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How To Tame Your Novel

A writer recently got in touch because he's overwhelmed by the novel he's writing. He has a story, and about two-thirds of a first draft, but it's feeling more and more impossible. There are loose ends, continuity clashes, scenes whose outcome is unconvincing and others which don't go anywhere; when he tries to write a scene it always grows in a direction which the plot won't allow, while if he tries to write the scenes that the plot needs, they're stiff and dead. What's more, each time he solves a problem - changes the time-scheme of a chapter, or a character's personality - it causes a problem somewhere else.

And this writer is so not alone. But how you tame a novel-in-progress is always going to depend both on what the novel is, and what kind of a writer you are. So I can't offer an infallible recipe, just some ideas. As ever, try each one on your project and your temperament, and use the ones which seem to fit you.

On the other hand, when you're looking at my suggestions, do also keep an ear out for your strongest, most appalled resistance. Every way of working has its particular advantages, but also its particular pitfalls, and so the muddle you're in is, by definition, partly a consequence of your writing process. Which means that processes which are the very opposite of your normal way of working might be just what you need to un-scramble things. 

I would also say that, particularly if you suffer from the must-write demon, it's terribly easy to feel as if any writing-time that isn't putting more words on the page is wasted. Believe me, it isn't - and that's quite separate from the need to accept that creativity is inherently "wasteful". The more you can do to tame your materials, and work on them in other ways than drafting, the more swiftly and easily the draft will come when you do start. 

One more thought: with all of what follows, bear in mind my one-and-only rule of writing, which is DON'T FIDDLE. If you keep dropping in on the file at random and tweaking here and there, all that happens is you make more muddles, start hares you fail to follow through, and lose your sense of the larger structure. Now, if never before, you need to be absolutely ruthless: don't open the file without a clear and particular task in mind (even if it's just reading a scene to see if it's needed), and seeing that task through. If other ideas/jobs/worries occur to you (which they will) then don't let yourself be sidetracked: just make a note and keep going. Trust me: you won't forget what the idea really was (if you find you have, then it's probably your later discoveries which killed it, which is a Good Thing), and you will be able to deal with it when you reach it in the to-do list. 

Stage One: FINDING OUT WHAT YOU'VE GOT

The first stage of taming anything is to understand what you've actually got: is this tiger a cub or fully-grown, male or female? Is this herd of elephants African or Indian? Or are they actually woolly mammoths? Here are some ways to find out. I've suggested a useful order but, as ever, it's up to you:

Corral everything. If you have several different files, assemble them all in a single folder, glance at each, type a line or two at the top of the file to explain what part and stage of the novel it is, and re-name the file itself with something that explains what it is. Honestly, it's a very long time since file names could only be 8 characters, so make your life easy. If you have lots of paper versions of things, then it's even easier. It's what capital letters, red pens and the top-right-hand-corner of the page were made for. Then do the same for your research notes, printouts, postcards and leaflets, books and all the other necessary gumph: folders and marker pens are your friend. Not only will you start to feel that you, rather than the animals, are now running the zoo, you'll have gained a useful overview of what you've actually done so far and what material you've forgotten you have.

Assemble the text. Print it out if you haven't (and with decent margins), because the last thing you want to be doing is have your fingers stray into messing with the words. Take a pen, read it through, and find, but don't try to solve, the problems. Try to make your finding-notes in a way which will help you when you want to flip through collating all the instances of a particular issue: "LETTER PLOT: she's nosy and would open it"; "BEN'S CHARA.: he's usually braver than this".

Write a synopsis. I can't say often enough how incredibly useful writing a synopsis purely for yourself can be. Think of it as telling a story about your story: it forces you to work out the "causally related chain of events" which is the fundamental nature of narrative. Yes, as your imagination kicks in other ideas/jobs/worries will float up, but don't let them into the main narrative, just keep a separate page for what I think of as "sidecar notes".

Stage Two: GAINING CONTROL

Any of these can be used earlier, as part of clarifying what you've already got. And writing a synopsis can also be used not to find out what you've got, but later, when you want to develop it.

Imagine-on-paper anything else which isn't solid enough in your mind, or has given you continuity problems. Try some of:

  • sketch-maps
  • building plans
  • spreadsheets of relative ages of characters during but also before the story
  • timelines of the whole novel, or individual parts of the plot
  • timelines of the different strands of a dual narrative
  • theme mind-maps: anything from single words which encapsulate your project to myths or quotations that you draw on 
  • relationship mind-maps: what rivalries, sexual loves, familial loves, jealousies, fears, hopes and dreams run between your characters? Are they reciprocated, or different?
  • event mind-maps: what leads to what in cause-and-effect terms (separate from the order it's told in the novel)
  • a dramatis personae of every named character, and a list of others ("shopkeeper who sells the gun") who matter to the plot
  • character-in-action questions, including the characters' inter-action grid
  • off-stage events which affect the plot
  • ask your novel my Seventeen Questions to clarify what you're actually trying to do with this project, and how it's trying to work 

To help nail voice, character or theme, try first-drafting a short story of an event which isn't part of the story, so you're free to follow your writerly nose, separate from the structural needs of the novel. It's worth doing at least a rough second-draft, to clarify the essence of what you've discovered, but you don't have to polish it unless you want to. And if you feel this isn't a good use of your writing time, I should point out that a story I wrote purely to explore voice and point of view for what wasn't yet A Secret Alchemy went on to be published as part of a Fish Competition anthology, All the King's Horses.

Write a chapter plan, with a maximum of three sentences for each chapter: where it starts, what happens, and what the outcome is. This is a bit like a synopsis, but pushes you into working out the structural function of the units of your story. It's one of the first things that Debi Alper and I make writers do on our course on Self-Editing Your Novel, and it works like a charm for virtually all our 300+ graduates.

Read a book on story structure, preferably not one based on film-scripts, since it's like reading a book about how to tame a single wolf-pup when you actually have a whole pack of all ages to cope with. My favourite is John Yorke's Into The Woods

Buy some index cards or biggish post-it notes: this is particularly useful if you write out-of-order, or your novel has more than one separate story-strand. Make one card for each chapter or main scene of the story - perhaps colour-coded if you have a dual timeline - and use pen for those you've written and pencil for those you haven't, or some such distinction. Blu-tac them to the wall or a white-board, or string a washing line across the room, and start sorting them into the right order.

Try a planning grid: a grid is another way of sorting out the structure, and has the advantage that you can use separate "on stage" columns if you have a dual narrative, but still see how they plait together: a little number in the corner of their respective boxes can show the order of the chunks in any given chapter, or the point-of-view. The rest of the columns can track everything else that you've got in a muddle with: external events, to-and-fro of letters, psychological stages of change, weather... 

Try fitting your story into five-act structure (or whatever the book you read suggests). Then remember that act-structure is fractal, and try shaping each act into five mini-acts, to make units of story. If you have a dual time-line, then make sure each has its own five-act structure, and think about how they play out when plaited together.

Take your projected word-count, and divide by 25: if you're working, as I do, with five-act structures, and intend your novel to be around 100,000 words - which is a pretty safe bet for any genre - then each unit of story, very roughly, wants to be somewhere around 4,000 words. There, that's not so horrifying, is it? And of course you don't have to stick to that anyway.

Stage Three: START THE RE-DRAFT

How you tackle the re-write will always depend on how wildly your existing text has got out of hand. The basic options are

a) revise what you've got: with your new sense of the characters and their overall story, and your new grids and structures to help you.
b) start a "new" project: plan and structure it in your normal way, and let that "new" project dictate what it wants of the old one.

But, above all, in deciding which to do, don't try to save yourself trouble. Revising what you've got appears to mean less work, but often that's the cover-reason for what's really your unconscious, terrifed of being forced to recognise that there will be darlings you must murderWhat's more, if you're revising really thoroughly it's unlikely actually to be much quicker than starting afresh; worst of all, there's a very strong risk that you will end up with something which works OK, but lacks the fluency, the overarching coherence and drive, that you'd get from re-imagining the whole story from scratch. 

Still, if you find the muddle is genuinely more in your head than on the page, then a) is an option. Consolidate your files into a master-file of the main text, complete with your labels at the start of each section that remind you what it is and what it's doing there. Colour-coding different points of view or narrative strands might be useful, too. Then, if you didn't do it earlier, do the print-and-pen, problem-finding read, and from that make a clear to-do list of tasks, tattoo Don't Fiddle on your monitor, and get stuck in. Even if you normally write out-of-order, I do suggest that you start at the beginning and work forwards, because that gets you closer to how the reader will read it, and should help you to hold on to the overall arc of the story as you move chunks around, tweak, darn in, change, develop and cut stuff, and write the new bits you've discovered you need. As ever, when one revision makes you realise something needs changing elsewhere, don't be diverted, just add it to your sidecar notes, and keep going.

If you decide to work as if it's a "new" project - and I urge you to consider it really seriously - then you could start however you start a new novel. Keep the old files to hand for when the new story asks for them, but be ruthless about how much surgery any old sections need before they truly belong in the new story. So often it would be better to write something from scratch, rather than patching and cobbling everything together from existing bits.

At the very least, to add in old text, don't let yourself copy-and-paste, but actually type the darn stuff in. As that post explores, then the words have to go through your brain, which now knows what they need to be under the new dispensation. Above all don't let yourself paste in old stuff just to rack up the word-count. 

But however you normally start a new novel, remember that this time it has, shall we say, led to certain problems. So would it be worth thinking about a change of process? Here are some suggestions:

Use Scrivener. In Scrivener you can simultaneously

a) write, label, synopsise, rearrange, keep notes about the overall project, and keep track of separate chunks and their associated sidecar notes, references and images, and
b) keep the chunks connected up to read in series as an overall draft of chapter or a whole novel, and
c) collect together chunks which are separate in the text but part of the same strand, and read them in series

Scrivener is God's gift to anyone whose novel has got out of hand, even if you're not planning to start from scratch - and that post of mine has suggestions about how to get to know it. You can import the whole of your existing text, chop it up and label it with your new sense of how the whole thing works, and then use Scrivener to work with the start-to-finish text, or on separate strands, or whatever. If you are planning to start from scratch, then use Scrivener's famous cork board, or the outliner, to set out what you know of the overall structure, get writing, and when you need some existing text, copy-type it in. Or, if you're deaf to my excellent reasons for copy-typing everything, you can import it, or (shhh!) just copy-and-paste from your old files. You can also use the outliner to keep track of individual and collective word-counts, and see how the proportions of the structure are developing.

Use scissors-and-stapler. I rebuilt a couple of novels this way, and if some evil person took away my Scrivener, this is how I would again. Print it out, chop up the sections you want to keep, and staple them onto new pages, writing links and comments and notes about what's missing in between them. Typing the whole thing up is an excellent way to gain an overview, particularly if you don't try to work out the larger problems and new things, but just leave them as notes, until you have the whole thing in your head to help you set about tackling the details

If you must use Word or another word-processor, then do what you can to keep track.

  • add page-numbers before you print out, and then work in "page view" so you can see page numbers on screen; they'll jump about as you work, of course, but it's better than nothing.
  • make a different file for each chapter or section, and consider naming them something more helpful than "noveldraft2Ch2.docx". There may be a "publication" capability, which links separate files so you can do some global things to them
  • use Word's outlining capabilities, though they're very hierarchical, which fiction isn't. Personally, I've never been able to make head or tail of them anyway
  • give different sections a headline or summary at the beginning - maybe your three-sentence-chapter summaries.
  • print out a list of the chapters-and-summaries or some such, and use it to track word-counts, filenames and other notes.
  • colour-code the text of different strands, voices or points of view: don't forget you can do a search for a colour of text or other formatting, to find them all
  • print out and edit-on-paper regularly - get a little laser printer to make it cheaper, faster and clearer

With any of these - with everything in this post - I do suggest that you remember my motto "fast and forwards". I know that it's not the only way to write a novel, but when it comes to this kind of sorting-out it's almost always safer and more effective to work forwards. For most of us, too, it's better to work on a particular issue, throughout the novel, in a single sweep, making sidecar notes about connected problems when you need to, and then going back to sort out those, or the next item on the to-do list.

And, finally, when it comes to eating this very large elephant with - it probably feels like - a single, tiny and brittle plastic spoon this post should help. Good luck!

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