Underwater Blues: Getting Down into the Second Draft

“You see, in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”

Junot Díaz

From Becoming a Writer/ The List, O Magazine, November 2009

 

It is easy to write the first draft.

Starting with a blank page means that your characters can be anyone you want.  The story world is yours to build anywhere you choose.  It’s easy to tell yourself that eventually the plot points will line up, the heroine will save the day and maybe end up with a hot guy.  This is because the first draft is essentially a brain dump, the worst version that will exist.  Expectations are low.

By the second draft, however, you are working with something that came before.  There will still be big changes, but they have to fit in with the existing framework.  The blank pages that caught tragic flaws and mistakes so easily before are now filled with words that can be their own sticky web of tangles and snarls.  The layers of story you’ve built might fit together but it’s more likely they’ll run over each other or sit across the widest chasm waiting for the bridge you have to build between them.

It can be hard to feel forgiveness in your own writing.

Even worse, life and world events change your perspective on your own story and what used to look like a battle to save the world is now chick lit where the heroine’s big task is rearranging her closet…in 300 pages.

There is also the fatigue.  In the first draft, you are a fresh-faced, new grad with no mistakes or missteps marring your record.  As the plot winds on, however, every challenge seasons you.  For the most part this is good, but in the second draft, self-doubt can creep in as you read back over your previous pages.  The shitty first draft you wrote turns into its own performance review and your own words tell you that you are, undoubtedly, under-performing.

That under-performance affects what you think you’re capable of writing next or whether you are capable of building the bridge.  The inner critic shows up to explain in voluminous detail how each word is a failure and the tragic flaws of your characters become your own.  Instead of your monumental achievement, your precious first draft becomes the written warning sent by certified mail and you are on notice about your own writing.

This can be a death spiral.

It is important to recognize the inner critic if only to banish it.  Everyone, no matter what they do, has one of these.  Sometimes, it’s your past coming back to haunt you, which is truly sad.   No one deserves being made to feel as if everything they do or write is a mistake, but for too many people, at some stage in their lives, a person exists who does that very thing.  Even if it’s only your own internal pressures, it’s important to learn how to let go of these harsh voices and continue laying down the pages word by word.

Letting go is the key.  Letting go is how your initial draft came to be in the first place. It is the release from your own high expectations or any thoughts that this next draft will be better at all than the last one.  Even if it is worse, who is counting?

So let go of the page count and the chapters.  Let go of the location of your story and your character’s point of view.  Let go of what must be and let go of “the message.”  It’s ok to float and ok to release what you knew about your story.  Let it all go, all of it.

I’m sure that for every story, there are some pieces that float away and won’t return, but there are also the pieces that stay.  This is the kernel of truth about your story and this kernel makes it the story that only you can tell.

When I let go, my characters come back to me.  They take my hand and they walk me back to the story world we created together.

We are walking and I am writing.

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