First steps towards editing a novel.

Jan and Feb are the “Now What?” months of novel editing in the NaNoWriMo calendar.  No time to wait: I’ve already started!

Highland Story (NaNo ’15) is effectively finished! I had planned to write it completely, as I was about 2/3rds of the way through the story at the end of NaNo. But I got distracted, and by the time I resumed right after Christmas, I’d lost all writing momentum. I managed another 1200 words, then decided to write a super-detailed outline of the events of Act Three all the way to The End, and shelve it. A consolation prize to my initial grand plan, but it’s done for now. Time to cool it for a year.

Now I’ve picked up Dragon Within (NaNo ’14). It’s been on the shelf for a year, but now I’m ready and excited to be diving into it. I extensively documented my NaNo experience here and here, and now’s the time to figure out how to solve the problems I raised in those posts!

Since writing DW, I’ve learned a great deal about the mechanics of plotting, characterization, and story design. (In no small part due to Scribophile; I joined right after NaNo ’14 and that wonderful community has provided invaluable help.) Now I understand that most of the problems of writing DW are structural, and have to be tackled structurally. A glance through the draft, its annotations, and my original outline, has confirmed it. No wonder writing Nonide’s storyline was so problematic — her motivations were weak, and couldn’t sustain the plot.  No wonder the story felt pedestrian — the characters were reactive, without strong agency, and were just falling from one circumstance into the next.  No wonder I stalled out right before the climax — the motivations just didn’t follow.

I knew I had to tear some of the story up by the roots and rebuild many things… but it looks like I have to tear it ALL up.  So before I begin revising, I have to re-establish and clarify the narrative structure of the novel.

Daunting. I waffled about in confusion for a few days, then today said “enough’s enough”, cobbled together a questionnaire for myself, and banged out a new outline for Dragon Within in one sitting.  According to William Faulkner: “In writing, you must kill your darlings.”  For me, it means ditching my preconceived ideas of what my characters should be and do, throwing out the old outline, and following the questionnaire strictly from one logical idea to the next.

I’m glad I did that.  The new plot born from the questionnaire looks rather different.  Some things haven’t changed (major themes, overall plot trajectory, character desires and needs), others have changed greatly (character responses are more aligned to their motivations).  The major characters are fundamentally unchanged, but their lines and on-/off-stage cues have all shifted about.  Some minor characters have disappeared, others have become more significant.  Plot at the micro level of incidents/scenes has completely changed.

I already like this outline.  It’s looking sturdier, something that can support the story I want to tell.  It does mean I have to rewrite Draft 2 practically from scratch, and I’m not sure how much, beyond descriptive writing and world-building, can be salvaged from Draft 1.  We’ll see.

Still, I’m feeling much more confident about DW, and hopeful and excited that I can write a substantially superior Draft 2.  Now it’s time to work on more characterization, do a detailed scene-by-scene breakdown of the macro outline, and then start writing!

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This was the macro-structural story questionnaire that I made:

PLOT DESIGN OUTLINE.

  1. A Passionate Character Struggling to be Happy
  2. A Passionate Character with a Problem
  3. How the Problem is addressed – and the motive for Character addressing it that way
  4. How complications arise from that solution, and leads to the Bigger Problem
  5. How Character tries to solve the Bigger Problem, but gets even more entangled
  6. How Character’s worst fears are confirmed (Big Bad is revealed)
  7. Characters grapple with their worst fears (the Big Bad)
  8. Characters hit their lowest point
  9. Climax – confrontation with the Big Bad
  10. DENOUEMENT: How Characters solve their initial Problem in the end

I went through this questionnaire step by step, and ensured that I had a strong, definitive answer for each outlined bit, before I could progress to the next point.

The inspiration for this questionnaire came from two sources: (1) an excellent resource written by a Scribophile member called “Incident Design and Plot Outline” (I doubt it’s available publicly); and (2) these two episodes of the podcast The Everyday Novelist.  The two major points I wanted to address in my questionnaire were:

  1. All stories begin with a passionate character striving towards happiness, who has a problem he/she needs to solve to attain that happiness.  It’s through this initial problem that they get mired into the bigger problem that forms the main plot.
  2. It is necessary and urgent for the character to solve their original problem.  They cannot walk away from it: they are compelled to solve it, no matter the cost.  This is how the novel begins in the first place: this agency and drive gets them mired in the big problem of the main plot.
  3. From these two points flow the rest of the questionnaire, which was just building logically on sequential ideas.  There might be a flavour of Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat”, and a few other things in there too.

Completing this questionnaire really untangled my plot problems with Dragon Within.  I suspect that this is the key to writing a better first draft (as complained about in this post), particularly during NaNo season. I’ll also apply it to Strange Music and Highland Story to see whether I can come away with a stronger plot.  I have a feeling it will.

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