Sorry, I haven’t posted here for yonks! That’s because, as you all know, I’ve been working on my book.
Yes, I finished it ages ago, at approx. 250K words. After researching numerous agents and editors’ articles, I knew there was no way an amateur novelist like myself could ever sell anything that fat. So, with a heavy heart, I put it through a slimming program which involved an axe and heavy chopping, some ending with horrifying scars (though rest assured, nothing the imaginary Revlon couldn’t conceal). Anyway, I’m proud to declare it is now a sexy 100K words! I thought I should use this moment to reflect upon the torture we both went through to get in shape.
(Note: unfortunately, I’m still as fat as I was prior to writing this book, but let’s not get into that, shall we?)
I wrote this novel in approximately six months. I still remember the feeling when I typed the last word: it was as though the whole world had come to a stand still and I was staring at a masterpiece born out of sweat and toil I thought I couldn’t possibly go through again.
Sweat and toil. Pfft! It was nothing compared to what I went through editing that damned thing.
That journey took longer than writing the book itself: a total of eight months! And the process was even more painful than the pounding aches brainstorming did to my head before the write. Some decisions I had to make were far more difficult than leaving a job, but yay! I, we made it.
The steps (in no particular order other than what my brain spits out at the moment) in the program are as follows:
1) Get a buddy or ten.
I cannot stress the importance of this enough, but one really cannot survive the editing process without feedback from peers. And you don’t want those nice ones who only tell you how great you are, you want the honest ones who can deliver the horrible message with a hug and then genuinely attempt to work with you to iron things out. It doesn’t matter whether they’re writers or not, doesn’t matter whether they know your style or not, you need feedback. You may succeed with the first cull yourself, but the perfect shape can never be achieved without another pair of eyes, reading the story for the first time, telling you what works, what doesn’t. From this, you should be able to deduce what to discard/edit down. A writer buddy can give you insight into improving your craft as well, make you aware of your weaknesses and strengths so you can use that knowledge to polish it till it literarily shines. This includes ensuring that you don’t waste words. You say it once and say it best each time.
2) Be clear with the story you want to tell.
Well, of course I knew what I wanted to write, but during the write-up, things changed so significantly, the outline no longer matched the end product. Sounds familiar? With me, after I gathered feedback from my wonderful peers and uselessly gawked at my project, I decided I just had to step back, look at the big picture. What exactly makes the story here? My analysis cut through these elements:
Imho, characters make the story. You may not agree, but that’s how I like my books, okay? I’m not one who usually writes with a huge cast of characters, but in this last project, I did have a rather obscenely large one. Mind you, I think each and every one of them is endearing in their own way, even the villains. Having said that, I knew some had to go; I just didn’t know who. So, I made a list and jotted down their roles and purpose in the story. To my surprise, I found loads of overlap. I killed many that day or turned some into conjoined twins anyway. By doing so, I managed to rid off quite a few unnecessary subplots too. First layer of fat shredded.
While many authors will argue that the plot IS the story, I disagree. To me, it’s a pathway through which the characters must travel. A good story changes the characters to become more (or less, depending on the POV) by the end of the book. The plot is the means to get to that end. This is obviously a somewhat backward thinking because I did end up with so many subplots, each as important as the main plot, that it was difficult to determine what exactly makes the story. As it turned out, the best analogy to find this answer was the highway, where the smaller roads merged into to get to the next point and eventually the destination. So I built a roadmap of scenes, and lay things down like one would monopoly. Through this exercise, I found several important pivot nodes that I just could not do without. By drawing connecting lines between these nodes, I got my highway. I was surprised that long and behold, I also found many shortcuts to get me to the highway. This was how I simplified my story.
Theme illustrates the big picture. It’s what your story is about as a whole, the one thing that is carried throughout and gets revisited over and over again. The best way for me to get a grasp of the theme was to ask myself this question: what do I want my readers to gain out of this tale? I keep going back to the great books I read, I remember them because of one thing or other that linger in my brain, what I took away from it, and carried with me even long after I reached the last page. Sometimes, they end up making that one-liner selling point of the book, like Jacqueline Carey’s famous ‘That which yields is not always weak’ or one selling point of a character, like Diana Gabaldon’s Jamie Fraser’s motto ‘Je Suis Prest’. If I have to summarise what my book is about, what will it be? If my book becomes famous (ha!), what can readers snatch from it and post on twitter or Facebook status updates? So I dug through my own prose for quotes I thought best described the story. I was surprised to find several lines I kept repeating throughout without even realising it. It was easy once I gathered them, to find the theme. I used that to determine what bits I should keep and which I could afford to lose.
3) Each scene plays a role. Once makes a greater impact.
After the less relevant scenes are removed, you end up with a slicker, smoother, simpler story filled with only the relevant ones. What if you still end up with a fat book? I did. I was devastated to have to venture back into the muddle and carve out gems. The hard game begins, because now I must decide out of all these necessary scenes, which really aren’t. What I ended up doing was determine the purpose of each scene, and look for places where I had shown it better, more effectively, with greater impact, or merely repeated it just because I was daft. I also had to brainstorm alternative means to present information more efficiently, which included much merging, cutting and pasting, and of course more chopping. This was a very tough exercise for me, because most similar scenes didn’t even appear chronologically. In the end, I mostly aimed for one huge blow that leaves a more memorable mark rather than several slaps (so to speak). I think it worked well.
4) Make it a smooth ride.
I hate to say this, but I get so impatient with long, rich descriptions that may do wonders to the setting, though add little to the story. I find myself far more tolerant with chit-chats (even those that may reveal nothing more than their quirkiness), or narrative introspection (this is different from narrator’s exposition). In any case, I associate this with pace. Finding the right pace is difficult. Even though these draggy expositions may end up boring readers to tears, you still need some to paint the world your characters are in. You hack too much, you may hurt your prose by making it too bland that you end up losing readers anyway via experiential deprivation. And seriously, I loathe bare speedy scenes that end with condescending cliff-hangers as much as draggy expositions! How do you find the balance? It’s tough. I think what I did was try to find the rhythm of the pace and maintain it throughout the book, avoid too obvious speeding up or slowing down, making certain each section, each scene was elaborated in a similar manner and according to what was required. Some authors prefer to mix it up, I know, perhaps variations may do your book wonders, but I didn’t like it. To me, reading a book should be like going on a nice comfortable ride with minimal gear-changing, so readers get to absorb the content rather than agitate.
5) Build up well and all over.
I’m one of those who find it easier to create conflicts than resolving them. I found writing the ending most difficult in the project and I couldn’t help wrecking the flow and character motivation that made up the resolution big time. But even though the last third of the book ended up in need of the most revision, I did find myself having to rewrite most of the beginning to appropriately foreshadow the ending. I think the biggest learning I gained from this exercise was that building up of information needs to happen throughout the book, at every chance you get, to ensure you maintain the balance of the flow. This process mostly involved a lot of scene shuffling, I found it was best to spread out and sprinkle rather than jam-pack everything closer to when the big bang occurred. Foreshadowing is a tricky beast, but just like every climax, one thing that works, imho, is to create a crescendo of information fed in steady spoonfuls at the appropriate places throughout.
Anyway, I hope you find some things helpful. I know I left out something, but I don’t remember what. When I do, I’ll add to the post.
Have a great easter!