Coming off the Back Burner

It’s hard to know where to begin.

It’s hard to get back on track when life, a visa application, an international move, and so many small things have derailed what little normalcy you had.  But all those personal things — they aren’t really what this blog is about.  They have a tendency to push into and wind around the structure of writing time, nudging it further and further towards the back burner.

Recently I wasn’t as successful at pushing back.  Granted, those things involved immigration and a few starts at nonfiction pieces influenced by the whole experience, but after finally getting moved and somewhat settled, I have felt my writing’s absence.  It’s in how I end even busy days feeling I accomplished little; it’s in my persistent restlessness.

State of Mind by Amrita Bagchi

Last year I received my report from the Literary Consultancy about my novel-in-progress, part of my New Fiction Bursary from the Northern Writers’ Awards.  It offered numerous pages of critique on themes, plot, structure, characterization, and style of prose, concluding with a summary and section on commercial consideration.  Although I was complemented on my “generally sturdy and competent” prose, descriptions of natural scenes and certain encounters, as well as “usually convincing and engaging” dialogue, the TLC editor concluded that it is not ready for submission to any agent or publisher yet.  (I include the “yet” because he did)

His recommendation basically boiled down to this:  either take on the demanding and difficult task of remedying the problems with the plot, or set it aside as a practice piece and move on to the next project.

I think there’s a little piece of everyone that, when submitting something for feedback or evaluation, we want to be told it is wonderful just as it is.  It would validate the work we put into it, and honestly, feel like nearly-instant gratification.  But that would be too simple; eventually, such immediate success would lose its meaning.  If everything anyone did was instantly successful, it also would lack the development and depth gained through multiple drafts and reworks.

After receiving this feedback, I took some time away from my novel, thinking about the implications of either option.  If I set this work aside, a part of me would feel like all the work I put into it was somewhat wasted, though I know it wouldn’t be.  The next time I begin a novel, I would hope I’ve learned enough drafting this one to be able to avoid some of my mistakes.  Most importantly, I didn’t feel like I’d said everything I hoped to say — and with the depth I’d hoped to say it.  I’d hoped to address complicated themes of family and identity, and I wasn’t entirely successful in this pursuit.  I still have things to say, and because my initial idea is rooted in family history, I still have questions and ideas to delve into further.

By Gabriel Moreno

With Robert J. Ray’s The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel in hand, I began considering the ways I could rework my novel.  It’s too easy to fall into the trap of line editing, so I wanted help with structuring how I tackled the different aspects that needed work.  I was inspired to add a new character, to strengthen certain characters’ personal plots, and I was still considering how to strengthen some themes, and then life intervened.

Now, a few months later, I’m finally trying to pick up the pieces of what I dropped then.

In month since I began writing this post (embarrassing, I know), I have set aside Ray’s book.  I’ve taken a few tips from it, such as his charts and index card ideas.  I’ll pick it up again at some point, but jump forward a little in it.  I grew frustrated with the book because I reached a section that recommended strengthening a romantic triangle between the characters.  Does every novel really need to be so focused on romance?  I could write a whole post on just that.  I even wrote a scene in my novel to dispel any idea of romance developing between the two main characters.  I know lust and love are strong motivations, and I could see the use of considering triangles of tension between character, but must it be romance?

The charts have been useful though.  Now not only do I have a revised plot diagram (I decided to stick with a “three-hump” structure), I also have grids I made while reviewing my draft, considering:

  • Characters:  Name, role (protagonist, antagonists, etc); an object associated with them (something they carry, use, or which represents them).  The objects section can be expanded upon further, in a separate list; when you see an object surfacing in association with a character three or more times, it can become a symbol.  Becoming aware of this can help tighten the story.  Ray considers objects in these categories:  jewelry, vehicles, weapons, wardrobe items, food, drinks, tools, money.
  • Subplots:  Tied to characters besides the protagonist; entry/exit arc; an object; how the character is connected to the protagonist (blood, money, power, organization, back story, etc).  Ray recommended you identify six.  I explored this chart further through free writing, alongside developing back story further.
  • Flashback:  Location in plot (act, scene); character; trigger; setting; purpose.  This helps identify if you’re relying too heavily on past events; too many flashbacks can kill the story’s momentum.  Ray suggests using them more in Act Two.  He also examines books with unusual structures, such as The English Patient.
  • Scenes:  This is the grid I will probably be using most for a little while.  It helps you track the plot of your novel:  scene name (I just did Act #, Scene #); setting (where, time of day, weather if important); characters involved; objects present; and the important action of the scene.

I made the final list a while ago, but in the process of getting back to work on editing, I transferred the grid to index cards, which I then hung on the wall near my desk:


As you can see, I’ve already made a few notes on different cards and marked some with sticky notes… some of which haven’t stuck very well, unfortunately.  This is basically storyboarding though, in written form.  While the chart was useful and travels well, I’m a fairly visual person.  Having these cards to refer to makes it easier for me.  As I add scenes or change scenes, I can rewrite or add cards.  When I review the board, I can add sticky notes or highlight things to call my attention to new ideas as I’m writing and rewriting.

If you’re editing a novel, I would recommend referring to Robert J. Ray’s book.  It’s given me some new ideas for structuring the editing process, and he goes into depth about the meaning of these grids/lists and the things you should consider while reworking your book.  As with anything though, take it with a grain of salt.  This is, after all, your book.


The deadline for this year’s Northern Writers’ Awards is Monday, February 2.