Second Draft Blues

To fight lethargy and despondency like you’re in the final level of a Resident Evil game; the timer’s counting down, the monster’s chasing you, you’ve no more med kits and you’re down to your last three bullets and bombs. Focus: take that thing down, disarm the doomsday device and settle back for the final cut scene.

Or not. Consider, instead, relaxing into lethargy, letting yourself drift Homer-like into duvet dreamland, asleep at the wheel, friendly angels holding you aloft and guiding you home.

But Homer’s not a good role model.

I’m in the second draft blues. I’m the second-draft writer glaring darkly, jealously at the first-draft writer. Gone is the cavalier energy of the first draft, the anything-goes-just-get-to-the-word-count sprint to the daily finish line, arms held aloft, sweating in triumph, and end-of-game boss dead at their feet. Now it’s cavalier to puritan roundhead, the embarrassed, cringing re-reading and correcting, of rehashing and redrafting, of re-plotting and re-characterising.

The second draft is more that simply finding errors and typos, although there are plenty of those. In my latest I’ve gone for present tense, something I’ve not bothered with before, and so much of my slog is changing ‘was’ to ‘is’, swapping ‘ed’ for ‘ing’ in my participles and more ‘says’ for ‘said’ than running zombies in a Romero remake. On top of that there are the usual typos and errors that can be corrected easily enough – as long as they’re spotted. Many of mine are only found if I read out loud, which gets me funny looks from the kids. They already think I must be mad ‘working’ in the holidays, so telling them I’m redoing work I’ve already done only raises their expectations of insanity. ‘Just do it right first time,’ they say. ‘If only,’ I reply. ‘But this bit is just as important as the first draft.’ ‘Sounds boring.’ They’re right; it’s boring and it’s frustrating, but it’s manageable, unlike the dread of what the second draft is really for: making it all make some kind of sense.

That headlong rush through the first draft leaves a choppy wake, characters and plot-threads floundering, drowning. Even worse, that plodding, imponderable prose. And as a part-time writer there are a lot of months between beginning and ending a first draft; September to July in my most recent effort, and so things get forgotten. In my latest I’ve gone for a multi-perspective narrative around a terrorist event. There are characters that I’d forgotten about (who the hell are you? Oh, you died.); characters whose names have changed, causing a panic as the second-draft writer wonders who they are; some characters are in June and others in August (the whole story takes place in a 20-hour period); characters whom I had thought were carefully crafted individuals are cliched clones; even a character very important to the ending who that idiot first-draft writer killed off at the halfway point; and each character’s story had a different number of terrorist explosions even though they all witness the same events. Much of my drafting notes have been trying to keep track of things blowing up and stopping my brain from suffering an equally unknown number of explosions. Some hair may have been lost.

Even worse are the moments I remember. The days when the keyboard was on fire with burning prose and everything was right with the world. Superb similes and settings, marvellous metaphors, perfect pathos, brilliant bathos, exquisite exposition, cracking characterisation and amazing allegory. All dust on the re-read, every word’s death throes grating and loud like shoe-horned alliteration.  The second-draft writer glares at the first-draft writer, their past dead self, eyes up a grave made for dancing and cries into their two left feet.

The second-draft writer is Ripley at the end of ‘Alien’, creeping through the decks and corridors of the Nostromo, self-destruct all set to burn it all. The second-draft writer makes it to the escape pod only to find that the monster has joined them. Slip into the space suit. Blow the hatch, settle into a hibernation pod, just a cat for company, and drift away into the deep black, hoping to be rescued.

And when life returns and things are almost normal, almost human, something taps at the second-draft writer’s window, and all those faces hover, waiting to be let back in. And, of course, the second-draft writer opens the window.

Second Draft Blues

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