This weekend I’ve been at the Open House Festival in Bangor hosting the Dear Agent event with literary agent Polly Nolan of The Greenhouse Literary Agency, agent Paul Feldstein and bestselling author and screen writer Colin Bateman. After an in-depth agent discussion panel and a fabulous session where we critiqued and discussed the participants’ pitches, we got into the nitty gritty of what makes a great book – one that will attract an agent or publisher. With both my publishing consultant/literary scout hat and my Sam Blake author hat on, we went through several of the key areas that need to be addressed, including the drafting process.
Here are a few ideas of 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.
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.
Do we know where we are? If you have several key locations as I do in Little Bones, 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 dilema on an improbable co-incidence?
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 latest draft of the follow up to Little Bones, Cat Connolly book 2 as it is currently known – you’ll be able to see in 2017 whether any of it worked!
(c) Sam Blake
For fans of Alex Barclay and Niamh O’Connor, Little Bones 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…
Little Bones is in all good bookshops and for a limited time is only £1.99 on Kindle, pick up your copy here!