The Crash: Braving Your Second DraftTell me if you’ve been here before.
It’s May, with finals lurking around every corner, and you’re stuck in your room barreling through the paper on which your entire future depends. Or at least that’s how it feels right now. You’ve worked on it all day, and all night, and also all of the previous three days and nights. You’ve cared for it. It’s smart and strong and eloquent and, finally, finished
Then, in some deep, dark recess of your computer, you hear a terrible whir. You scramble for your flash drive, but it’s too late. The Blue Screen of Death flashes into your monitor, and all your work is gone.
You have to start all over again.
I feel like we’ve all been through this. Maybe it’s not a college paper. Maybe it’s an intricately programmed website or a message board post on whyAvengers
is way better than Man of Steel
. Maybe it’s weeks of progress on Call of Duty
. Maybe it’s a blog entry just like this one.
Whatever it is, in a single instant, it’s gone. And when you lose something into which you’ve put that kind of time—all those hours and days and weeks—it can feel outright impossible to start again.
If you’re an author, feedback from your editor
can sometimes feel pretty much exactly like that.
I recently worked with an author whose mystery novel, a perfectly interesting story, had some pretty serious problems. The most significant of these problems were logic issues, and those logic issues were so deep and fundamental—so endemic and so consistent—that any revision was going to involve rewriting much, if not most, of the manuscript
Think about that. You know how much work you’ve put into your manuscript. And on top of that, maybe you’ve already done a major revision. Maybe this is already your second draft. And knowing that—knowing just how much work you still have to do—how do you carry on?
There’s no easy answer to that. The truth of the matter is that a lot of would-be authors don’t
carry on. They put their manuscript in the figurative or literal drawer and never look at it again. Few things feel more hopeless than the figurative Blue Screen of Death.
But there is
hope. And if you want to see your manuscript to the end, there are some important ideas to keep in mind.Bad First Drafts Are Never a Waste of Time
Here’s something to remember: Every single great book you have ever read has a problematic first draft behind it. Every one. How problematic varies, sure, but rare, if not nonexistent, is the author who gets it right the first time.
Moreover—and this is crucial—each draft is an essential step
on the road to the completed manuscript you’re trying to write. Without that flawed early draft, you can’t learn the lessons you need to learn to write a stronger subsequent draft. You can’t know what to do right
until you see and understand what you’ve done wrong. You can’t reach the top of a ladder without stepping on the rungs in between.
One of my proudest moments as an editor came a number of years ago, when I worked on a novel by one of the most talented authors I’ve ever had the opportunity to edit. The first draft of her novel certainly had its merits, but the third act
was a melodramatic
, illogical, uneventful mess
. And that’s basically what I had to tell her.
The author told me later that she came very close to tossing that manuscript into the fireplace. It’s a natural response, when the idea gets into your head that all the work you’ve done is wasted time.
But again: There is no wasted time. That manuscript did not go into the fireplace. The author worked with it, crafting an entirely new third act. And it was brilliant. That novel, published now, is one of the best I’ve ever edited. And for the novel to be what it is now, it needed that flawed first draft
This is the fundamental way in which receiving a daunting editorial letter isnot
like the death of your hard drive. You’re not
doing the same work again. You’re building on what you’ve already done, and that makes all the difference.Plan Your Rewrite Attack for Your Second Draft
There’s another opportunity provided to you in the next draft, and it’s this: You know a heck of a lot more about your story now than you did the last time.
Maybe you plotted out your novel before you wrote it originally, and maybe you didn’t. Either way, when it comes to learning about your story and your characters, there’s no substitute for writing them. And you’ve done that. Maybe your villain was a bit of a question mark
when you started. Maybe your major plot twist
was something that only occurred to you ten pages before you got there. Maybe the romantic subplot
took even you by surprise.
But it’s not a surprise anymore, is it? Now, if you choose, that romantic subplot can occupy the heart of your manuscript. You can build around it. You can foreshadow your twist
by dropping hints in the very first chapter. You can craft your villain
from start to finish knowing exactly what makes her tick. Maybe you create a new outline
or post index cards to your wall, or maybe you just internalize the lessons and write, but no matter what, you know your story so much better now than you did when you set out to write that first draft.
In other words, a major revision doesn’t have to be an obstacle. It can be an opportunity.Take a Break From Your Second Draft
If the Blue Screen of Death is making things a little daunting right now, remember this: It is okay to take a break
. You don’t have to leap right into the next draft. You can let it sit for a while.
Some authors—the more successful amongst us, with deadlines and readers—don’t have this luxury. But if you do, and if you’re having trouble working your brain around the next draft, take a break. The reason this helps is that, when you make your way back to your story, you are inevitably a slightly different person than you were before. You’re in a different place. You’re no longer just responding to the editorial letter. You’re rejuvenated. You’re relaxed. You’re ready.
Now, the danger of this is that, when you set your manuscript aside, it can be hard to get back into the habit of working on it. That’s why you should mark a day in your calendar, two months or four months or six months out, on which you will
get back to work. On that day, when that reminder pops up telling you to work on your novel—work on your novel
Of course, if you feel inclined to work on it before
that point, then absolutely do.Remember Why You Wrote This Story
If all else fails, don’t forget how you got here.Most of us don’t write for money or fame
, and if you do, then believe me, you have chosen the wrong hobby. We write because we have a story to tell
, and whether it’s a quiet drama or an epic space war, it was important enough for us to devote months, or even years, toward creating it. It’s not uncommon for me to work with authors who have spent five or ten years, or even decades, dreaming about the story they’ve finally decided to tell.
And this story? That story that was worth your time when you started? It’s still worth it now. You set out on this journey with a goal, and just because there’s a big blue obstacle in your path doesn’t mean it’s not still the same goal every bit as worthwhile as it was when you started.
In the aftermath of a major editorial letter, especially the first, it can be hard to remember why you started writing. It can be hard to remember that spark of excitement that got you going. But it existed, and it will exist again if you let it. What better reason to carry on?
Of course, sometimes it feels like we genuinely can’t. Sometimes, we feel like Sisyphus shoving the rock up the hill. But don’t mistake fear and frustration for inability. And maybe that’s the final thought.You Can Do This!
You can. Just look at what you’ve already done. You’ve completed a draft. There are so many gifted writers out there who never have the drive and determination to do even that.
Even if your hard drive is so broken only the Blue Screen of Death remains, even if it feels like you’re starting all over again, know, and know well, that if you had what it takes to write this manuscript in the first place, then you have what it takes to finish it.