Decisions and Revisions September 23, 2008Posted by LHK in writing craft.
I have to erase what’s currently on the Plot Board of DOOM. I know, I know — it’s painful. It’s even more painful to realize that I’ve built a whole novel on a very shaky character arc, and that I’m going to have to go back to the beginning to make it right. All of this started to solidify last Wednesday night while I was slogging through Chapter 18, the next-to-last chapter in the manuscript. I was writing the climax, or trying to.
Hint: If you’re on Draft 6.75, writing the climax should be easy. You should know very well what the climax should be at that point. Based on what you’ve already written, it should be the next inevitable event in the story. If you find yourself pulling plot points out of your ass… wait, no, that’s the inevitable answer. Rather, if you find yourself pulling plot points out of your pencil case, dog food bag, or Vitamin Water bottle, STOP right there and figure out where you went wrong.
I stopped. Chapter 18, and that draft is DEAD. I think.
I’ve been reading Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. I didn’t mean to be. I plucked it off my shelf around 5 in the morning two Sundays ago, after being awakened by gunshots, either in my dream or somewhere outside. I turned on all the lights and went into the other bedroom to see what I could find to read. The Jane Smiley book looked fat and distracting. Perfect. Outside, it was eerily quiet — no sirens, no voices. No one else around had turned on their lights. Had I just dreamed the whole thing? Possibly. My dream was that I was training to be a security guard. I had to wear a terrible khaki outfit that made me feel tiny and unsafe.
I turned in the Smiley book to Chapter 10, “A Novel of Your Own (I).” I read that and “A Novel of Your Own (II)” before going back to sleep. By then, it was 7 AM.
Here are a few things I learned, or re-learned, as the case may be:
- Your novel should have an inciting incident. This should come around the 10% mark in the manuscript, or earlier than that.
- Your novel should also have a climax. This should happen around the 90% mark in the manuscript.
- Don’t worry about being a formulaic tool by having these elements. Ulysses had them. Atonement had them. You should, too. They’re a part of storytelling in general, not specifically of formulaic storytelling.
- The inciting incident and the climax should reflect each other. The inciting incident should make the climax inevitable.
Now, maybe I’m not being kind enough to myself. I do have something in Draft 6.75 that looks like an inciting incident, although in my mind it’s not directly connected — plotwise or thematically — to anything that happens in the sorta-climax. And, yes, I do have a sorta-climax, but it doesn’t accomplish enough, plotwise or thematically, to be satisfying to the reader, much less to the characters involved. They’re probably saying at that point, She’s put us through 220 pages of torture, and THIS is the way she’s going to bring it all to a head?
Preemptive apologies to Mitchell, Caroline, Victoria, Rob, Becky, Mercedes, and the rest of the characters. They deserve better.
So what do I do now? This is where my confidence in what I perceive to be the basic steps of writing fiction gets shaky. I think I need to resist the urge to rewrite from Chapter 1 all over again. This has been my M.O. up to this point. (Don’t like the draft? Click. New document! This leads to rewrites that are about as time consuming as you’d imagine.) I need to make sure I know what that all-important character arc is going in to the next revision, and write it on the Plot Board of DOOM and on Post-Its that I will stick to my laptop, and let it guide the revision. I need to know what the inciting incident and climax will be, and let those pivotal scenes guide the revising of the middle of the work.
It’s tough admitting to myself that I can’t be a fully intuitive novel-writer. No matter how much I love the novel-writing philosophy of putting an interesting character into a tough situation and following him around until he gets himself out of it, I’ve now got six (point-seven-five) drafts as evidence that such a technique only gets me so far.