Molly Best Tinsley taught on the civilian faculty at the United States Naval Academy for twenty years and is the institution’s first professor emerita. She is the author of My Life With Darwin and a story collection, Throwing Knives, as well as two spy thrillers, Satan’s Chamber (with Karetta Hubbard) and Broken Angels, and a memoir, Entering the Blue Stone. She also co-wrote the textbook, The Creative Process. Her fiction has earned two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Sandstone Prize, and the Oregon Book Award. She lives in Ashland, Oregon, and her middle-grade fantasy novel, Behind the Waterfall, will be released in mid-November.
Molly is also the co-founder and editor of Fuze Publishing where she works with authors to sharpen and polish their manuscripts.
We write the first draft for ourselves, partly in the throes of inspiration, partly just to see how and if it’s going to work, and maybe partly just to prove we can finish it. Out of this raw material, we develop the second draft (i.e., further drafts) for our readers, designing a strategy that will keep them perpetually curious.”
The Second Draft
In ancient times, when I was trying to leap the genre divide between short fiction and the novel, an editor turned down my first, full-length effort with this explanation: “You have a lot of activity in these pages, but I’m not discerning the action.” As a plot-challenged, right-brain lover of language and quirky characters, it’s taken me years to wrap my mind around the difference.
What my early novel lacked was structure, or meaningful action. Instead I’d offered what was basically chronology—activity. Activity, no matter how textured or ingenious, leaves the reader wondering where the story’s going and what she should be tracking. A strongly structured narrative, on the other hand, hooks the reader into a ride she can’t resist.
I know how that feels. I’ve stayed up too late plenty of nights lured on by just one more chapter. I really want to make that happen for an audience. I think that’s why I decided to collaborate on a spy thriller and then craft a sequel on my own. In that plot-based genre, authors are unabashed about deploying strategies that engage and manipulate their readers.
In the early drafts of a narrative, you are busy telling yourself the story. It’s probably best to banish a hypothetical audience from your mind as you free your imagination to discover the surprises lurking in its recesses. It’s fine to ramble into backstories and what if’s. You write through to the end because you need to find out where you wanted to go.
But once you’ve got a finished draft, it’s time to tackle revision from the other side, from the perspective of your reader—what does she need to keep going? Can you pretend you know nothing about the world you’ve created, open to page one, and answer the question: does this narrative do more than give a well-written account of interesting events? Are your textured description, snappy dialogue, and humorous moments serving a meaningful structure? These are the issues you tackle in what I’m calling “the second draft.” [Read more…]