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Do Over

I am in second draft hell.

Writing the first draft of a novel is exhilarating. Filling a blank page with characters, settings, exposition, and dialogue can make you feel like a god. You are indeed crafting a world, after all. You are creating a false reality. And as you write, you can’t help but wonder if that world is perhaps real, and you are merely tapping into it, the dreamer of the dream.

Writing the bloody thing all over again? Not so exhilarating. In fact, the process can be downright demoralizing. And it’s a lot of work.

A lot of writers will tell you the secret to good writing involves wearing two hats. In a first draft, you wear your Creative Hat, allowing unbridled ideas to pour onto the page. During this phase, you are not supposed to over-think or doubt yourself into a corner of fear and cowardice. Rather, you permit yourself to explore without shame. And you are able to accomplish this by convincing yourself one, simple thing: Nobody has to read the first draft but you! It’s your secret. They don’t need to know.

Next comes the Editing Hat. This is the voice of reason, and it’s what makes you realize, when you go back and read your masterpiece, that most of what you just wrote is complete crap. This hat is less fun to wear.

Now, I have met many writers who claim they quite enjoy the second hat, thank you very much. They like taking their project and tweaking it here and there. They like coming up with snarkier dialogue for their sullen teenage protagonist. They like adding descriptive elements to their starship hanger. They like deciding they need a paragraph break. Great! I like that stuff, too. But the thing is? That step? That’s called the third draft. That’s called taking your story and making it sing. At that point, you get to play in your sandbox. It’s fun.

But there is a phase, dear reader, in between. The second draft. And here’s what makes it so hard: The second draft doesn’t involve creating a story from scratch. Nor does it involve decorating a completed story. No. A second draft involves changing the very fabric of the story itself.

To go back to my sandbox analogy: If a first draft is like adding a sandbox to your backyard (fun!), and a third draft is like building sandcastles in your sandbox (fun!), a second draft is like moving your entire sandbox from the sunny side of your backyard to the shaded side, one handful of sand at a time (miserable).


And today, as I try to hammer out another dent in the bodywork of my manuscript (I know I’m mixing my metaphors, but this is my blog, the place where I give myself permission to hit “post” after the first draft), it finally donned on me why second drafts are so psychologically daunting: It’s not just because I’m changing the very structure of something I already wrote; it’s because I’m forced to wear both hats at the same time.

In a second draft, you still need to keep your Creative Hat on—because you’re still dealing with “story.” You’re developing an entirely different background for a character. You’re threading a subplot through the mix. You’re acknowledging the first third of your novel is dull. You’re realizing that if you shifted the point of view three degrees to the left, you’d have a story that actually means something. You’re taking a story you wrote, and making it a story that matters.

At least, you hope that’s what you’re doing. Because the whole time you’re doing it, your Editing Hat, which is now unavoidably resting snuggly on top of your Creative Hat, is harassing you, screaming things like, “Wait! If you change that, then you’ll need to change this other thing! And hold on, are you sure you want to take that part out? Because if you take that part out, holy cannoli, you gotta take that other part out later, and you liked that part, didn’t you? Oh man, what a shame.”

The gutter that normally partitions your right brain from your left is awash in conflict. It’s self-imposed cognitive dissonance. It’s second draft hell.

And oh yeah, new discovery: Never think you can go back and just change the beginning of your novel. It may seem possible at the time, but trust me, it’s a butterfly effect, and it will cascade until it finally spills over the final page. There are no shortcuts, here. You need to make sure all the sand makes it to it’s new location, or you’ll be left with two shallow sandboxes, and neither one will be worth playing in.

But here’s the thing—because there’s always a thing, right? In my blogs, there’s always a thing. The thing about second drafts is this:

Worth it.

Because sure, it’s fun to put a sandbox in your backyard. But moving it from one location to another, one scoop of sand at a time? Getting sore and sweaty due to the sheer amount of work it takes? Stepping back and realizing that now that it’s finally in the shade, it may actually be worth playing in?

The marathon ends, the muscles relax, the dissonance fades, and there is nothing more rewarding in the world.

Look at what you've done. You've moved a sandbox.

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