Second Drafts With… M. R. Mackenzie

Hi everyone, and kicking off the first of my new interviews into a writers second draft process is crime writer M. R. Mackenzie. Michael is based in Scotland, and is the author of one of my favourite novels Cruel Summer. He was kind enough to answer some of my questions.

Over to you, Michael…

1) What do you do once you have finished your first draft?

Celebrate… and then almost immediately feel at a lose end and start developing feelings of guilt. I find that, particularly with first drafts, I speed up more and more the closer I get to the finishing line. As a result, the last few chapters tend to get written in a blur of frenetic activity, so when I finally type “The End” I’m used to churning out vast quantities of words per day, and it takes me a while to recalibrate my brain.

2) How long do you tend to leave your draft before beginning your reading of it?

It varies, but in an ideal world I like to put it to one side and work on something else before coming back to it. That’s not always possible – my medium term goal is to be able to write two books a year, and I suspect leaving a draft “on the shelf” for that long isn’t going to be feasible if I want to achieve that – but I do think it’s a good idea to put the first draft aside for as long as possible in order to be able to back to it with fresh eyes. I know from past experience that, if I come back to it too soon, I haven’t achieved enough distance from it and either can’t clearly see which parts need to change or am too precious about what I’ve written and am reluctant to make even the changes that I know need to be made.

3) What is your revision process like for your first draft?

The first thing I do is re-read the entire draft. My goals at this stage are twofold. First, I need to refresh my memory of what I actually wrote. Second, I want to experience it as a reader, without my “editing hat” on, to get a feel for how it reads, what works and what doesn’t. At this stage, I try to avoid going in with my red pen and making changes to dialogue, description etc. That sort of noodling will come later. For now, I try to look at the big picture and figure out what needs to change (and how). Because of this, instead of annotating the actual draft at this stage, I write down my observations and ideas in a separate document, concentrating on the major stuff – “this character is redundant, cut them”, “this scene is boring in its current form, re-write it”, “this plot development isn’t believable, think of something else” – rather than things like “I’ve used the word ‘exclaimed’ too many times”.

4) When you have decided you need to do a second draft, what do you do?

Depending on how radical a reworking I’m going to end up doing, I may or may not write a fresh outline to reflect the revised plot. Also, whether I write a new outline or not, I create a to-do list containing all the major changes I need to make in as close to the order in which they occur as possible, which I can then tick off as I implement them.

5) What is your writing process like for your second draft?

I start with a blank document on one screen and my first draft on the other and begin to rewrite the whole thing from scratch. This probably isn’t the most efficient way to do things, but it forces me to really think about what I’ve written and what works in its current form versus what needs a rethink. My first drafts tend to be quite messy because I write fairly quickly and try not to be too precious about the wording (because chances are it’ll change anyway), so it helps to create a clean copy as opposed to trying to perform surgery on an existing document. It also forces me to cut unnecessary words and simplify overlong phrases. I tend to overwrite, and as a result my first drafts tend to be far too long. With each successive draft and re-read, I’ll end up finding more words that I can cut, sanding it down over multiple passes until it’s as tight as I can make it. Of course, if I end up with a sentence, a paragraph or a dialogue exchange that I think I got right the first time (and stranger things have happened!), I’ll copy and paste it from the first draft.

6) Do you write in a different place when you are writing your second draft?

I tend to write all over the place anyway – in my bedroom, in my office, on the sofa, and (pre-lockdown, at least) on trains and buses – and that pattern tends not to change between drafts. One thing I do like to do, however, is change the font. It’s partly a semi-superstitious thing, but I do think the font has an impact on how I approach my writing. For my first drafts, I use a utilitarian font like Arial or Helvetica, and I find that this encourages me to get the words down quickly without paying too much attention to how they look on the page. With subsequent drafts, though, when I’m starting to refine things, I’ll switch to a more visually appealing font (Sabon LT is my favourite at the moment, and is also what I use for the paperback versions of my books) and that will make me start to pay more attention to the individual words.

Thank you for your time and for stopping by the blog, Michael. It was a pleasure to interview you. Finding out all about your second draft process has been fascinating.


M.R. Mackenzie was born and lives in Glasgow, Scotland. He studied at Glasgow University and has an MA in English and a PhD in Film Studies.

In addition to writing, he works as an independent producer and has overseen Blu-ray and DVD releases of films by a number of acclaimed directors, among them Dario Argento, Joe Dante and Seijun Suzuki. In 2016, he contributed a chapter on the Italian giallo film to Cult Cinema: An Arrow Video Companion, and regularly provides video essays and liner notes for new releases of cult films.

His debut novel, In the Silence, reached #2 in Amazon UK’s Scottish crime fiction bestsellers chart.

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