THREE GREAT TRICKS FOR REVISING YOUR DRAFT

Your draft is covered in lines, highlights and lots of great big ticks. What happens next?

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Have you ever thought of sending your novel to a script agency?* That can be a useful step but writers are sometimes disappointed by the feedback because the agency or editor seems to have misunderstood the book. Script advisors try to find the heart of your story, your main narrative drive. First novels in particular can have everything in them including several kitchen sinks, so the advisor recommends the strongest line that they think will sell. The trouble is, it may not be what the writer had in mind, at all, leaving him or her confused and upset. Some writers then lose faith in critiques and even, sad to say, have a sense that their critiqued story is not worth working on any more. Writers get a better return on their money if they work first on bringing out the essence of what they and their characters want to say.

In other words, your second draft will be much better. Whose first drafts are perfect? Hemmingway knew the answer. The place to start is your through-line.

1st TRICK – ROSIE’S PLOT CLINIC

Summarise your plot roughly and quickly. Approach this like an exercise; there’s no need to be self-conscious or to trim as you go, no-one will see it but you. If you can, do it without looking at the draft itself or your notes. You are after the excitement you get in a writing exercise where the thing takes off and is carried along by the power of its own adventure.

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By Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891)

One or two thousand words should be enough. If your summary wants to go in a new direction, something you haven’t thought of or written yet, that’s fine. Write it anyway. If you end up somewhere you do not want your story to go, never mind. Save it and have another go.

If this exercise does not come to you easily, try this shorter approach:

EXERCISE

Summarise your plot in 10 words, then 20, then 50, then 100.

These little summaries are more difficult than they look but you will need them later:

  • When someone introduces you to a literary agent at a party, you will have about ten seconds to grab her attention – that’s where your 10 words summary comes in handy.
  • If she hasn’t looked behind you for someone more saleable after ten seconds, it’s time to expand into your 20 words.
  • Your 50 words summary can go into your submission to an agent or publisher when the time is right. (Not yet.)
  • Your 100 words summary can be the basis of publicity like the blurb on your book’s jacket.

Doing these little outlines at this stage concentrates you on your story’s gist. Keep them in a file, together with other versions you doodle and rewrite from time to time in idle moments.

WHAT IS YOUR THROUGH-LINE?

Let’s remind ourselves about through-line: the spine of your story, the string that holds your chapter pearls together, the engine of it all. Its elements are these:

  • A question
  • that is specific, emotional and urgent (will Odysseus find home, how does Rose survive the Titanic’s sinking, what will become of Lizzie Bennet)
  • about a particular character or characters (will the Watership Down rabbits find somewhere safe to live),
  • that should, one way or another, be answered by the story.

Toy with discovering and refining your through-line for as long as it takes. Just keep thinking and summarising and scribbling until, click, there it is. The clearer you are about your through-line, the more successful your story will be.

2nd TRICK – CHARACTERS

Now is the time to have another good old chat with your main characters too, so back to the character questionnaire

Some characters arrive fully formed and change very little while you are writing your draft. Others morph as your story develops. In both cases it can be a good idea to revisit your character questionnaire to see what comes forward. If nothing else, it will free up any writing muscles that might have got sluggish during your rest.

If it feels like too much of a chore, so be it. Let’s sit on the sofa with the red pen and read that first draft through again, this time more specifically.

Take one of your main characters at a time, and reread your draft as if you are that character:

  • Summarise that character’s storyline as you go. Is it consistent?
  • Does that single strand feel true in itself? Does it feel true for that character?
  • Are there gaps or jumps, anything that could do with explanation? Any plot holes where for example your character knows something he or she hasn’t been told yet? Be hard on yourself because your readers will be.
  • Is your character’s voice consistent in the dialogue, not only the accent and content (both important) but also the world view, age, ethnicity etc. Does the voice reflect the character’s growth through the story?

By now, you may feel like doing a bit more of the character questionnaire. Time spent that way is never wasted.

3rd TRICK – SLEEPING

Being with your draft every day is crucial now or your energy will drop. My favourite trick is this.

Before you go to sleep, read over what you’ve done with your draft that day. You’re just reading, no need for this to feel like a chore, and make a few short notes for attention next day. Then sleep.

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This does something inexplicably marvellous: it bakes everything together in your brain (or little devils whisper in your sleeping ears, like these around Botticelli’s Mars) so that in the morning you will go happily to your writing again and it will be more alive. If a thought or two wakes you in the night, note it down and go back to sleep. Some of those notes will be great. Not all of them.

Revising your draft can take a while but somehow it can be exhilarating and less exhausting than producing your first draft because the road map is there in front of you.

Next week we’ll look at your plot arc.

*I do not offer a script reading service, by the way.

Happy writing!

Through-line – the single most vital trick in writing a novel

And by vital I mean life-giving as well as essential. Your through-line is the great big question you ask at the beginning of your story, the one that keeps your reader hooked through every page.

WHAT IS YOUR BOOK ABOUT?

You could answer ‘about 30,000 words so far’. Many people say their book is about one of the big abstract issues like war, heroism, exile, true love or that mixed blessing we call family. Those are themes. Most good books have at least one theme though they’re not essential. Themes are what you want your readers to think about, after they’ve closed your book and are going on with their lives.

Through-line

Your through-line is the big plot question you ask at the beginning of your story, the one that keeps your reader hooked until it’s answered, one way or another, close to the last page. It is not about the meaning of heroism in general, it is about the heroic survival of a particular character your readers care about. Through-lines are about what you want your readers to feel.

Your theme is:

  • an abstract question
  • appealing to the intellect,
  • affecting as many of your characters as you like,
  • that you need not answer – let readers make up their own minds,
  • is not necessarily something that will be attainable or resolved by the story’s end and
  • more than one theme is fine though, if you have more, they should link in some way.

Your through-line is:

  • a specific question about a particular need. Will Jill get a pony? Will Carrie marry Big? Will Sherlock find the killer? Will Black Beauty survive?
  • It’s an emotional question of high stakes
  • about a particular person, preferably your main character(s). A thousand pages of statistics teach us about rough-sleeping but in Stuart: A Life Backwards; it’s Stuart’s own life story that gives it emotional urgency.
  • Your through-line question should be humanly attainable (achieving world peace goes in the ‘theme’ section) and
  • it must be attained or answered in the story. The answer doesn’t have to be yes but there should be a sense of resolution at the end.

An example of a through-line

A fine example of a powerful through-line is in Stuart: A Life Backwards. This excellent book came about when its author Alexander Masters worked in a facility for homeless people in Cambridge and met a rough sleeper called Stuart. They became friends and decided to write Stuart’s life story. Alexander’s first draft was painstaking but, by his own admission, dull. Stuart didn’t like it either and came up with a stunning through-line and structure.

Write it backwards, Stuart said, starting in the present and going back in time to his childhood. Write it like a Tom Clancy thriller, he suggested too, and next is where his marvellous through-line comes in. Readers should ask, he said, who stole Stuart’s innocence. Who ‘killed’ the boy he was.

Who stole Stuart’s innocence? Who stole his life, in other words, and when the answer comes, everything hilariously aggravating about Stuart (and there’s plenty) is instantly understood and the reader’s heart is broken. Stuart died between the finishing of the book and its publication: he didn’t survive to see Alexander awarded the Guardian First Book prize for their work.

Who stole Stuart’s innocence? Will Joey the Warhorse survive the Western Front and come home to the boy who trained him? Will Anna Karenina live happily ever after? Will the community of Watership Down rabbits ever manage to settle safely again? Will the boys in Lord of the Flies ever be rescued?

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EXERCISE – 10 MINUTES

Choose one of your favourite stories? Give yourself ten minutes to define and write about its through-line. This is not always as easy as it sounds. In the film Titanic, for example, we know that Rose survives for decades after the wreck. The film’s through-line is how she survives.

Your favourite story will have sub-plots – do they have through-lines too? Are they different from the main one? Are they linked to it and to each other? Do the characters have their own personal through-lines? How do they all connect?

EXERCISE – 10 MINUTES

Let’s think now about the story you are writing. Please don’t be discouraged if this exercise turns out to be tricky. At first draft stage, it’s not at all unusual to have through-lines that spread like deltas – in fact, that’s often why people lose heart and give up. Thinking about your through-line at any stage can help keep you on track.

See if you can sum up your through-line in 20 to 30 words. It may well feel impossible but keep trying. You might find yourself coming up with three or four through-lines. Don’t worry, your story is work in progress.

Exciting as your several through-lines might be, it’s important to keep scribbling around them until one edges forward as the most urgent. Some classic novels have more than one but if you’re working on your first novel, try to keep things simple and clear. The clearer your through-line, the stronger and more saleable your story will be.

Your through-line is precious. It’s your story’s backbone, its engine, the thread that holds your story’s beads together, and it should appear somehow in every chapter. Occasionally readers will forgive a little tangent but keep it brief. (By Book 4 of A Game of Thrones, George RR Martin had so many of us readers by the heart that we kept reading as if it was an endurance test, but our favourite characters and their through-lines were missing from that fourth book and, to be honest, he lost a lot of us.)

Once you’re confident of your through-line, congratulate yourself. You now have what is known as your ‘elevator pitch’ for those precious ten seconds when somebody introduces you to an agent or publisher and you’re asked what your novel in progress is about.

Crucially for your story, once you know your through-line, you are equipped to destabilise it in every stage of your story, nudging up your stakes as you go, until you reach your destination. As Wilkie Collins said, make them laugh, make them cry and, above all, make them wait.

A QUICK WORD ABOUT STAKES

What lowers your stakes? Anything that makes a reader put down the book and forget to pick it up again. This list comes from my writing groups – please feel free to add your own:

  • Repetition,
  • Diverting the story into something else (away from your through-line),
  • Too much leaden description,
  • Telling us what we know already or can guess,
  • Spelling out every damn thing,
  • Being predictable, and too unpredictable,
  • Unsympathetic or boring characters,
  • Showing off research and
  • Mistakes.

FINAL EXERCISE – 10 – 15 minutes to start with

For practice, let’s imagine a static scene where one of your characters is sitting in a traffic jam, pauses lost in thought while they’re up to their wrists in washing up water or takes time out to look at the sky. 

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First, let’s discover how your character (X) is feeling at the beginning of the scene. Start with a brief scribble-chat together:

  • What can X see, hear, taste, smell and touch?
  • Is X hot or cold, comfortable or not, in tight clothing or loose, in a familiar place or a strange one?
  • What is X’s mood: stressed or calm, low or excited, fearful etc.?
  • How does X feel about what’s just been happening ? For example, has X just left an exam or job interview early and is worried about the outcome?

You should have X’s voice flowing nicely in your imagination now as s/he leads you through her/his senses, surroundings, mood and context.

Now, find a way to bring X’s thoughts around to your through-line, if you haven’t already. As you keep writing, see if you can let your character raise your novel’s stakes to greater urgency with a lightning jolt.

Even a static scene can be full of activity. In fact, the contrast in pace can work to your advantage and produce an unforgettable chapter. As long as you bring your stakes and character together with your through-line, all will be well.

Happy writing!