What makes a great book – one that will attract an agent or publisher? Here I discuss what it takes to write a bestseller, but once you have those ideas together and get your ideas on paper, what comes next?
The work really begins when you put that last full-stop down in your first draft.
It can be disappointing when you first start writing, discovering that what is on the page isn’t going to win the Booker, but that’s where we all start. That first draft will always be a bit of a mess, the ‘vomit draft’ as Dave Rudden calls it, but it should be – this is the place where you find the story, where you get to know the characters and where your imagination stretches.
What you read on the bookshop or library shelf is NOT the author’s first attempt, it’s been through rounds and rounds of edits, first by the author, and then with numerous experts in that author’s publisher, to say nothing of their agent.
And if you get stuck, check out 10 tip for beating writers block, but today I’m here with what to look at when you tackle that sticky second draft:
It feels impossible to leave your baby in a drawer for any length of time, but if you can get distance from your manuscript you will return to it with fresh eyes. If you can leave it for long enough you’ll return with a reader’s eyes rather than a writer’s eyes, and you’ll be a LOT more objective. Make sure too at this stage that you get into the habit of saving any changes you make in a new document – then if you delete half a chapter but decide when you’ve finished that it really should be in, you can find it again. Make sure you BACK UP each of your drafts. I use Carbonite, an automatic cloud backup that runs throughout the day picking up changes to documents. It’s saved my life more than once (Windows 10, need I say more?). If you don’t have a back up in place, email your document to yourself.
2.Writing is rewriting
When you put the last full stop down on the first draft this is when the work really begins. Be prepared that it may take many drafts to get your book ready for professional eyes – and also be aware that those professional eyes can spot a raw or early draft a mile off! If you want an agent or editor to put the time in to read your work, don’t send it anywhere until it’s absolutely the best that it can be.
Think of the second draft as your growing pains draft – a chance to get those first drafts words in better shape for a more in-depth polish in the third draft. Be prepared, as Stephen King says, to ‘kill your darlings’. If you love a phrase or a sentence, there’s every chance it needs to go.
The only way to spot your mistakes is to print your work in hard copy and go over it with a red pen. On the screen your mind fills in what it expects to see – which isn’t always what’s there! Use this process to spot typos and missing words but also to look at story development and for the points detailed below. Take each chapter scene by scene and examine them.
4. Read aloud
If a sentence, paragraph or piece of dialogue feels clunky, it will be for the reader. Read it out loud and smooth it until it flows. The more you can read out loud, the better – it takes you one step away from the written word and one step closer to the reader. Look for bits that don’t work. Make sure the words don’t get in the way of the story.
5. Do the easy bits first, but always keep your eye on the bigger picture
This is your second draft – go over it looking for the obvious mistakes – are character names consistent, did ten people go into a lift and only one person come out? Does everything make sense?! All the time you are reading be conscious of the story development.
6. Time line
It’s usually at second draft stage that I discover I’ve make a mistake in my timeline. In Little Bones there are several concurrent storylines happening in different locations and in order to make these as clear as possible, I wanted to keep to a logical time line to help everyone to follow the story. So if it’s 10am in London, I needed to ensure it was in Dublin too. Make a note of the date/day/time at the top of each chapter and you’ll see if there’s been a timeslip.
Are your characters compelling? Do we want to know what happens to them? As an author you have a contract with the reader to deliver a great read and in order to want to invest six hours of their time in your book, your reader must be intrigued/interested enough in what happens to the characters to want to read on. For this to happen characters must be three dimensional, believable, and real.
Ensure that your point of view (POV) is consistent in each scene – head hopping is confusing for the reader and one character cannot know what another is thinking. If you need to change heads, leave a page break or do it in a new chapter so you reader isn’t confused.
Characters are key to story and keeping your characters consistent is imperative – right down to the simplest issues like making sure they all have the same name/hair/eye colour throughout. We all change details about characters and sometimes a mistake can slip through. If you decide half way through the first draft that a character would be much more interesting if they only had one leg, that scene with them waterskiing might need reviewing. Keeping a character bible – notes on what they look like, their date of birth, their pets names etc will help you and save you time in the long run. What is their best friend’s name?
It is crucial that your characters change as a result of the story, that is what story is, without change, there is no story.
Do we know where we are? If you have several key locations as I do in Remember My Name (the village of Dalkey, Dublin City centre and Grand Canal Dock, and a beach house in Wexford) it is clear when your characters are in Dublin, and when they are in London? Are we actually all on the moon or Plant 50, or down a rabbit hole? Have you painted a clear picture for your reader so they can see the scene? Are your location descriptions consistent? Do you have the same location reoccurring – do you have one set of characters who only ever talk in their bedroom, or the kitchen? Think about all these things, and use character action and dialogue to show us the locations, showing the reader through sounds, smells, the angle of the light, where your characters are.
9.Repetition and language
Every author has recurring ticks that creep into the story as they write – learn what yours are and watch out for them. In mine everyone nods far too much, so at second draft stage I’m reading for nods. My detective Cat Connolly has crazy curly hair that is always escaping from her pony tail and falling in her face – I need to make sure she doesn’t push it back too often or that becomes annoying for the reader. People clear their throats a lot too, ahem. All these are elements to address in the second draft.
Watch for words that lessen the impact of you sentences – adverbs like actually, finally, really, and any word that quantifies a verb such as almost, just, little, only and few. Watch out to for repeated words as these will jar the reader out of the story. Remember Strunk and White’s advice in The Elements of Style: “Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
Does it work?! Is there a narrative arc, does something happen to create conflict and ultimately, is there resolution of some sort for the characters. In your second draft it’s time to take a step back and work out if everything you have suggested is plausible and consistent. Are there any mega plot holes? Does each scene move the plot forward or inform us about character? Does it have a purpose? Are you balancing the whole solution to your character’s dilemma on an improbable co-incidence?
Does your story start immediately before the action begins? This is CRUCIAL in every genre – in screen writing they talk about going into a scene as late as possible, and getting out as early as possible. The same applies to fiction.
Does the story have a good pace or does it sag around the middle – if it does, what can you do about that? Is there enough external and internal conflict? Does each chapter end with a hook that will keep the reader reading?
These are all areas I’m looking at as I tackle the next draft of what will be book 8. Your first drafts will get more polished with practice but it still takes several goes to get things right – and really, NEVER show anyone your first draft, that’s just for you – it’s like the construction lines in a drawing – you want people to see the painting not the work in progress! The best advice I was ever given was ‘just keep writing’, keep at it and you’ll create that painting.
Before your story goes anywhere ensure you’ve grasped: building great characters, showing not telling, effective and engaging dialogue, avoiding cliches, understanding who your reader is – what genre is your book? What length it needs to be to satisfy the demands of the genre? All these areas are covered here on Writing.ie – some links above. If you’re just starting out on your writing journey, it’s a lot of work, but it’s worth every moment.
This is one of my favourite quotes: ‘As a writer, words are your paint. Use all the colours’. (Rhys Alexander.)
(c) Sam Blake
Sam Blake’s 7th thriller Remember My Name has just been released with rave reviews and was a No 1 bestseller.
‘This is an incredibly taut thrill with a tense undercurrent of threat rippling through every page. It’s compelling, modern thriller writing at its very best, combining sharply drawn characters with a dark, gripping plot. Utterly addictive!’ Victoria Dowd
If she’d turned off her phone, instead of listening in, perhaps no one would have died…
When Cressida Howard catches her entrepreneur husband playing away from home, she hires security expert Brioni O’Brien to get the evidence she needs for a speedy and financially rewarding divorce.
But what Brioni uncovers goes beyond simple infidelity. Because Laurence Howard is also in bed with some very dangerous people.
Bribery and blackmail are the least of his worries as someone comes after the women in his life – someone who is out to destroy Laurence and his empire, whatever the cost. And Cressida and her teenage daughter could soon be collateral damage, if she and Brioni don’t act fast.
Find out more here: https://www.samblakebooks.com/books/remember-my-name/
Sam’s debut novel was shortlisted for Irish Crime Novel of the Year in 2016, but it wasn’t the first book she wrote – find out more here: https://www.samblakebooks.com/
For fans of Alex Barclay and Niamh O’Connor, Little Bones was Sam Blake’s runaway bestselling debut, and introduces Cathy Connolly, a bright young heroine set to take the world of crime fiction by storm.
Attending what seems to be a routine break-in, troubled Detective Garda Cathy Connolly makes a grisly discovery: an old wedding dress – and, concealed in its hem, a baby’s bones.
And then the dress’s original owner, Lavinia Grant, is found dead in a Dublin suburb.
Searching for answers, Cathy is drawn deep into a complex web of secrets and lies spun by three generations of women.
Meanwhile, a fugitive killer has already left two dead in execution style killings across the Atlantic – and now he’s in Dublin with old scores to settle. Will the team track him down before he kills again?
Struggling with her own secrets, Cathy doesn’t know dangerous – and personal – this case is about to become…