The Write Way: Come On, Did I Really Say That?

Time for another The Write Way blog, so listen up.  For those of you in the know, once a month–or thereabouts–I present my take on how to write a novel.  Pop over to the “categories” listing to the right and click on “The Write Way” to see all those that have gone before.  If you’re not writing a novel yourself, haven’t you always wondered how it’s done?  Here’s your chance to find out.

I’ve already addressed editing a manuscript once before, with an overview of how I go about it.  Today I thought it would be fun to “show” you, using Sunset Bridge, my manuscript in progress.  After all, Sunset Bridge is uppermost in my mind.  What better time for examples?

If you read my first foray into the subject, you know that once I’ve finished a novel, I do several stages of revisions before my editor sees my final product.  I begin by sitting down with my first draft and reading through it  in one sitting.   This, as you can guess, has gotten progressively harder as the books expanded.  These days, if I want to finish in one sitting, I start EARLY and read straight through until dinner time. 

But why put myself through this?  Do readers read a novel without a break?  Who cares?  Regardless of how and when its read, the story should still have a graceful, even thrilling, arc.  We write it one word at a time, and while we hope that in our planning stage we’ve got some sort of handle on that arc, we’re never quite sure until the manuscript is finished.  Did the book begin with a bang, introduce the characters and elements, then build slowly toward a climax?  Or did we begin with a whimper, lose what heartbeat there was in the middle, and only end with a flourish–by which time no one is reading to discover how brilliant we are?  Reading the novel in one sitting will help answer that.

Early this week I finished the silent read through on my eReader (a great time and tree saver) and spent my writing time thereafter making the changes the book truly needed.  As I read, I made notes and bookmarked the sections they applied to.  As technology goes my eReader is ancient, so I had to make notes on real PAPER.  How antiquarian.  However, this had a hidden benefit.  I couldn’t make changes as I went.  I could only note the problems with the story, consistency and most important the way the book developed.  That was the point, and fixing details will come later, when I do the final out loud read through. 

Now what did I find?  And what am I changing?  What problems might YOU want to look for in your own work?

The biggest problem–and I knew this one going into the read through–was the backstory of one of my characters.  I’d created a complex scenario behind her arrival on Happiness Key, but by the time I had written two-thirds of the rough draft, I knew I had a problem.  Her actions weren’t sufficiently explained to make her sympathetic.  Unsympathetic characters?  Something important to watch out for during revisions.

I spent hours considering and reconsidering how to change this, and finally settled on a solution.  I even blogged about it here.  But my silent read through convinced me that my so-called solution was worse than the problem. So I was back at square one.  Luckily square two made itself known once I had the whole manuscript in front of me.  Of course!  The answer had been there all along, simpler, graceful, emotional and grounded in reality.  I  let the character tell me why she was the way she was, and finally, I listened.   Lesson for you?  Make sure everything your characters do makes sense and makes them sympathetic.  We should even feel a tug of connection and understanding when a character turns out to be a killer or an abusive father.  We don’t have to like him or feel his choices were good ones, just connect.

So what else must I change?  First, I know that as I write a first draft, I tend to say the same thing ten different ways.  Either I forget I’ve said it, or I think of a better way to say it again and again. So at this stage and the next, I choose the best way I’ve said something and delete the others.  Shorter book: good thing.  Watch out for repetition, and delete everything but the best and the brightests insights and writing.

I found six pages at the beginning of a chapter that had no purpose.  I summarized them in a paragraph and rid my novel of the rest.  Find those places and say goodbye.  They’re only words, after all, not pieces of your soul, even if you did write them. 

I made two other big changes in addition to lots of little ones.  In my original version I have an important conversation between two characters, one of whom is rarely in the novel otherwise.  Now this vital conversation takes place between two major characters and takes care of two plot points at once. Make sure each scene counts in as many ways as possible.

The last big change?  While the Happiness Key series switches viewpoints among the women who live there, at the end of Sunset Bridge, I neglected to include the viewpoint of one of the core three women.  We needed to hear the conclusion of her story directly from her.  So now, of course, the ending and my character’s news, is much stronger.  Pay attention to your use of viewpoint and look for consistency throughout the novel.

Once I finish everything that my silent read through brought to my attention, I’ll begin the laborious task of changing the novel, one sentence at a time.  But that’s actually the fun part, the final shaping, the shading, the honing.  And yes, the cutting.  Always, the cutting.  Now, the story’s there to play with.  Getting to that point was the tough part, but first drafts can always be changed and should be.  Keep plugging, even if you sense problems brewing.  Go back if you know how to fix them, but if you don’t?  Trust you’ll see how to fix them when you edit.  Remember, you can’t edit a blank page.  So what are you waiting for?  Otherwise all this advice?  Completely useless.

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