A few weeks ago, I started on the second draft of The Dior Bequest, the book I’m working on for 2020. I’ve mentioned before that my first drafts are a bit of a mess, which means I need to do quite a lot of work in my second draft. I think of this work as really burrowing into the story, layer by layer, starting with the surface of the scene and digging my way right into its core. Here’s what I mean.

My Aims With the Second Draft

My main is is to ensure the story makes sense! Because the story evolves for me while I’m writing the first draft, one of the most basic things I need to do is look at the continuity. How old each character will actually be over each year of the story, when they would have been born, the seasons, the months of the year – making sure everything matches up for every different scene.

I do a lot of research after the first draft and much of that material needs to be incorporated into the second draft. The research might also mean that something I have in the story is impossible historically and I have to change it, or that a new possibility for a scene has arisen out of the research and I need to rewrite a section based on that.

I think about structure in the second draft too. What order should the scenes go in and when should I alternate between the contemporary and the historical narrative? I look at the alternation of the story between the main plot and the subplots and make sure no subplot is dominating and that the main plot really is coming to the fore.

In a story sense, it means taking another look at each scene now that I know what the entire story is and making it the best possible scene to bring that story to life. This is where the burrowing happens.

Digging Into a Scene

I’ve discovered that, over the course of the second draft, I will rewrite most scenes at least twice, sometimes three times. Some scenes are dream scenes and don’t need that level of attention. But most others need lots of tender loving care.

The first time I rewrite a scene, it’s more of a quick fix. Tidying up the obvious things: adding in the research and fleshing out the dramaturgy and massaging it into the right context now that I have the full story in my head.

I’ll usually finish the scene and have a nagging voice in my head saying something like: it’s too insular, you’re in the main character’s head too much. Or, there’s not enough dialogue; who else could be in that scene? Or, you’ve dumped too much backstory; how else can you get the info across? Or, I don’t think the main character has come to life in the way they could have.

I’ll move onto the next scene, and all the while this voice will be repeating its worries. I’ll try to ignore it and tell myself that what I’ve done is fine but after an hour or so, or sometimes the next day, I will concede that the voice in my head is right. Usually this is because I’ve been on a walk and, while walking, the right way to tackle the scene has popped into my head. Perhaps the dialogue has come to me while I’m out walking or perhaps a way to more cleverly convey the backstory without dumping it into the narrative.

So I’ll rework the scene. Again. Once more, I’ll think I’m finished and I’ll try to move on. But, now that the scene is better than it was, somehow, that makes me see how it could be better yet, I don’t know why but, in rewriting, you find what you need to do. The first couple of rewrites aren’t a waste because if I didn’t do them, I wouldn’t know the scene so well that I can see what’s wrong and how to fix it.

You Learn a Little Along the Way

A lot of this has come from working with my marvellous publisher, Rebecca Saunders, at Hachette. I find I’m now more easily able to identify things she would tend to pick up in the structural edit, which are usually to do with not going deep enough with regards to a character’s motivations, emotions or actions. This is always the hard stuff, where I really have to sit and stare at a sentence for half an hour so that I word it in exactly the right way.

I often feel like I haven’t achieved anything after a morning’s work but I know in my heart that, sometimes, perfecting two sentences can elevate a scene exponentially.

So I keep burrowing away, scene by scene, sentence by sentence. Until it’s finished. And then it’s time to start the third draft …