4.19.2016

Getting Lost in the Rewrite

Once the first draft of your novel is finished—and you’ve recovered from the celebration—the arduous process of revising it begins. The larger changes you intend to make may stem from notes you’ve taken during the initial draft, or they may come from comments made by outside readers. You mean to write in entire scenes or background stories, or move around blocks of text.

The tendency is to regard what is already written as distant landscape. You know the main plot works, so you’re not concentrating on it. You’re trying to show why the protagonist gets tongue-tied, say, at crucial moments. You know it stems from her father’s coming home drunk on Friday nights and yelling at everyone in sight. You build up a series of vignettes that maybe end with her plugging him with her mother’s beloved Remington 700 mountain rifle.

In a typical scheme, you work up a sequence of a half dozen scenes. Now, where do they fit? Looking at the present landscape, you spot six places in the main plot where you’d like to break away, leaving the reader hanging. Even when you review the entire manuscript, the new scenes glow. That’s what captivates you, because you just put your heart into that material.

As an editor, what I see more times than not is: wreckage of the main plot’s rhythm. This comes in several varieties. The first is: bunched-up scenes. You know you have to separate them, but you allot only 20-page gaps. Those six scenes, if they’re 5-6 pages apiece, now occupy a considerable amount of the reader’s attention. The background or subplot scenes are competing with the main plot, thereby relegating it to a position of less importance.

The second is: starting too late. You see a prompt, such as her stammering for the third damned time in a crucial situation. Okay, now it’s time to explain, and boy, do I have a story for you. You’re creating a dual-headed problem here. On the one hand, the reader has been reading for possibly 100 pages before the thing gets started. If it appears that late, how much do I really care about it? Second, the back story may block up the rhythm later in the book. You want to ramp up excitement in the climax sequence, and now those background scenes represent a series of lulls in the action. The main plot action. The part you got right, and now you’re screwing up.

Exercise: Unless the climax of the background or the subplot is a titanic revelation, you should try to end it at the latest by the three-quarters mark in the book. Look at those points where you can break away from the main plot—and work backward from that last point. Push everything forward, and you’ll find you’re starting around page 50.

“Rhythm is something you either have or don't have, but when you have it, you have it all over.”
—Elvis Presley

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine






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