Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The One Where the Plot Goes Missing

I am a life long T.V. junkie. Since I pursued a career in television production, I thought all of those hours committed to the consumption of episodic programming, particularly silly sitcoms (the louder the laugh track the better), had served me well in my goals. Ah, you just can't beat the comfort of rationalization.

What's that you say? Read my writing? Fine. Ok. I don't see why, but-


Perhaps my little habit hadn't prepared me well for my new path. Once it was in pieces, I was forced to see that my manuscript was not a plotted story, but a collection of episodes; small, sometimes silly, events connected by character, time and place, but not events that were necessarily entwined or relevant to one another and definitely nothing that was propelling my protagonist in any direction.

Well, shoot- that's a problem.

After a sleepless night of some not-so-nice meditation (it went something like- "you suck" "you shouldn't have even tried" "what made you think you could do this"), it occurred to me that the solution to my big problem was pretty simple. I needed to define a tangible goal for my protagonist. I had established my goal as the writer, meaning I knew what I wanted her to experience, learn, and achieve, but I hadn't given her a goal within the context of the story. With that addition, without changing the tone or intention of the novel, I finally had motivation for events, connections of cause and effect, and (miracle of miracles!) an actual plot. Yay for growth!

Ok, maybe it's not fair to blame my literary shortcomings entirely on television, but it is also called the idiot box, so I'm just going to let it ride. Oh, rationalization, how I've missed you.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Playing With (Story) Blocks

Have I ever mentioned that the revision process is hell? While I'm working my way through this hellish process chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph and line by line, there has been one thing that stands out as the most helpful tool in my re-write toolbox and it's the thing that removed most of my hard chosen words and turned my manuscript into a small collection of half pages that are both voiceless and utilitarian. That tool is chapter summaries. It's such a simple idea- go through the manuscript one chapter at a time and summarize each one. So easy! So useful! Why is it so helpful? (It's cool. I know that's what you're thinking.) It's helpful in a few very specific, but really important ways.

1. Structure Check- Like a story, a chapter should have a beginning, middle and end. Summarizing a chapter makes it easy to spot if the chapter is delivering on its story responsibilities.

2. Chapter Cuts- This one is major but painful. In my earlier editing efforts I could feel when a chapter was dragging, but I couldn't bring myself to cut it. All that work just to be deleted? I couldn't deal with it. But, when that dragging, unnecessary or redundant chapter is reduced to a few paragraphs, it becomes a lot easier to draw an aggressive red X through it and move on. (Note: when I went back to the manuscript I straight deleted red-X chapters. I did not read the chapter again. The red X shows no mercy.)

3. Plot Overhaul- I suppose not everyone will need this one, but I sure did. My plot was seriously, majorly, horrifically flawed. Once those not-so-pretty chapter summaries were done, I could physically move things around like little wordy building blocks and see where the plot was lacking. Sure, it left me with some chapters to be written from scratch, but at least now, when someone asks me what my book is about, I have a confident answer.

Now to give credit where credit it due. I did not come up with this nifty solution. I have to give credit to Chris Baty who was speaking at the Crossroads Writers conference in little old Macon, Georgia. Maybe the use of chapter summaries is a technique known by the writing vets, but it was new to me, and when I was sitting in a hotel meeting room and I asked my question- What do you do when you're stuck in revisions? - Mr. Baty threw out chapter summaries as a real and constructive solution. His answer was neither fluffy theory blow-off nor bitterness laced shutdown, both of which are abundant at writers conferences. He said- here, try this. I tried. I liked. So, props to that guy. If you're stuck like I was, give it a shot. Maybe it will work for you too. Maybe.