By Kate Heartfield
Whenever I start a third draft, I hear Jewel the Unicorn in The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis crying out, “Come further up, come further in!”
That’s because I’ve learned something about my writing process.
First drafts are for turning my outline into something story-shaped.
Second drafts are for fixing the most obvious story-level problems: the inconsistencies, the character arcs that go nowhere, the plot holes. I might have to fix more of these later, after I get feedback, but at the second-draft stage I can at least identify and solve the big ones.
Third drafts are mainly about character, voice and point of view.
In the early drafts, when I’m focusing on just getting the words down, I tend to write at a bit of a distance from my characters. And I tend to focus on laying out the story, beat by beat. I don’t always take the space to really revel in a scene or a moment.
These are subconscious habits, but over the years I’ve become aware of them. And even though I now try to be more aware of my habits in that first draft so I can save myself work later, I know that I’ll almost always need at least one draft that heightens the emotion (come further up!) and moves the reader closer to my point-of-view characters (come further in!)
So in my first draft, I might write:
She couldn’t believe what a hypocrite he was being.
On the third draft, this might turn into:
What hypocrisy! What gall! She put her hands to her cheeks; they were hot. So be it. If her face was red, let him see it. Let him see her honest anger.
This is one reason why the oft-repeated wisdom to cut 10 per cent or 20 per cent out of a first draft isn’t very useful to me (although it is useful to many writers who have different habits.)
John Gardner’s book The Art of Fiction explores the concept of narrative distance, among other topics, and I found it very useful.
One good thing about getting to know my process for third drafts is that it helps improve my process for first drafts too. When I’m writing quickly, at NaNoWriMo pace or something close to it, I tend to leave a lot of notes for my future self as I go. And these days, those notes are often just “more!” and closer!”
Kate Heartfield’s fiction has appeared in magazines such as Strange Horizons, Podcastle, Daily Science Fiction and Crossed Genres. She is working on a historical fantasy novel and is represented by Red Sofa’s Jennie Goloboy. Kate’s website is heartfieldfiction.com and she is on Twitter as @kateheartfield.