February 07, 2009

It's Only a First Draft

by Terry Burns

As an agent, one of the most common problems I see in things that are sent to me is the fact that I am receiving a first draft. Oh, sure, it has been worked on, the grammar has been cleaned up, perhaps a critique group has spent time on getting problems fixed. It can be a very clean first draft but that’s still what it is.

What’s the difference? As a writer, my first draft only has temporary first chapters, just something to get the story in motion. I’ll come back later and write those after I know my characters and my story better. But even when I come back and do that, all I’m doing is cleaning up the first draft.

Many writers stop here. They are happy with the story, they have it cleaned up, they feel it is ready to go. However, that’s when we should turn our attention to the second draft. In this draft we take a really hard look to see if our story starts in the right place, if there is a really compelling first page that literally forces us to turn the first page. To do a second draft we have to get past our love of the story, turn on that internal editor and look at it as a potential reader. We have to make them move past that first page and commit to reading the story.

And a lot do that yet fail to keep going. The next step in making a second draft is looking with a critical eye at the flow and pacing of the story. Here we are not changing the storyline, but we are simply looking at the way we are moving the reader through the story. Do we take the time to push them from one chapter to the next? Does the story rise and fall in places as it should. Do we shorten sentences, paragraphs or scenes to pick up the pace when we want to build a sense of excitement or do the opposite when we want to draw the reader into the detail?

Do we enhance that detail by bringing in the five senses to cause the reader to full engage their own imagination? Stephen King in his book “On Writing” said he didn’t want us to see the cheerleader he went to school with, but the one WE went to school with. To the degree that we can cause the reader to engage their imagination and visualize the things we could never write if we had fifty pages dedicated to doing it, the more we enhance their reading experience.

These are the kind of things that happen in the second draft, AFTER we are happy with the story and no longer need to be concerned as to whether we think the story works or not. That happiness with the way we have created the story has lured many a writer into stopping there, not taking that polishing step necessary to take the manuscript to where it needs to be.

Are you one that stops at the end of your first draft and think you are through?
Contest: I have a contest for young people in connection with my new YA book, Beyond the Smoke" where they can win $100 and where good responses will be featured on the blog at my website. If you know a young person who would like to give it a shot, the details are at http://www.terryburns.net/contest.htm


Jessica said...

No, def. not. I go through many times before I feel the story is right.
Great post! I have a friend who recommended you as an a agent so it's good for me to see what you look for before querying you. :-)

brendalottakamaggiebrendan said...

Oh, gosh no, Terri. I even edit and sometimes rewrite segments of a chapter before I send them to my 3 critique buds. When I put a chapter aside for a day or so, I always see glaring mistakes. I learned that it makes me a better writer and hey, sometimes it's fun!

A J Hawke said...

Thanks for the reminder to polish. Even my living room looks better after polishing.
I am going over my novel for about the tenth time, getting ready for my first writer's conference. Looking at every word and phrase, I am trying to be objective. But, it is hard to do with my baby.
As always, a great post, Terry.