge in as many material rewards as I initially planned over the course of my rewrite, I did enjoy plenty of intangible milestones to mark my progress.

Prior to beginning the project, I created a numbered sticky note for each chapter and stuck them in rows upon my wall.  With each chapter I rewrote, I would move its sticky note to a new position to visually symbolize its completion.

Moving these colourful notes into their new positions became a highly satisfying self-acknowledgement of progress, particularly on nights when I reached the end of a writing session and was almost at the end of a chapter.  More times than not, that sticky note encouraged me to push on rather than wait until the next writing session.

So too was I encouraged by the simple prospect of returning the first draft pages of a newly rewritten chapter back to its binder, taking out the next chapter, and reviewing the next chapter’s summary – something I only allowed myself to do one chapter at a time.

3) Signs of (a) life

Top: Story idea in your head; Middle: Story idea when you try to actually write it; Bottom: Story idea when you first rewrite it (getting closer to what you saw in your head)

Another thing that kept me going through my second draft was the idea that the more progress I made, the closer the story was becoming to the version it was always meant to be.

Novels always become closer to their true form with increased revision, but in my case, since the story wasn’t even the correct genre, that meant that from the very first page, I both did and didn’t have anything to show for my months (and then another two+ years as I went on to draft the two remaining books of the series) of work.

Writing is, in my opinion, the most solitary of the arts, largely because its interim stages – unlike a half-completed painting or a half-composed song – neither holds much of interest nor makes much sense divorced from its larger context.

Not that I require ongoing feedback from others to keep myself motivated to write.  Still, when people ask you year in and out how your writing is going and you don’t have anything concrete to show them – nothing you can let them read to give them a taste – even you can start to feel like you’re wasting your life (just as you might imagine the other person is thinking of you).

Now that my novel, though still rough, is at least in the correct ballpark of the story it’s meant to tell, I can actually let people read parts of it.

As a matter of fact, I have.  My mom and stepdad have both read the first two chapters and a good friend has read the first five.

Which is so incredibly validating, for I now feel like I’m on track with this particular novel more than a decade after I first wrote it. (This despite the fact that, in this regard, this second draft is more or less a whole new first draft.)

4) Numbers do lie

I mentioned above that the first draft was massive.  I knew this just by virtue of knowing myself and the type of writer I am: an over-writer (and subsequent trimmer and tightener).

Because of this tendency, in-progress word counts cause me anxiety to the point that I’m unable to write a thing for fear of doing so too wordily.  To combat this paralysis, I disable all as-you-go word counters in writing programs until a given draft is complete.

Going into my rewrite of draft #1, my novel was 376 pages in Microsoft Word and a whopping 136,000 words.

As I was rewriting, I noticed that the document didn’t seem to reducing its page count – or at least not permanently; at one point, I did delete a chapter in the second act only to end up adding a new one in the third act.

In the end, the document actually gained a few pages, which left me terrified that draft #2 would be even longer than draft #1.

Only that isn’t the case at all.  As still calculated in MS Word, draft #2, despite being five pages longer, is actually 12,000 words shorter (currently at about 124,000 words).

This makes absolutely no sense to me.  But it’s a number I can work with – one plan to make even shorter in the next draft – definitely under 120,000, and perhaps even closer to 110,000 if I can manage it.

5) What comes next(?)

Truth be told, I’m not entirely sure.  Currently, draft #2 is on ice.  I haven’t looked at it since I finished it two weeks ago.

Part of this is because, following the success of my paperclipped chapter/colourful sticky note plan and my ongoing efforts to shorten my sentences, I realize I’ve come to the end of my intuitive knowledge of how to revise a novel.

As such, I need to further my skills by doing what I do best: research.  I years ago bought but never read the book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, which is supposed to be a ground-breaking title on the subject.

I’ve also saved a dozen or so articles on revision from writing sites that I follow, including Writer Unboxed and the blogs of author Chuck Wendig and agent Rachelle Gardner.

Another big realization is that I’ve also come as far as I can in my writing without the input of others, both writers and readers.

With this in mind, over the next month or so, I plan to assemble a critique group of 4-6 writers who are at a similar stage with their own novels and looking to further refine them for future publication.

I have definite plans on how to go about finding these people, and will write about the process of doing so in a future blog post.

What are your methods for tackling a large project?  What second draft revision tips or resources can you recommend to me?  Let me know in the comments.

A/N: I was so excited to share about my completed second draft, I completely overlooked that it’s the last Monday of the month.  I’ll post my missed Medieval Mondays post next week instead.

(Image source #1, #2, and #3 – J.G. Noelle, #4 and #5)

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13 thoughts on “Thoughts on Completing My Novel’s Second Draft

    • Thanks, Roy. I’m definitely going to publish some day sooner rather than later. There’s just a few more things I need to tidy up first (right now, a whole bunch of characters don’t even have full names!)

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  1. Learning to self-edit is part of ending up with a personal style: you will make decisions about how you like to write – choosing from the options – and watch for your own foibles.

    I have many foibles – but I corralled them on a list and fed them to the personal list on Autocrit, so it is easy to track them down and refine the repetitions or remove them, clean up the decisions I’ve made for a bit of an Irish accent to suggest itself to the readers, watch for wordiness…

    I have learned a lot from Sol Stein’s books. From Donald Maass’ books. Even from Lawrence Block’s books.

    The rate of discovering new bad habits has slowed considerably; I think I’m good.

    It can only improve your production of good writing faster in the future to do the editing yourself as much as you can.

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    • I’m coming to discover more of my foibles as well. Making a list is a great idea. I won’t be using Autocrit, but it would still be useful to have a list of personal hangups I’m looking to seek and destroy.

      I’ve done next to no reading about self-editing thus far in my writing career, such as it is. I always skipped that part in all the writing books because I never before had a completed product with which I could move on to that stage. Luckily, I’m of a naturally revisionist mindset when it comes to writing, always looking for ways to say what I’m trying to say better.

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      • If you learn to self-edit (and I love the Browne book as a place to get started) EARLY in the game, you will be SO far ahead of so many indie writers.

        And it will save you a LOT of money over the years.

        It’s work – everything is – but it’s work which adds value immediately to YOUR writing.

        What I liked best about arriving somewhere where I feel in control of what I’m trying to write is the sense of security, of KNOWING you can figure it out.

        Sort of like graduating from woodworking school with a certificate that says you know how to use 197 different tools – and you’ve practiced with each one.

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  2. Oh my goodness I love your organisation here. The administrator in me (day job) is delighted by your use of colours :-). What an acheivement you have made! I would love to hear what you thought about the book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, as I, hopefully, will be at that stage soonish.

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