Congratulations! If this is your first finished novel, extra congratulations. Now close the desktop or notebook folder your manuscript is in and don’t open it for at least two weeks. Minimum. A month will be even better. Do whatever it takes to forget that novel that’s been forefront in your mind for so long.

Your brain never sleeps. It’ll be working on the issues that are worrying you. But really, the second draft is for grunt work.

First: Check for structure.

How many total words have you got? How many chapters? Generally, the shorter the novel, the fewer the words in chapters and more for longer ones. If your story has 60K-80K words, you should have 32-ish chapters that run 2,000–2,500-ish words. If it’s 81K to 150K or more, think in terms of 3,000–3,500-ish words, but not much more; you’ll lose reader interest because you’ll lose the hook to drive the reader to the next chapter.

Make sure your chapters don’t vary wildly, with some at 900 words and some at 3,600. No matter what the total word count is, redo them, even them out.

Another way to know if you’re near or far away from good chapter lengths: Divide the number you presently have by the page count. Jot down the page numbers. Are they even or all over the place? Follow the guidelines above if you find you’re far off an even count.

In either choice, read the final line of each chapter to determine if you have endings that keep your reader engaged or ones that put them to sleep.

Every chapter equals motion (a.k.a. flow) that demands readers keep reading because its ‘cliffhanger’ endings propel them on to the next. Dramatic, literal cliffhangers are not necessary. Sometimes, it’s something simple, along the lines of:

     She wondered, as she washed the attic windows, if he really meant what he’d said. Well, it’s too late to know, now; he’s gone to Alaska.
     There was a knock on her front door.

Many writers would continue on to her opening the door. Depending on where you are, chapter word-count-wise, that last sentence could be a good ending to keep them riveted to the story. Check if your perfect final line is five sentences above or below where the break is now.

Once you’re sure of your word counts and your compelling ending sentences, you’ll have a structure and flow you can be confident in.

Second: Print the manuscript.

Reading the story on paper is considerably different from reading it on screen. I like to set mine at 1-inch margins, 1.5 line spacing, 11pt. type. Don’t start new chapters with page breaks, just scroll them through. Put your page number at the top right, just because they’re easier to see there than at the bottom.

Third: Become the reader.

The next challenge is to forget you’re the author. You are a reader now. It helps that you are also the author, so you can answer the real where, when, why, what(?!) questions that’re coming below.

Have a pen or pencil and highlighter nearby. The aim at this stage is to catch problems, and jot notes where you question something.

All of the below quotes are the kind of comments you might scribble or mumble as you read.

How’s the timing, as a critical part of structure and flow?

1: ‘Oh, my goodness, why is all of that in chapter nine? It makes no sense here. It should be in chapter five’s, or maybe eighteen’s place.’

2: ‘Why did I have that character say that now?’

3: ‘Where has character X gone to? I haven’t heard from him for quite a while.’

4: ‘How could she be shutting the door behind her? She hasn’t left the building yet.’

How well is the stage set?

1: ‘Where did that dragon come from? He just appears here; not what I meant to do.’

2: ‘What island is this?—Uh-oh, that island is off the mainland; I didn’t describe that yet.’

3: ‘The palace is on fire? What palace? The only palace is in Xenophon… and where do I say that?’

Do the characters fit their backstories and descriptions? Have you slipped up on any of them?

1: ‘Whoops, John hates heights and I’m sending him on a mountain climbing trip.’

2: ‘Oh, my, Big John is 6’4’; he can’t get into that house through a 4×4’ window—maybe not even a door.’

3: ‘Her golden hair glows bright in the sun…. Yeah, well, but she’s a platinum blonde.’

Do the story facts and real-world facts fit?

1: The law of the storyland is: The kingdom meets to crown the king on the third day of the third week of the third year. It’s the fourth day, and he’s just getting crowned; no one in the story seems to notice.

2: A character states at noon that a ranch is about thirty miles away by horseback. He says he and his troops will arrive by dawn. Reality: a horse can travel about seven miles per hour, faster at a constant gallop. So the trip would take maybe 3.5 to 4.5 hours.

3: If you have off-Earth numbers in dates, distances, or time, double-check you’ve used them consistently.

Are there any unexpected bloopers?

1: Setting: Lightless cave; no lamps or flashlights around. Yet the hero says he can see up ahead.

2: Quote: ‘Look at the two moons up there. They are named Berney and Warren. Berney went completely dark about ten years ago.’ Then how can the character look at it?

3: Punctuation: ‘. . . as they huddled around the fire eating rabbits and wild berries.’ Fire eating rabbits?

Finally: Prepare for the third draft.

When you have finished reading the manuscript, solved the problems you have identified, entered them into your master document and excised the worst bits, you will have a mostly ‘clean’ second draft. The time for adding or deleting or connecting those character and plot issues that have been pick, pick, picking at your brain has arrived… if you have not already incorporated them into this draft.

A third draft could deal with the basic elements of novel writing: character, plot, and theme if you feel the need.

Or, you’re ready to ask for a professional edit now.

After thirty years editing manuscripts in all the fiction genres, Theodora Bryant most enjoys developing a story, guiding authors who need encouragement, spotting where they are going the wrong way with the plot or a character, and/or what’s missing in the story. 

Do you write fantasy or science fiction?

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