If you try to write novels, you know what my title means. You have finished a couple of drafts, the first a whirlwind of creativity and the second an attempt to fix holes with plaster. But now the story has problems. It begins well enough and ends superbly. If you could publish the first four chapters and the last three, you’d be on the NYT bestsellers list. But of course you can’t. That middle section is a cloudy, muddy cesspool.
We try to fix it. We think we have a plan. We sit down with the first scene and begin reading it with the intention of making changes. The scene feels okay on its own, but when you sit back and think how it fits in the story, you don’t have many concrete thoughts, good or bad. Your mind goes nowhere, so you go there as well. You pack it in and go do something else like work on a short story, a blog post, a rebuttal to the latest vegan science, replies to anti-climate changers, anti-vaxxers, anti-whateverers, a rebuttal to any extremist’s post on whatever topic, or maybe play a 32 hour game of Civ V.
Our stories got in this state by our own excessive creativity: it would be cool if Mr. Protagonist did this or that or maybe joined the Brazilian football team. Apparently they let anybody play for them. And this Germany-Brazil game is a good analogy of the state of my novel — a disaster of national proportions. How do we fix it? How do we make sure it all makes sense, flows progressively and logically, all of the unnecessary verbiage is removed, and all of the black hole gaps are filed in. No traces of angst are left. Nobody can see the panty lines or skid marks of your novel. How do we sort it all out?
I decided to perform some technical analysis. TA is structured, objective analysis of a situation and often involves numerical indicators. I did not use any statistics. I examined my interfaces. I will describe what I did in point form so you can easily use this as a checklist if you wish.
1. I wrote a one sentence description of my story in this form — Protagonist learns to do this instead of that.
2. I reviewed all my scene headings and wrote a list of my subplots. I ended up with nine.
3. For each subplot I wrote
a. A description
b. Its pros
c. Its cons
d. Its character building contribution
4. Constructed a matrix to cross reference all subplots with
a. Relationship (echo, foil, etc.) *my knowledge of such descriptors is thin
b. Whether the current line contributes tot he cross-referenced line.
c. Conflict arising from plots meeting either against each other or in support of each other.
5. On the back of the page I wrote a paragraph for each line-line relationship. I labeled them 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, etc. I tried to write how this relationship should work.
6. I recorded any gaps in a list
I spent time on this. I did one sheet a day and I thought deeply about these lines and relationships. They say you should have no more than three subplots, so nine is way too high. But, bear with me. I think I extended the definition of a plot. At least three of these are more rightly called themes. Others, while they do have events, do not flow like plots. They are more like objects or symbols. When I filtered it all down to their exact definitions, I really only have two full subplots, maybe three if I stretch it. Regardless of definition, I examined my manuscript from nine different angles or dimensions. It feels like I examined a house I want to buy from all possible angles — roof, basement, walls, rooms, electrical, plumbing, heating, windows, doors, landscape, etc. Do these rooms fit this house? Do these trees match the shape of the house? Are there enough electrical outlets? Too many? Are there enough baths? Too many? What happens if my kids come home to live with us and five of us need to take showers every morning? Will that work? Is it realistic? One gets to know one’s house by asking such questions. One gets to know one’s manuscript by asking such questions.
You have a tough, mangled manuscript? Ask hard questions. Identify its important aspects (subplot, theme, symbol, motif, etc.) then ask how each aspect interfaces with each other aspect. Document gaps as well as pointless prose, though that will likely come out as you edit. Learn your story from the inside out by looking at it from all possible angles.
Tomorrow I edit!