For a writer, I don’t blog much about writing.
In part, this is because there are so many other writers and agents out there who do a great job of blogging about writing (see, Blogroll, right), and I feel like I’d be duplicating their efforts in an inferior manner.
In part, it’s because I feel like I should be spending my writing time actually writing. It’s why my blogging is so sporadic (sorry!) and why if you want to learn what I know about writing, you need to be a middle school student at Nevin Platt Middle School in Boulder and have the great good fortune to get Cindy Matthews for Language Arts, or you have to pay me. Sorry.
But today, I want to talk about process. Because I have colorful pictures. 🙂
I got feedback from an agent recently — some very helpful, incredibly generous comments on a partial. Clearly, she enjoyed my manuscript and found enough quality there that she took the time to give me thoughtful, detailed pointers on how to improve it and encouraged me to resubmit when I had done more work. Yay! A “no” doesn’t get better than that, people!
So, based on her comments, I went back to the manuscript with a few specific things in mind.
One of those things I decided I needed to get a handle on was, exactly when does everything in this blasted novel take place?
This might seem like a stupid question. You’re the author; don’t you know that?
Well, yeah, I do, but there are a few things you need to understand. What the agent saw was the fourth draft (no self-respecting author, I think, would start sending out queries until she had hit at least a third draft) and I’ve been writing this book over nearly four years. Events in the story have changed and shifted quite a bit over that time. Structurally, the book is challenging because all of the action takes place in less than two weeks, and if that weren’t hard enough, I recently made the decision to present the first part of the book out of order, starting from after the proposal then bouncing back and forth in time to show all of the events from the first meeting up to the wedding.
Why did I do that? That’s crazy!
Because Kathryn isn’t a very nice person, and when I started the story from the beginning, she was really turning readers off. And when I say “readers,” I mean “agents.” In writing group one morning, we came up with the idea of starting somewhere in the middle of the story and then going backwards, giving the reader a more sympathetic view of Kathryn.
And judging by the response I’m getting from agents, I’d say that it was the right decision.
But one of the problems with this kind of structure is that the reader can get confused about what is happening when.
Guess what? The writer can too.
I realized I needed a chart to plot all of the events in the order they happened, just so I could keep them straight. I got out the big sheets of paper we used to draw on when the kids were little and divided the pages into sections for each day of the week, then divided each day into three sections: morning, afternoon, and evening.
Then, a couple of hours of work with colored Sharpies and color-coordinated Sticky-notes later, I had it!
And boy, had I screwed up!
The marriage proposal — the biggest event of the first third of the book — was taking place on the same day, and at the same time, as Kathryn was getting fitted for her wedding dress because she had already gotten engaged yesterday. People were talking about things happening “yesterday” that happened several days ago. Aaaargh!
Why, exactly, hadn’t I done this sooner?
(Well, I had done a handwritten, high-level list but nothing at this level of detail. And clearly, I had made some huge mistakes along the way.)
So my idea about maybe moving everything back a day went from a possibility to a necessity in about 45 seconds once I saw all those arrows pointing at Thursday morning.
See? Sharpies and Sticky-Notes to the rescue!
Now I have to ponder how to smooth out the transitions and make the cues more concrete (if it’s sunny, it must be Monday) to make it all more straightforward and understandable for the reader — and please feel free to leave advice or helpful blog links in the comments!
I have been trying to think about books I’ve read that move back and forth in time and how those authors managed it without confusing the reader. Our book club just finished “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson, but of course she just plopped a date at the top of each chapter. My divisions aren’t that clear-cut. I shift days within chapters with a graphic character to divide each section. I seem to recall “Sisterland” by Curtis Sittenfeld jumping around in time but I never felt confused by it. Any suggestions for other books I could look at for guidance?
Another thing I did was to write up index cards for each scene. Each card has a title, like “The Proposal,” in all caps in the center of the card and a few lines underneath about what happens in that scene if it would be helpful (“The Proposal” needs no explanation). Then I wrote the scene’s current position in the manuscript in the top left corner (for example, Chap 1/page 5). Finally, I wrote the real world day and time in the top right corner: Thursday a.m., or Friday p.m.
Here’s a picture of one of these cards (Just for fun, I used my Crayola Wild Notes cards. Because of the awesome):
As part of the revision process, I am writing new scenes. As I write them, I am creating new cards. Once I’m done with the new writing and once I’ve decided whether and how much to move scenes around to make the novel easier to understand, I’ll stack up all the cards in order and use them to guide my cutting and pasting of the manuscript.
All revisions should be this much fun. 🙂
(P.S. — while you’re here, click back a page and enter to win Patrice Kindl’s delightful “Keeping the Castle”.)