Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Finish your novel in four simple steps
1. WRITE THE WHOLE FIRST DRAFT FIRST—AND FAST.
This first rule deals not so much with revision, but with resisting the impulse to revise as you write. This is difficult in large part because it means forgiving yourself for writing terrible prose. There’s no way around it. Fast means sloppy—sloppy diction, syntax, grammar. Any damage suffered by your writer’s ego, however, will come at a small cost compared to the benefits gained.
Truth is, a quickly written draft produces a narrative with a clean trajectory. Think of it as a carpenter’s chalk line, the graph of your story’s arc. Your characters might remain undercooked and your subplots unexplored in this first go-through, but in working fast you have little choice but to hew close to the basic story line. As a result, you’re saved from the tempting side-trails and seductive tangents that can derail your progress. (You can come back to those later, when your task is to spice up and thicken your characters and plot, to pursue all of their wonderful complications.)
Here’s the point: Once you’ve blasted through to the end of a book, you have a much better sense of what belongs in the beginning and middle sections. And to your great advantage you won’t have wasted your time writing, revising and polishing unnecessary scenes that will only end up on the cutting-room floor.
2. EVALUATE THE DRAMATIC FUNCTION OF EVERY SCENE OR UNIT OF ACTION.
Readers can tell if a passage fails to advance the story in some way. If that’s the case, they begin to skim, or worse, they toss the book aside. Therefore, the best way to start revising is to begin rereading your first draft and ask yourself this essential question at the opening of every chapter or scene: “What exactly happens here, and how does it surprise my character or offer some new perception to the reader?” Be sure every dramatized incident, whatever it is—a fight, a conversation or merely a silent moment in which a character ponders some issue—moves the story to a new place. When you find scenes that don’t, you’ve found the first targets of your revision. Scenes don’t have to be highly dramatic in order to perform valuable work. Yet it’s important that you examine them one by one, satisfying yourself that each will deepen your readers’ connection to the story and urge them to turn the page. Failing that test, scenes need to be cut—or reworked until they pass.
3. IDENTIFY LULLS IN ACTION WHERE YOU CAN INSERT MINI-SCENES.
As novels progress, they inevitably alternate between the modes of scene and summary. Scenes, of course, depict moments of decision and high emotion, turning points that demand a full dramatic rendering, complete with dialogue, action and vivid descriptions. But intervening periods of time, lulls between episodes of heavy weather, character histories and complicated relationships also must be accounted for. Summaries, then—long passages of exposition—are a necessary evil. (All that densely packed prose, with no white space for the eye to rest upon!)
One way to help your readers persevere through spots where the pacing lags is to spice up the passages with bits of live action, with mini-scenes. Be on the alert, then, in your own work for long paragraphs consisting of backstory, physical description and character analysis. The information in such passages may be necessary, but unless you sprinkle in memorable scenic elements—snippets of dialogue, little clips of movement— your readers might lose patience.
4. VARY YOUR METHODS OF BEGINNING CHAPTERS.
Chapter breaks and other pauses allow readers to catch their breath, ponder what they’ve read and anticipate what might be coming next. As you revise your novel, don’t miss the opportunity to look at them collectively and make sure you’re offering a variety of chapter kickoffs to pique your readers. Sometimes you’ll want to give them what they expect—but a good novelist walks the line between keeping readers comfortable and making them crazy, so other times it’s best to startle them.
The most common method of getting a chapter started, one that takes readers by the hand and gently guides them into the next section of the story, is to position a character in time and instantly establish the dramatic situation. There’s nothing flashy about this strategy, but it gets the job done.
Remember that every new chapter offers the opportunity to reintroduce your story and re-orient your readers to the world of your novel. So as you revise, be strategic with your chapter openings. Your efforts will stave off reader complacency and give your novel the chance to hook your readers again and again.
Are these all strategies you could employ while you write the first draft? I don’t think so. It’s not until you can stand back and look at that draft as a cohesive whole that you will be able to apply these rules effectively and give your manuscript the revision it requires.
Writing and revising a novel means hard work, months or years of it—all the more reason to keep your readers’ needs at the forefront of your mind as you’re working. The time and energy invested in your novel doesn’t come to an end, after all, once you revise the last page, or even after the manuscript has been edited, produced and published—because, finally, your readers pour themselves into it, lay their own claims to it. Keeping this in mind should inspire us to fashion novels that are enjoyable yet challenging, familiar yet surprising, and as free of unnecessary hindrances as we can make them.