Work on the 2nd draft of Welcome to the Fold started in earnest this weekend, and to mark the occasion I have some more notes about the whole rewrite process. (Tr.: SKIP THIS POST IF YOU HATE WRITERLY MINUTIAE.)
A first draft for me is just that: a draft. It's a sprint — a way to reach a goal I have in mind, and touch on as many of the concerns for the story that come to mind, too. I can't start any story without knowing how it ends, and what the implications and mood of that ending are like. In some ways the tone and feeling of the ending are even more important than the actual events: those help shape what the emotional arc of the story is. As Updike once pointed out, "The king died and then the queen died" isn't the story, it's the plot; "the king died and then the queen died of grief" is the story.
So once I've got that first end-to-end draft, the next job is to take it apart. What I'm doing right now is going through the book and creating a scene-by-scene outline from the material I've actually written. I did have an outline I produced before, pre-emptively — kind of an unusual thing for me, actually, but I didn't follow it slavishly. It was just there to give me some sense of how to move forward from any one given scene to the next, and there were places where I deviated from it entirely.
That deviation helped me perform a lot of pre-emptive editing: a lot of things got condensed or thrown out altogether, because when I could see them at "ground level", it was plain they didn't work. They looked terribly flashy and attractive when I outlined them, but as someone else once said (he was referring to screenwriting but it sure applies here), it's one thing to write THE DESERT — DAWN on the page and another thing entirely to actually go out there, set up the tripod, and start shooting. (I suspect this is why I got told at one point that my first drafts tend to be a lot more polished than other peoples'; it's because a lot of the toss-and-test that might happen earlier on paper for most people has already happened for me.)
While doing this outline, I also end up taking a lot of notes along the way — something I find really aids the rewrite process. It's like having a conversation with an editor: Why did you do this? Why didn't you do that? Make sure you touch on these things as well. And so on. I tend to get as skeptical as I can about why any one thing is included in a story, so if I have questions about why something needs to be a particular way, I know I have to come up with answers beyond the ones that just got me to put them into the story originally (e.g., "it just felt right"). In the long run, it makes for a better story, and it makes you less compulsively willing to defend things that make sense to you but may just make readers frown and squint. Those change notes also get recorded along with the new outline.
Once that new outline is generated, I can then get down to the business of actually doing a rewrite, and implementing the changes that need to be made. The way I know I'm done with the second draft is when I figure there are no more major changes to be made — no repairs to the plotting, logistics, themes, or pacing. Everything after that in successive drafts is just cosmetic repair — grammar, syntax, metaphors, maybe pacing issues if it really seems warranted. (This is also where any of the inline notes I've made in the document are acted on.)
More than four drafts is pushing it. Otherwise I start to get twitchy about the decisions I've made, and I start second-guessing myself in bad ways. At that point it's just best to close the book, deliver it, and move forward. If there's mistakes to be learned from, they'll have to be learned from for the sake of whatever comes next.
It's hard to overestimate the importance of reworking something.
One of the saddest things I've ever read was a letter from Dostoevsky's wife, Anna, written after his death, in which she talked about how he was always forced to write in such haste. The family was perennially short of money, and not only because of their conventional family debts (those incurred by Dostoevsky's gambling, for instance) but because if someone came to him and said "you owe me money", he had a tendency to take them on face value and pay up. (It got to the point where Anna had to routinely screen creditors that came to the house to determine whether or not they had a legitimate grievance.)
The upshot was that most of his work was produced with little or no time to be reworked. The Gambler — written to ensure he could provide a publisher with a manuscript, any manuscript, lest his copyrights be forfeit for nine years — was dictated to Anna in shorthand because he didn't have the time to produce it himself. (That was, in fact, how the two of them met in the first place.) And in her letters, Anna laments how so much of his work could have been orders of magnitude better if only he had been allowed the time to actually work on them, and not rush through just to give people a manuscript. It's hard to imagine what kinds of improvements he could have made to some of his own work, or how different an author he might have been — how his own themes might have changed had he the time to revise extensively. The stories we have seem all of a piece, but what they must have seemed like through his eyes....