2nd Draft

December 14th, 2014

There was a time I was posting here three times a week, but there’ve been no posts for over a month because I have had my head firmly in putting together the 2nd draft of Half a War, third book in my Shattered Sea trilogy.

When I first started writing I’d revise every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter as I finished it.  Every time I wrote I’d start off by going over what I wrote last time.  This was a really useful exercise for working out the basics of how to write, how to pace, what to attend to in a scene and what to ignore, for getting confidence from seeing that I could produce something worthwhile, for distilling down the voices of the characters and getting comfortable in their skins.  But it’s not a very efficient way of working.

I’m a pretty thorough planner, but even with the best of plans, it’s not until you reach the end of a book sometimes that you really know where you’re going, really know how you’re going to get there, really know what you need the characters to be, how you want them to change to get you from the start to the end in a believable and compelling way.  Over time I’ve started to get a better result from scratch much more quickly, so I’ve started to really push through the first draft as fast as possible, sketching each chapter honestly pretty roughly, then having a look over and tidy up of each part as I finish it, planning the next one in detail, thinking about what I might need to change as I go on.

The result is, I must admit, a pretty shoddy 1st draft, often with the characters rather inconsistent and incoherent especially at the beginning, probably resolving themselves and taking their proper places as we get towards the end, and often with a few plot holes as new ideas occurred or I changed my mind about things.  Typically, I hate the book at this point.  The process of producing the 2nd draft is perhaps the key phase these days.  Here I’m doing the heavy lifting of revision, especially towards the start of the book.  I’m thinking hard about how the point-of-view characters might need to change to have a more interesting and coherent arc.  What defining experiences of the past and motivations for the future might shape them.  What character traits and emotions they might need to display throughout.  How their key relationships, especially with each other, might form and develop.  I’m further defining and differentiating their individual voices.  I’m fixing plot holes and introducing information that might have become necessary as new ideas have occurred.  Partly I’m working from a checklist of stuff I’ve put together that I know I need to include – some things specific, some more general to bear in mind as I go.  Partly I’m just reading it and seeing how it feels.  I’m doing an awful lot of tightening – partly cutting stuff that no longer seems necessary or appropriate, partly just general tightening and sharpening of the writing.  Some scenes might go altogether, though that’s pretty rare for me.  There might be new ones I need to add from scratch.

A lot of this is about just trying to get the book firmly in mind, knowing where everything is, reminding yourself what happens where, how everything interlocks.  I spend a lot of the first draft forcing myself to put the chair time in.  By the time I get to the second, hopefully, I’m at the screen for hours at a time, thinking about it constantly.  In bed.  In the shower.  Walking to the postbox.  Ideas should be constantly firing off.  Probably quite annoying for those around me, but I know I’m cooking when I frequently walk out half way through conversations in order to add something, flicking through chapters, yes, that conversation is the right place for that thought, that line, that idea which guides us through that development of that relationship.

This is the part of writing I most enjoy, where you take the ugly clay of the first draft and mold it, form it, chop it away until you have something resembling a book, where the characters make sense and develop in a meaningful way, where each scene is punchy and effective and contributes to a believable and coherent plot.  There’s still an awful lot of work to do, a whole set of further phases of revision and editing to go through.  But by the time the second draft comes together, I’m hopefully starting to feel I may have something worthwhile on my hands…

Posted in process by Joe Abercrombie on December 14th, 2014.

18 comments so far

  • Sounds like a good way to do things. Think it’s easy to get caught up in trying to be perfect. Thus far in the 7 novels that you’ve produced everything is pretty coherent. Patiently waiting to see how 8 and 9 turn out. Good luck Joe.

  • Frank Fitz says:

    Good to see you blogging again, Joe (surely we’re due a whisky death match sometime soon too?).

    How much word fluctuation do you tend to have from your 1st to your 2nd draft?

  • AbsolutionJailor says:

    I learn more from your blog than my college classes for creative writing ever could teach me. Thank you for sharing your process, it really does help.

  • Andrew says:

    Hey Joe,

    I’ve been meaning to thank you for this for a while, but emailing always seems rude. You told me this in Seattle (this is bcwoods from a long time ago) and I found it pretty life changing. Or at least process changing. Realizing you had the same secret hobo sadness/hate that I do for novels in draft and that you’re way better than me made me feel like a little kid who had been scared shitless inside a haunted house on Halloween but then got to see all the actors putting on makeup after. Really gave me the courage* to start trying to do stuff again.

    So thanks.

    *not like actual courage where I’m facing death or anything, but more of a “this probably isn’t as bad as I think it is” courage

  • Alex says:

    Hi Joe

    This process you describe reminds me very much of programming when designing something particularly complex.

  • Robert says:

    I for one greatly appreciate your efforts. To me it shows in the final product. On the kick back though it means it takes longer to write. But it works. I have read a number of authors who put out multiple books a year and I cannot really handle reading more than a few. Your First Law books really had a very solid structure. Sometimes I read a book and I get the distinct feeling that something that takes place in chapter 3 was actually put in late in the story to accommodate or explain something that happened later. I distinctly had that feeling in the Hunger Games when the part about the mockingjay pin being given to Katniss. I thought the movie did a better job of getting it to her. Point being I have never gotten that feeling while reading your books.

  • Jeff says:

    I myself have never written a book and do not intend to. I can barely compose a post on a web site. But I do read a lot and you are by far my favorite author. I love the total badassary of your characters in the first law trilogy. I appreciate the fact that you take so much time and care when you write. I can’t wait to read the finished product

  • Cheynne Edmonston says:

    Insightful as ever Joe. And as my number one author and inspiration for my own writing, big thanks for sharing. I’ve always loved the complexity of your characters, the twisting of your plots and the downright comedy of it all in places. It’s rich, dark, deep and bloody funny. Your thoughtful planning shows through subtle foreshadowing and such. Keep ’em coming.

  • I consistently tell my students: A rough draft is better than no draft at all.

    Though there is no one process that works for everybody, I’ve found that just getting the raw story out of me as fast as I can gives me something to work with, even if that means there’s still a lot of work to be done after that rough “the end.”

    Great advice!

  • Hi Joe,

    I’ve bounced over to this blog from the io9.com post about your “Shoddy 1st Draft.” I have a question for you; when you say “first draft” and “second draft,” how much is actually, literally re-written? I’ve heard it said that in Ye Olde Days, a writer woudl re-type a novel seven times to get it right. I’ve heard of at least one other fantasy author (Stephen Donaldson) who does do at least two complete, full drafts. So, do you literally rewrite? Or are you revisions more tinkering and tuning?

    Super-curious! Thanks!

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Hey, man. Secret hobo sadness is a good phrase for it. I’ve hated every book since Best Served Cold as I wrote it. Still somehow can’t learn that lesson, either. Every book seems like a new disgraceful low as I draft it, then works out in the revision.

    I usually say it’s better to work all day and end up with a pile of shit, than to work all day and end up with nothing.

    Very variable how much I change things. A couple of little chapters I might write from scratch, but mostly I’m adding and cutting paragraphs, perhaps exchanges of dialogue, putting a character into a scene or removing one, then changing the order of things, doing a lot of tightening at the sentence level, rewriting sections of description that are particularly clunky. Some chapters that were particularly loose or irrelevant might be barely recognisable. Some that worked well might not be changed much at all. A lot of the time I’m cutting simple bloat but adding necessary information and character, so the effect on overall word count might be to go up a little. The next draft is where I’ll really work on personality. The one after on style and detail of the writing.

  • Andre says:


    thank you for the blogpost. I have a question, too. When you work like that, do you change the names of characters during 2nd or 3rd drafts?


  • Andre says:

    Sorry, you already answered my question about name-changes through your blogpost from february. I´ve just read it. Thanks.

  • Jacob says:

    Hey Joe,

    Like some of the other folks that’ve posted here, I was thrilled to see how your drafting process resonated with mine–secret hobo sadness might need to be made an official term.

    I also felt compelled to write you to let you know that for my Master’s Essay (I’m a graduate student studying rhetoric and composition) I rely pretty heavily on Bayaz as a rhetorical figure. Really glad I stumbled onto your work, and I’m looking forward to reading what comes next.

  • Sherylyn says:

    Thank you for the post. Am going through the same 2nd draft process right now and feel so much better knowing it is not just me.

  • Tsu Dho Nimh says:

    “The result is, I must admit, a pretty shoddy 1st draft,”

    But you have a DRAFT!!!! You have something to poke and prod instead of a gleamingly perfect three chapters and then nothing.

    My process for writing non-fiction (user docs, etc.) is much the same: throw all the information I have into the word processor, then drag it around into a coherent order, find the redundancies, and see what structure the information needs.

    Deleting 30-50% isn’t unusual.

  • […] highly recommend reading the entire post on Joe Abercrombie’s blog , whether you’re an experienced writer who’s finished multiple books or a novelist newb […]

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