Saturday, February 20, 2010

Second Drafts

Last March, I did a post on final drafts, which you are welcome to read here: for the sake of naming, I am going to say that post applies to everything from the fourth draft to the final draft. Not that these are hard and fast, carved in stone or anything. I'm speaking generally and of my own work. Your results . . .

Today I want to talk about second drafts, because I happen to be working on one currently. You've got your first draft in your hand, and Hemingway said the first draft of anything is shit, so you've got your shit in your hand and strangely the first things you do don't involve any actual writing.

Step One: The first thing you do is read your shit. And it's going to be an ugly mess, just get over it and step away from the red pen. You can add notes as thoughts come to you, but don't you dare cut out a thing yet, even stuff you know is wrong. I'll talk about first drafts another time, just know that they're closer to afterbirth than babies.

Step Two: The next thing you do, and I think this is one of the most important things you do in the whole process of writing a story, is you figure out what the hell your story is about. Here's where you say, "Dude, I figured that out in the first draft, remember? There was the guy with the vegetable bomb and the lady stopped him by throwing his own mother at him and then they all drove off in race cars. I got that down!"

No. What you've got is the plot, which is what happens. We're not after what happens here, we're after what it's about. It's along the lines of one of those many literary terms I hate to use: Theme. You say, "Stuff your theme, you pretentious assbag. I've got plot and that will do." Plot will get you a story, yes, but theme will help get you resonance, that bit that's going to make people remember your story well after they're done reading it. Characterization has a lot to do with this as well. Enough of this, let's get to it.

Your scenes might not even be in the best order but by now you've got a rough idea of beginning middle and end. Even if you decide to change it up later, you've got something now. It's time to ask yourself questions. I often write them down and write down the answers as well. Questions such as:

What is this guy really after?
What is driving that lady? What makes her throw an innocent Mom?
What is this story really about?

And you might come up with answers like this:

The guy's angry about what his strict adherence to the rules has gotten him in life: mundanity, hopelessness. He's not going to eat his vegetables anymore. He's going to eat jars and jars full of jelly and he's going to turn his vegetables into explosive devices. That'll shake things up!

The lady has had a life full of stupid guys and their immature bullshit and she blames their mothers and maybe fears that she herself could be a mother like that, and gets even angrier at mothers. And their stupid sons.

The story is about this gulf between the anger of men and the anger of women, the rules they've decided on imposing upon themselves and how those rules are ravaging their lives and everyone else's.

Bear in mind that you don't have to stay up all night tearing out your hair over this. There are no right answers, there are only decisions. And yes, you're ready to make them now. Your subconscious mind has been working on this thing since you first got the idea for the spray of carrots and bursting zucchini. What if these decisions aren't the right ones? It ain't brain surgery, fix them in the next draft. The important thing is to keep moving forward.

Step Three: Now what? You look at your story again, keeping in mind what it's really about. Now you can keep the stuff that supports your new vision, cut out what doesn't and bend little bits and pieces to help support the overall structure. An example of bending: Once you've decided, yes, this is going to be a tale of psychological torture, you may want to alter the word "zany" on page three to make it read "insane." You may want to change the frog which the protagonist runs over into a raccoon because it will make the story that much heavier. All these little bits and pieces add up to an integrated whole and you can't even approach this whole until you've done step two. Finally, you might get an idea of what scenes you have to add to bring it all together.

Step Four: Write the damned thing.

"But . . ."

But what?

"But, my race cars!"

I'm sorry. The race cars will have to go. Make a separate file for your scraps and throw that scene in there so you'll never lose it and now you can forget about it. Write your second draft in a different file and keep your first if you're so attached to it. Believe me, you'll want to deny its existence some day when your kids find it in the attic trunk or you're running for public office.


Elke said...

Look at you this week! Posted up a storm here & elsewhere, finished story 121, picked up new readers (hi!) & recorded an editorial. Have I missed anything? Presumably had regular stuff to do too. Or the sink could be full of dishes & the laundry piled up and I wouldn't judge.

These remarks in particular are helpful to me. I've been muddling over whether to try flash fiction. In reading good work by other people (hi), the stuff that gets me knows exactly what it's about. That's always important in good writing, of course, but in flash fiction it seems to me there's only room for one simple point, so the writer had better be sure what that is. I've been unable or reluctant to pick one simple point. Maybe if I take permission from you to make that a continuing agenda item that can carry over from the 1st draft, since there will be a 2nd and however many more are needed, then I'll make progress.

Thanks! Do get some rest, won't you?

Matthew Sanborn Smith said...

You always make me feel good, Elke. I'm glad I seem productive from your end. From my end I feel like a slacker!

About your flash: Yes, just pick one and go and see what happens. You might be pleased.

Wendy said...

You know what they say about shit in one hand, wish in the other ... ;)

Great post and I am total agreement on these steps. Now I want to go write a story with angry explosive veggies!

Anonymous said...

Sorry for my bad english. Thank you so much for your good post. Your post helped me in my college assignment, If you can provide me more details please email me.