Draft 1… draft 2… draft 3… how many more?

I have just finished the first draft of my second thriller, provisionally titled ‘The Shadowman’. Having spoken to my agent, Will Francis, he said that he has time towards the middle of next week to read it. So, in the meantime, I’m planning to read through it once again myself (for the third time) and revise.

Most novelists revise their manuscript multiple times, but some revisions are bigger than others. I’d call them Fundamental Revisions and Tinkering Revisions.

Fundamental Revisions, include cutting and adding characters, changing the ending, changing the antagonist (the baddie) which I did in White Crocodile on the advice of Will, adding another totally new sub-plot – again something I did in White Crocodile. I think that Fundamental Revisions can be hard to do without outside advice because, when you’ve lived with your characters and plot-day in, day-out for a year it can be incredibly hard to see the wood for the trees. That is why novelists need a great agent. The agent is on your side – they get a percentage of what you, the writer, are paid – so their aims are entirely aligned with yours.

Will Francis worked with me for six months, helping me to revise White Crocodile, before we sent it out to publishers and though the process was dispiriting at times, the novel is infinitely better as a result. As a debut novelist I found his advice and wisdom invaluable and I learnt a huge amount about what makes a great novel from Will.

Tinkering revisions include shifting around scenes, changing wording, and editing for grammar, spelling and punctuation. Fleshing out a story can be tinkering, and each time you read your novel new ideas occur – adding details here and there to make the characters come more alive in the reader’s mind.

So what is the purpose of each draft?

I believe that the purpose of each draft depends on how you approach writing in the first place. I can’t write a word until I have plotted out the whole novel, scene by scene, from beginning to end. I use a blank wall in my office and a post-it note for every scene. My first draft is therefore, in terms of story, reasonably true to the finished novel. Other writers I have spoken to, do not plot at all. They prefer to start writing based on an idea, such as: an FBI profiler is sitting in a restaurant when someone walks in and shoots the waiter. They then find the story as they write and use the first draft to literally do that – find their story. A significant portion of the first draft might then be thrown away. Sadly I am far too controlling to go about writing that way! I need to know exactly where I am going before I put pen to paper.

For me, the second and third drafts are about tinkering – fleshing out characters, shifting around scenes and sharpening up the writing. Drafts four, five and beyond will probably be more fundamental changes as, by then, I will have involved my agent who casts an entirely fresh eye over the manuscript.

If you are interested in writing, I’d suggest reading ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King. I found some great pieces of advice in it; one being that once you have written a first draft, put the novel away for at least a month. When you re-read it again after that month, it will literally be like reading someone else’s work, and the necessary revisions will become crystal clear.

I took that approach with White Crocodile and found exactly what Stephen King predicted. Putting the novel away for a month gave me the space to see the wood for the trees.

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