Happy 2014 all.
I’m among the millions trying to stay warm inside the massive ice ball of air hurled into North America by the “polar vortex.” It’s been at or below zero with the wind chill all day and waiting for my younger son at the bus stop was pretty darn unpleasant. Mind you, I know I’ve got it easy compared to many. All of my friends and former coworkers back in Chiberia (Chicago) for a start. Or I could be stuck in an airport or stranded on the opposite side of the country from home. Or not have a home at all and be in a desperate struggle to stay alive another day in this deadly cold. So…a dollop of perspective in my cocoa.
Having come out of my usual holiday season writing slumber I am back at work on the second draft of my novel.
It’s a learning experience for sure. Gene Wolfe says, “You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel that you’re writing.” So I’m learning how to write this one.
The first thing I did was read the first draft through all the way. Tried not to stop for long. Tried to keep my note making and paragraph slashing to a minimum. Tried to stay away from sharp objects.
When I reached the end, I was relieved to have learned that there is, indeed, a story in there worth telling. It’s just not ready to be read by anyone but me. There are places where it goes wildly off course. In other places the story bogs down. Characters undergo personality shifts. Back story pieces and other details are in the wrong place and wind up told rather than shown. Etc. Normal first draft stuff. Except for one thing: the sheer scale.
I was a bit unprepared to discover how many people and moving parts there are in the manuscript. Keeping it all in my head so that I can focus in on a given character’s trajectory and behavior across the whole tale has proven difficult. Also, given the size, I couldn’t quite see the beats of the narrative as reliably as I’d like in my minds eye. I’ve been experimenting with ways to help myself.
I labeled an index card for each significant character in the story and tacked them up on my cork board. It looks like this:
I have them arranged by what section of the book they are primarily featured in or alongside characters that have the most interaction with them. I’ve been making shorthand notes about each character on the cards. Reminders about tendencies or traits.
The other tool I’m creating is something like an outline except there are no bullets. It’s more a super condensed version of the novel. Goes something like this:
Stave One – Marley’s Ghost
Summary: Christmas Eve. We meet Ebenezer Scrooge, learn about his work and life and meet some of the people around him. He goes home alone and is visited by the ghost of his dead partner who warns him he must change his life and that he will be visited by three ghosts.
P7 Narrator goes on at some length that Marley is dead and that Scrooge is a bitter, miserly recluse.
P10 Scrooge’s nephew arrives, tries, and fails to persuade Scrooge to come to Christmas dinner.
P16 Two men from a charitable organization appeal to Scrooge for a donation and are rebuffed. “surplus population.”
Etc. I’ve done this with half the manuscript so far and will complete it tomorrow. I’m finding it a useful exercise. Just the page numbers give me a sense of when the writing gets suspiciously long or suspiciously brief. I can see the major events and where they lie in relationship to one another. I can note major themes or important quotes that influence later events (or could, or should).
I’m getting my arms around the story and the characters. Or, perhaps, I’m making a map. Something to help me navigate. Because I’ve never been in these waters before.