Working late into the night, I’ve been doing my own version of NaNoWriMo, which I should call something like NaNoFixMo, tearing apart a novel I started years ago (no, in reality, make that decades ago) in an attempt to work out what went wrong and put it right. I’ve been watching other writing friends scampering off into the creative distance, racking up amazing word counts towards their next novel, whilst I have been doing the equivalent of taking the typewriter to pieces.
The good news is that, having now deconstructed what I have written and then turned it into good old index cards (albeit using the iOS Index Card App, which I then imported into Scrivener), I can clearly see what the problem was.
In short, ‘pantsing’ can only get me so far. I can’t believe how many story threads and characters I managed to get going in the space of 38,000 words! Now, with the benefit of distance from what I wrote, I can see that the big question that leaps off the page is “Whose story is this?” I have created at least half a dozen characters who could all take the lead role.
Fortunately, I’ve been mulling this over for a while, and this exercise has simply made the solution plain. It’s both confirmed my fears and presented me with an opportunity: clearly, I need to wield the knife mercilessly, but I also have some great characters with stories all of their own to tell.
In short, what I have are elements of more than one book.
Index Card App and Scrivener have proved extremely useful. As I’ve done a quick synopsis of each chapter, I’ve coloured the cards according to who the lead characters are. Man, what a rainbow! That’s helped me to see immediately that I have too many named characters already, and that I need, to steal a phrase from Robert Plant, to be a ‘mighty rearranger’.
Of course, experienced storytellers know this stuff like the back of their hands and they will be nodding sagely at this point. However, for a fiction newbie such as myself, this has been a salutary lesson and something of a catharsis: never again will I imagine that I can freewheel a story out to 80,000+ words. I need to outline! I needed to outline my monster non-fiction work, The Wargaming Compendium; it should come as no surprise that I should also outline a major work of fiction.
But the main thing is, I can’t tell you how pleased I am to have forced myself to do this exercise. After sitting in a drawer for years, the manuscript contains a group of characters who still resonate with me and, most importantly, one of them who has grabbed me by the throat and screamed, “this is MY story!”
How did the book end up in such a mess? Well, this is where I have to be brutally honest. I simply think that until recently, I’ve not been sure of who I really am in creative terms, and it’s taken me 53 years to find out. I’m interested in so many things, artistically speaking, that I’ve lived in an almost permanent state of distraction. As a result, I could never really pin down who the story should be about – all those voices were interesting to me, and their stories seemed equally valid. All well and good, but with stories, we have to make ruthless decisions, right?
No doubt there’s a lot of deep psychology behind all this. But that’s for another time.
I don’t want to tell you more at this stage. There’s a lot of work to do. I’ve got a plot that needs re-focusing, a world to finish building, and a lead character whose journey isn’t complete. Actually, I’ve got many characters whose journeys aren’t complete, and I’ve got to explain to some of them that they’re in the wrong story altogether and will have to wait their turn. They aren’t going to be happy about that, and will whinge like mad when I send them packing.
But that’s good. They’ll be calling from the bottom drawer, “what about us?” And one day, they’ll find out at about the same time I do.
Am I nervous about making these drastic cuts? Not at all. I’m an editor, and used to cutting and rearranging copy. I even excised a 100-page chapter from my own Compendium because it had become unwieldy and was taking me off-track besides, editing is a good thing: if nothing else, it’s a sign that you have something worth editing, rather than just throwing in the bin. Those 38,000 words might be hacked back to 20,000 or fewer, but once that’s done, I know I’ll be working with the wheat, not the chaff.
I can hardly wait.
And who knows — by the end of November, maybe the story will be moving forward again, in the right direction this time.
Have you ever resurrected a story you thought was dead and buried? Or do you always give an unfinished project a proper burial and move on? By all means leave your thoughts in the comments.
Image ANV Recife, Flickr Creative Commons