So, you finished the first draft. Congratulations! The story is finally out of your head and onto the paper—or digital file. After you take that small and well-deserved break, after you had that little wine, beer, water, cigar, or whatever suits you best, it is time to go back and work the novel again. The first draft is only the barebones of the story, the skeleton. The story you want to thrill readers with is still hiding under the rough stone that you need to sculp.
Some authors suggest putting some distance, let it simmer for a time. Of course, that happens only in the perfect world, and if you’re not working against a deadline. Otherwise the slow burner must become a torch.
For that purpose, you have a choice of tools that can assist you. The choices you have to make are as personal as they can come. No one can tell you what works for you. However, here are some general tips to help find a way until you refine your technique, or the chance to experiment with a different method if you’re a seasoned writer. My favorite three tools are a chapter list, a time line, and critique partners.
While the first draft should give you the essence of the story, define a timeline, and show you the start and finish of the story, the second draft is where the fine-tuning begins. Here’s where the characters get their depth, the dialogs get that extra spark, and where you add the details of the places or situations you were too busy to explain on the first pass.
The Chapter List
If you had a word count goal and hit it, excellent.Others, like me, must find words to achieve the goal in the second draft. Keeping a chapter list with a brief description, the POV, and the word count can be very useful for this stage as it will show you at a glance the overly short chapters where you can boost the overall count. If the chapters are otherwise even, as it happens to me all the time, then here is this simple trick I use. Maybe because I majored in business administration, this approach may seem too pragmatic, almost as cold hearted as math, but hear me out. Say your goal is 80,000 words and the first draft clocked at 68,000, then you take the balance of 12,000 words and divide it by the number of chapters on your list—e.g. 25 chapters—and presto, all you need to work in are 500 words on each chapter. That sounds as easy as a walk in the park, right?
The convenience of keeping a timeline early on proved fruitful as I worked on my current WIP. Although I knew exactly what happened where and when, one of my critique readers complained saying he felt more lost in time than The Doctor when his T.A.R.D.I.S. shuts down. A few lines here and there, some bits of dialog—like, “after two weeks the hotel bill threated to max out the credit card limit,” or “She went missing last Friday.”—and I was able to keep the time straight for the readers. I didn’t even use my sonic screwdriver!
I just mentioned the use of my third favorite tool. Much has been said about the advantage of critique partners, or beta readers, or whatever you want to call them. In my opinion they offer invaluable input. I’ve been fortunate to have half a dozen people read my current WIP. By the way, I prefer to give them a full version of the manuscript and not just a few chapters at a time, but the choice, again, is yours.
They, the chosen ones, are probably the single most important friend of a writer. Not everybody can be a beta reader, though, and the process of getting the right one usually take years of trial and error. I write thrillers, but two of my most trusted critique partners don’t even write in that genre. Remember when we mentioned about putting some distance between you and the story? Well, the critique partner doesn’t have to wait as he/she is not familiar with the story, so their input is just as valid as if you’d waited a month.
To get a good critique partner there must be real chemistry, brutal honesty, patience, and understanding. You don’t want people saying your story sucks, but just as futile is a too-close friend saying all is okay because the reader doesn’t want to hurt your feelings. Receiving critique is just as important as giving it.
A simple rule of thumb I use is if you have three or four partners and they all come back telling the same complaint in their own words, then something is definitely off. If three independently agree, and one doesn’t, then perhaps that person is off. If you get a mix, then maybe you’re on the right track but need some fine-tuning to make it shine. And my personal favorite: If they all love it and don’t find anything wrong with it, get another opinion!
One of my readers had a complaint about a scene near the climax. His comment is valid, but I am not sure I will follow it because the other five actually praised that scene. This, to me, confirms the maxim that you just can’t please everybody.
However, the most important thing to keep in mind is that the story is yours. Despite the suggestions, they are nothing more than that. The writer must take it, weigh it, and see if they merit change.
And if you’re wondering how to go about it after the end of the second draft, then my only advice is to follow the instructions usually found on the back of shampoo bottles: Rinse and wash again as needed.
I would love to read anecdotes about your experiences with beta readers, chapter lists or timelines—without giving the plot away, of course.
J. H. Bográn, born and raised in Honduras, is the son of a journalist. He ironically prefers to write fiction rather than fact. José’s genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. His works include novels and short stories in both English and Spanish. His debut novel Treasure Hunt, was selected among the Top Ten in Preditors & Editor’s Reader Poll. Firefall, his second novel, was released in 2013 by Rebel ePublishers. José is a member of The Crime Writers Association, the Short Fiction Writers Guild and the International Thriller Writers where he also serves as the Thriller Roundtable Coordinator and contributing editor of their official e-zine The Big Thrill. Follow Jose on Twitter at @JHBogran.