Sometimes all it takes is a couple words to spark a huge change. The magical words of a marriage proposal; the deal-breaking words hurled during a fight; even the seductions and offenses of billboard signs. For me, it was two words in Steve Almond’s “The Great Plot Test” in Writer’s Digest: “plot drift.”
My novel’s plot is drifting and dragging, caught in a wide sargasso sea. Time to pull the lengthy thing, slimy and dripping, from those deep and dark waters. Time to hose it off in the hot water of revision. To extend the metaphor in one last gasp of purple prose (please, let my blog be where I get to indulge): the slimy longboat is my manuscript, almost sinking my subconscious, which is those deep and dark waters. The first, second, and third drafts of my novel are nothing but therapeutic dumping grounds of subconscious. Thank goodness I’m at least a “writer” by Colette’s estimation.
But to be an author… I showed my courage and cut 502 pages. Give me not purple prose but a purple heart. These pages are now divvied up between two files: one called “killed_darlings” and the other called “put_back_in.”
(A brief nod to technology: when I was crossing out with pen on legal pads this novel began in 1993, such a cut might have been much harder. Now one click moves a whole ton of weight and I can see a new horizon.)
To be frank: these are temporary removals as I scrutinize each page for its purpose, thus the eagerly-awaiting “put_back_in” file. But I’m more serious than I’ve ever been about purpose and determined to only put back in the essential. Another helpful guide that took Almond’s advice to the next level — ie, what is that said purpose — is the article, “Your Novel Blueprint: Turn Your Dream Novel into a Reality by Taking Some Tips from the Worksite” by Karen S. Wiesner (Writer’s Digest). She speaks of “story sparks” and “character conflicts (internal)” versus “plot conflicts (external).” Her tips have helped me outline the bare bones of what this novel’s trying to say.
While reading Almond and Wiesner, I received an e-mail update from the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, and that was the coup de grace, the third sign that this was meant to be. To enter the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, your novel needs to be 150,000 words, not 250-some. As I’m writing my pitch, which is a synopsis and the only submission allowed in the first round, I’ve been forced to ask myself who and what matters in this novel. Sure, I’ve written more than a dozen synopses before, both for querying and contests, but this time, Almond + Wiesner + Amazon equaled a neat little “Click!” The lightbulb click, and this time, the economizing kind. I had a breakthrough. This story can only be about a few things, not everything related to singlehood, education, and faith. If I insist on maintaining this trinity of themes, each one must sacrifice something to the gods of unity, clarity, and meaning.
Whether my novel is ready by the contest deadline doesn’t matter. I now see that if I want to stick with the traditional novel – what will fit in paper and binding rather than say, an electronic device — then I need to get serious about slimming. It won’t be 2,000 words cut here or there every four weeks. It will be banning characters, cutting scenes, and linking what remains in a tight and seamless narrative sequence.
Right now, the toughest road is deciding whether or not to cut a secondary character who’s key to my protagonist’s evolution. If I keep her advent in chapter one, she slows the story down with many character development scenes thereafter. If I cut out her good scenes in the beginning (sob!), I lose elements of setting and character development affecting both the heroine and the villain. The gaps created by that change will need to be filled…but perhaps only by a line or scene, briefly stated, that can serve the same purpose. These are the tricky questions plaguing writers during revision.
As of this writing, I’ve decided to let her early scenes stay but cut school politics scenes that lead to the crisis. I’ve got less than 100 pages to wrap up the whole tale, miles of manuscript to cut before I sleep. But bearing this breakthrough in mind, each paragraph re-inserted or created from scratch will have to pass through of a security checkpoint that bellows: State your purpose.
Today’s Writing Goal: Begin on page 385 and cut scenes with Sandra and Jerome. Stay under 530 pages.
Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.
© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.
A Big Lesson
Did you ever have a moment when you suddenly realized, I know something new! It could be learning how to write your name, tie your shoes, or ride a bike. It could be learning how to divide numbers or how to spell a word. It could be understanding something new about history that happened before you born, or playing music, or painting a picture. When you learned this new piece of information or a new skill, you suddenly changed.
Write the story of learning something new.
Why did it happen?
How did it happen?
How did you feel?
How do you feel now?
Secondary, and Adult
Write about a breakthrough you’ve had. Describe yourself before and after this change of mind or heart, and discuss how it’s impacted you since.