Monday, July 27, 2015

How to Revise a Novel--Step 2

Last time, in Step 1, I took you through the process of shrinking down a novel and looking at it in three acts.

I had mixed feelings about this because I already felt I had a good idea that my draft disintegrated into a hodge-podge of random scenes in the third act. This was solidly upheld in the shrunken three-act process. It was useful in some ways, but I wanted it to be more useful.

I wanted an epiphany.
I wanted a miracle.
I wanted the secret to fixing a novel.

Logically, I know there isn't a magic pill that will solve my novel's problems, but it doesn't stop me from searching. I want to know something I don't already know.

So this is the next thing I did with my shrunken novel.
Okay. I didn't shrink it this small. Image: Kit on Flickr
1. First, I read Larry Brooks' ideas on structure in his book, Story Engineering. He divides the novel into four sections: Set-up, Response, Attack, and Resolution. It's okay if you're not writing a thriller or some other plot-based novel; a character-driven novel will push the plot in similar ways. Brooks best best exemplifies this in his blog when he identifies the protagonist's changing roles throughout each part:

Plot-based      vs.      Character-driven
Set-up             =        Orphan

As much as I was able to see that my ideas of my story fit the four parts, it was those roles that spoke of what was happening in my character-driven story. I'd suggest reading the book because that will give you a more substantial hold on the four parts.

2. Next, I reminded myself that many great literary novels don't fit into a formula. People don't fit into a formula. Books are their own beasts and they take their own paths. I read Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex a couple months ago. It was brilliant. I loved it. It would not fit into any formula ever presented--at least not the whole book. Is there a formula for a three-generation epic?

It could be argued that each generation in Middlesex roughly fits Brooks' "formula," but there is much more than one quarter of the third section (Calliope/Cal's direct story) committed to the "set-up" of that part, and "orphan" certainly would not fit most of that. Oddly, when Desdemona and Lefty are actually orphaned in the first generation story, they still don't really fit Brooks' "orphan" designation. (I'll avoid trying to figure out this entire book in front of you.) Additionally, I don't really see how the Nation of Islam or the Detroit riots really fit into the structure for any of the three generations. Granted, I have not tried to break this novel down. I'm not ambitious enough to break down a 500+ page novel that covers a century when I am simply trying to figure out a 250 page one that encompasses a summer.

I, also, reminded myself that I am not as good a writer as Jeffrey Eugenides and that most novels need more traditional plot points to keep the reader reading. It's an emotional need to know the story question and to feel progress toward an end that offers some sort of answer to that question. As readers, we need these parts to stories--they are natural to stories.

In fact, to my estimate, Brooks' four-part structure may very well be present in Middlesex six times--at least two per generation--and the reader is willing to follow these ups and downs because it takes us to so many places and asks so many questions that are eventually answered while moving through various emotional roles (and oceans and countries)... and we really want to get to the part that addresses the overarching question set forth on the first page about what it is like to go through adolescence as a hermaphrodite and find oneself.

Well, that and it's entertaining and funny.

I ramble.
Have I convinced you to read Middlesex, if you haven't, yet?
Hey, man, it only came out thirteen years ago.

Let's get back to our novels-in-progress...

Let's also keep in mind that all these formulas--the three-act structure, Larry Brooks' four-part structure, those beat sheets that everyone is into--come from Hollywood. They're how big films are plotted. Not French films (Blue is the Warmest Color in no way fits this) or art house films. And there seems to be a lot of complaint about how formulaic Hollywood is and how predictable the stories that come out of there can be. So now novelists are jumping on the predictable bandwagon?

Well, no. As I think about Larry Brooks' structure and I think about Middlesex using it six or more times within one novel, I come to this: he is not offering us a formula. What he is talking about is the energy that any story needs to be compelling.

My story needs a clearer sense of its progression because my protagonist loses her charm as she wanders around emoting and arguing. I mean, come on. There is no reason this book should be 400 pages. Thus, I need to remind myself of what a story needs to keep moving to build to a satisfying end.

Don't poo-poo your readers' need to be satisfied in the end. Larry Brooks' structure can be used to get the story to move, but don't torture yourself with it. It might help. It might not. Maybe a little. I don't know. Just keep trying different ways to look at your story until you get it to where you want it to be. Mentally prepare yourself for any level of effectiveness.

3. Finally, I was prepared enough to take my shrunken manuscript, still 60 pages, and divide it into four equal sections. 

4. I assigned each part a color and banded the bottom of those 15 pages with that color. This keeps that approximation of the stage and the protagonist's role clear--and I will need that clarity later when I start sinking into the quagmire of subplots and multiple characters.

Also, I like color-coding things and making diagrams and other visual representations.

5. I identified my first plot point (otherwise known as the inciting incident) to see where it fit within those four parts. After rethinking a lot of things from my first shrunken novel venture, I've redefined what I think my inciting incident to be. I'm feeling stubborn and I refuse to follow the rules on this one just yet, so I have a series of things that happen which I believe to be the inciting incident. I'm only working on my second draft, so I am probably totally wrong in thinking this way but that's what I'm sticking with right now, my gut. Let me humor myself in this draft--I have 18 more drafts to go.

The inciting incident should be at the end of the first part and bridge into the second. I was shocked--shocked!--to find that the series of events that I call "plot point one" started at the end of the first part and bled into the second part. They took place in three scenes within four in a row. It was almost as if I had known what I was doing!

6. After that, I identified two more plot points and two pinch points--or, at least where they should be. If you've been hanging out with me, you will probably be able to define these pretty easily within your story. Whether you've used index cards or diagrams or both, you have been thinking about these critical points in the story, so the definitions of each plot point and pinch point likely make certain events in your story stand out to you. The question to ask yourself here: Are any of these points difficult to identify or missing?

7. Once those are defined, mark them in your shrunken manuscript. Are they somewhere around the percentage marks indicated? Based on a full manuscript shrunken to 60 pages, these are the approximate places that each point should take place:

Plot Point 1: page 15
Pinch Point 1: page 22
Plot Point 2 (Mid-Point): Page 30
Pinch Point 2: page 37
Plot Point 3: page 45
If they're not within a page or two (in the shrunken manuscript), they are probably not acting as those points in your novel. This means restructuring may be needed or events that do happen in those approximate place need more weight and focus on the plot's purpose.

My results:
--When I went to the page numbers I indicated, everything fit naturally through Pinch Point 2. Plot Point 3 came incredibly late.
--I knew, because I had multiple subplots that were intended to combine into one overarching story, that these points would be happening all over the novel on various pages. It didn't seem like a bad idea at first--there is always movement somewhere in the story. Then reality hit me. I needed to define all these points for each story. Major pain. But that's writing, so I did it.
--When I separated the plot into subplots, I was also able to see where the overarching plot points and pinch points touched all subplots and where they didn't. This made me think about how those points could have an effect in each subplot, where they needed to build in the end, and where they really needed to come together to create a crisis.

This is the most general implementation of Larry Brooks' method in a revision. I liked it and I decided to go deeper into his system. I'll go into that next time.

But be forewarned: I had to unshrink everything to look at it in full detail. I had to face it like a real writer. I also had to get my note cards out.

oh... but next time...