Last Tuesday, I finished the second draft of my suspense novel, SEVEN DUDES. It came to a little more than 61,000 words. That’s 10,000 more words than the first draft. I was THRILLED.
The very next morning, Marcus and I boarded a plan for Hawaii. He had a business trip there, and remarkably, his employers were sending me with him…for free. This has never happened to me before. A free vacation with no strings attached? I couldn’t believe my luck…and the timing! What better way to celebrate finishing a draft than to take a trip to paradise?
This trip was yet another one of the clear, hard-hitting messages that the universe had been sending to me during the past four weeks that told me that I needed to stick with my path. I will tell you more about this in a future post, but for now, I’m going to share with you the key lessons that I learned from writing my second draft.
Lesson #1: It takes as long as it takes.
It took me nine months to write the first draft of SEVEN DUDES DOC AND THE SEVEN. If you had told me that before I started, I would have been bummed, angry, and overly critical of myself. This is because I originally thought it would only take me three months to write the first draft. After that, I thought for sure that the second draft would take me less time. Nope. It ended up taking me longer–a little over ten months. Again, if I had known this before I started, I would have been pissed and then depressed. I always want to finish fast. I am not a patient writer. I am a sprinter, not a marathoner. It’s hard for me to keep working on something when I can’t see the end in sight. But I had learned from the first draft that it would not help me to set a deadline. It could end up taking me three times as long and then I’d be disappointed. So, instead, I just worked steadily on it and assured myself that it would take as long as it took. This second draft taught me to write on a regular basis, and it ended up working out as well as it could have.
Lesson #2: Go with your instincts (even when someone you totally trust disagrees with you).
While writing my first draft, my instincts told me to have my main character (MC) make a drastic move in Act 2. But when I told Marcus about it (he’s my story doctor and first reader), he said he didn’t think my MC would do that. Turns out, he was thinking about what he wished my MC would do, or not do, not what my MC needed to do. I knew that I had to throw big stones at my MC in Act 2 and then throw even bigger ones throughout Act 3. But I was filled with doubt, didn’t following my instincts, and ended up following Marcus’s advice. After finishing my first draft, I know that the plot was wrong, and that it didn’t match the story, the armature I was trying to prove. It was not Marcus’s fault. It was my own fault for not following my instincts. As I got into my second draft, I changed the plot to veer my MC toward the drastic move that needed to happen. It was painful to do–to make my MC go through this new personal hell–but it made the plot much better, and more importantly, it matched my story. Which brings us to Lesson #3.
Lesson #3: Be willing to feel your characters’ pain.
Part of the reason why I fear writing is because I fear feeling the pain of my characters. It’s hard for me to make them go through difficult times. But it’s also hard for me because I go through it with them. That’s partly why I only write for one to two hours a day, three at the most. Especially when I’m writing painful scenes, I can only write for so long and then I need to stop and do something that has nothing to do with writing. I need time to recover and renew. How much does this happen? Well, for the second draft, because I was much harder on my MC, and all my characters, it happened a lot, almost every other day. I’m pretty sure that’s a big reason why it took me ten months to write this draft. But, it had to be done, and my story is so much better because of it. This draft taught me that if you want your reader to feel a whole range of emotions while reading your story, then you must feel them too. You must be willing to feel the pain of your characters.
There are other lessons that I learned through writing Draft 2, but these are my Top 3, and the ones that will stick with me the most. I hope you find them helpful.
They say you should take a lot of time off between drafts, like at least a couple of months or more, but after being in Oahu for four days, I felt relaxed, renewed, and ready to get back at it. After we flew back to Seattle, I took one more day off to go on my Post-Birthday Mystery Lunch adventure with my friend Alisa (thanks for keeping the aloha spirit going by treating me to Ma’Ono Fried Chicken!), and then I went to work on Draft 3. This is not a rewrite like Draft 2. This is a polish and fill-in-the-holes draft. I predict it will take me 10-14 days. What?! Can I really finish a draft in two weeks or less? Yes, I can, because of all the heavy lifting I did in Draft 2. Finally, after 20 months of marathoning, I get a chance to sprint! It feels SO good.
So, if you’re in the middle of writing your novel or memoir or short story or set of poems, and it feels so hard on some days, know that I can relate. So many of us can relate
Remember, it takes as long as it takes.
Remember, trust your instincts.
Remember, feel what your characters feel, and get it down on the page.
Peg Cheng is the author of The Contenders, a middle-grade novel centered on the question, can enemies become friends? She is currently writing another novel that is a re-imagining of the Snow White fairy tale set in 1980s Seattle. Peg is also the creator of Fear & Writing, a workshop for procrastinating writers from all walks of life.
Art by Gediminas Pranckevicius.