Monday, January 10, 2011

Reader question: What is a 2nd draft?

Carlos sent in this question:

This probably sounds like a silly question, but something you might want to answer on your blog (unless you can link me to a similar topic and answer?): I have trouble really understanding how a writer writes a 2nd Draft.

I've heard/read things like: "Never let someone read your first draft. It's a first draft. Let it sit for a bit, reread it and then work on the 2nd Draft." But, what is a 2nd Draft? Is it just changing some dialogue around? Is it rewriting the script from page one to page 100?

I understand a 2nd Draft in the studio sense. "We like it, but rewrite this character, make it a comedy, change the theme, etc." And if you add a new writer, yea, suddenly you're talking an obvious new draft of a story. But, if you are the original writer and you've written what you felt is the story you want to tell, and no one is going to look at the first draft, what the heck am I changing and why?

I suspect different writers have different definitions of a second draft. There are some writers who are wordsmiths with dialogue who can turn out 180 page first drafts that are strong on dialogue but weak on structure. For them, the second draft is probably all about finding the structure and condensing the script accordingly. Other writers might have a "bare bones" first draft at 90 pages, and find that they need to add subtlety and dimension to a script that's on the nose. Maybe the structure is perfect, but the execution needs refining.

It feels like your question presumes that the writer's first pass at a script is always a perfect representation of what he wants to write. That's rarely the case. There's an old line that "Writing is rewriting." I can assure you that even when a writer is able to proceed without any interference from a studio, director, actor or whomever, it would be naive to assume that they get it exactly right the first time.

Here's my process:

I finish a first draft. I lock it up for a day, maybe even a week. I don't want to look at it then. I just want to bask in the accomplishment and get some distance from the writing. Then I take it out, and I wince every few pages at some overwritten dialogue, under-explained actions, or scenes that beat into the ground a point that might have been better expressed in another scene.

Expecting the first draft of anything to be good enough to show people is like expecting the first cut of a film to be ready for public exhibition - and any editor will tell you that's never the case.

So I make some tweaks. I rewrite dialogue. Where necessary I move around scenes, add new ones, cut some entirely, condense characters. Then I take this polished first draft to my writing group.

A week later, six people tell me what works and what doesn't. If I'm lucky, they'll all agree in lockstep. If I'm unlucky, there'll be divided opinions on some scenes. But here's the thing - I always come out of these meetings with new ideas. One way or another I get new ideas from this.

So I go back and do a round of rewriting. After I finish that pass, I give it to fresh eyes I trust - my wife. She gives candid notes, usually gives sharp suggestions, and based on the severity of those changes, I either do a polish, or I send it out to four of my trusted readers who are not in my writing group.

After as long as a month or two, I'll have heard from all four of those people and embark on my latest draft, based on their reactions to what works and what doesn't. The draft that emerges from that goes back to the writing group, or to another group of trusted readers.

As a writer, I know I'm often too close to my material to be completely objective. I don't take every note I'm given, but the reactions of those going into the material fresh is always as a good gauge as to how successful I've been at translating my intent to the page. Every now and then a reader draws an unintended conclusion from some moments, or finds a subtext I never intended and need to squash quickly.

So how do I write a second draft? By finding people articulate enough to express what they took from the script, and then assessing what I need to do to make that match up with the movie in my head.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the answer. I guess I figured there really are varying definitions of a second draft, but when so many just call it the same thing, I wondered if perhaps I was missing something.

    The important steps seem to be having others take a look at it. And that's where I need to do a better job of making friends with other writers. I hardly know a trusting soul that is not only willing to read someone else's script, but understands how to read one.