Monday, October 26, 2009

The Cutting Room

Literary agent Terry Burns talks about learning from movies, saying that, once a writer is “done” with a book, he should go back and work on pacing and flow, much like a director goes to the cutting room and weaves together a movie from the various scenes he’s shot. That analogy breaks down at some point, but Terry is right; many manuscripts would be helped if the author would take the time to do that.

In my way of thinking, what Terry is describing is what I call the second draft. For me, the first draft is just getting something down on paper; we want to get to that 50,000 to 100,000 words as quickly as possible. The third draft is primarily about detailed sentence structure. The fourth draft is about correcting mistakes in spelling, punctuation, word usage, etc. The fifth draft is optional and may not be performed by the author, but it is the typesetting draft that will go to the printer. That leaves the second draft, which I see as the draft in which we add and remove large segments of words, as well as move them around. Hopefully, we won’t have to move chapters around, since we took care of that with our outline, but we’ll be messing with other stuff.

The second draft is essential. During the development of the first draft we had an unclear understanding of the overall flow and pacing. The outline should have helped, but the first draft is so laborious that we can’t hope to progress at the same speed as the reader. Once we have something on paper, we can read through the work at full speed and have some idea of what the reader will be thinking as he reads the finished product. If it seems like it is taking a long time to get through a particular passage, the reader will think the same. We should cut the passage or pick up the pace. With all of the stopping and restarting we had to do during the weeks we were creating the first draft, there’s no way we could know how the story flows, so don’t waste your time worrying about it. But in the second draft, that’s all we worry about.