Monday, July 6, 2015

How to Revise a Novel—Step 1

If you're anything like me, your first draft is a giant mess.
Chapters? Who needs chapters? No. I don't have chapters yet. Image: "Adventures of Captain Greenland (table o" (CC BY 2.0) by earlynovelsdatabase
Before I began the revision process in mid-June, I knew I had out-of-order scenes. I didn't even have chapters. I knew that, as I pushed characters through a plot, they changed. No amount of planning prepared me for how my characters changedeven though I go through various revisions of character building and multiple character exercises throughout the process of writing so that I can understand them better. I just don't know what will come up. I knew my plot got messy and I became disjointed as a writer near the end. I knew I was not even close to committed to the end; it was mechanical, to get there and say, This draft is done.

I knew there were so many issues... so so many.

Before this, I thought I knew what I needed to do to revise a first draft. But if you've been following this blog, you know that the novel I'm working on now is an entirely different animal than my last one.

The last one was conceptual and small. In my attempt to keep things simple this time, as I am still new to writing novels, I went with a little coming-of-age story. One protagonist. As realistic as I've ever written in fiction. A character-driven story, since that's what I write and what I like to read.

Unfortunately, this is not simple at all. Nor is it small. Plus, large parts of narration are missing. So my ideas of how to revise went out the window.

Previously, my approach to revising was this:

  • Read the entire draft, without marking it up. Make notes on paper, if necessary.
  • Determine if the chain of events is inevitable and makes sense.
  • Is everything related to the story at hand?
  • What is dropped and when does it get dropped? Does it need to stay in the story and be built up, or can I cut it out?
  • What is pointless? Where did I stray?
  • What comes up out of nowhere that needs to be addressed and built in earlier on?
  • What themes and motifs seem to be arising?
  • What feels missing? What feels wrong? What feels really right? What can I do to bring out more of the right and what are the solutions for the wrong?
This is all fine and dandy. With a short conceptual novel, it felt more manageable to read and ask oneself these questions and then address them.

It feels so naïve now. (...sigh..) I was so young then.

My current novel is confounding. It seems impossible to simply follow that list.

So I decided to try something different.

Step 1: Shrink into 3 Acts
A. First, I shrunk my novel down to 60 pagesliterally. I changed it to single-spaced, removed all white spaces, shrunk the font to 7pt., and printed it out. The intention is not to be able to read it, but to see it as a big giant visual representation of itself.

When shrinking, I felt that the manuscript should fit into a round number of pages so that it could easily break it into 3 sets. Ideally, I'd like it to be 30—and definitely no less than 30—but I couldn't get my pages to shrink that far, even with 4pt. font.

B. Next, I thought about the 3-act structure, as well as the 5-act structure, the 8-point structure, and some others. Ultimately, I think all of these can eventually fit back into the 3-act one. So I broke it into 3 stacks, 1 act per stack:
 Act 115 pages
 Act 230 pages
 Act 315 pages
Remember, this is an approximation, because the thing has been shrunken down to a much smaller size. (In my case, it's a fifth of the size of the real manuscript, even though the whole thing is there.) 

C. After that, I looked at each stack to determine precisely where each act would fall, based on the content, and marked a red line there to separate them.

D. Then I made a thick green line of where the approximate start of each act would be, based strictly on the page number. With the way I had broken everything up, it meant that Act breaks would be between pages 15 & 16 and 45 &; 46.

E. Then I laid it all out on the floor to evaluate the script visually.
What was the difference between where the acts generally begin and end, and where they actually were in my manuscript?
This is what my 60 pages looked like.
This allowed me to think about how a standard overarching structure might work and what kind of changes might need to be made.

My results?
Well, this led me to consider a few things.

I had divided my novel into "Books"general periods of time. I don't write in chapters because I assume the order of scenes will be rearranged for storytelling purposes.

Here's the weird thing: Act 2 doesn't even begin until many pages into Book 2 (actual pages, not the shrunken ones). So, apparently, Book 2 is not a natural break.

Where I would break the story into acts, content-wise, is one page behind my 15 page estimation for Acts 1/2 (a reasonable variation) and 6 pages behind the estimation for Acts 2/3that's over 30 pages in the actual manuscript.

This tells me something I already knew. I lost grip on my story and things went awry.

Because I was aware that something was wrong, I took a look at each act and what is needed for each of them. I made notes in the corner at the beginning of each act that stated which pieces I was unable to identify from memory. For instance, in Act 1, I  made a note to determine if there was a ticking clock anywhere? I don't think so. It's not that kind of book, but maybe if I create one somewheresomething that the protagonist imposes on herselfit might create more of a sense of urgency.
Notes to self.
It also made me acutely aware that I needed to look at my shrunken manuscript with a different method. 

Check in next week to see how I take this shrunken novel to a more active breakdown.

Find out about the 13 week challenge here. And see the first week's activities here.  


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  1. Even when I don't write a novel, my draft looks pretty much like this. :)

    1. Yeah... Most of my drafts of anything else have way more writing and notes written on them than this, Lux. When it's structural, it's about not bothering with those "editing" comments yet and focusing on the content and how it fits together. Do your blog drafts get a lot of notes, too?