Thursday, August 1, 2013

Knit One, Purl Two . . . Rip it Apart

Okay, so there's this manuscript lying in the drawer, after several years maturing or moldering in the darkness, waiting, just waiting for the tug on the handle that exposes it once more to the harsh light of day.  A manuscript that found its way into hibernation after a few major agents said it came oh, so close; a boutique literary publishing house had four folks give it a read before passing; and a well-known figure in the editing world read the entire piece (as a favor, not for a fee) and called the novel "bold and accomplished, absolutely publishable." Readers enjoyed the retelling of a little known Civil War character's experiences, found the settings and the territory in the heartland of Kentucky and Tennessee evocative, the voice and message powerful, and they loved to hate the antagonists.  

So what had gone wrong?

A few readers, most helpfully, had found the protagonist, a woman who, for a short time, had been a spy for the Union army, quite interesting, yet they had trouble really caring about her over the long haul.  Major problem!  So my character got some intense counseling and tried to be more engaging, tried to share more of herself and her inner feelings, her cares and fears and yearnings, and even the way she talked about her husband, to please those folks hovering over the page.  Most readers felt those revisions helped.

So what else?

The real problem, and one I could even see myself once I had completed and fine tuned a few drafts, was the issue of structure.  The novel, at 100,000 words, was simply too heavy for the relatively light and inept support my plot points provided, and yet I found it so hard to unravel the lovely stitching I had created. A few years ago, I gave it a half-hearted attempt, and made what felt like some good progress, but then got sidetracked with a new project due for publication this summer.  So now I have a blank page before me and I look toward that drawer, debating.  Can I do it?  Is it worth all that hard work to find a way to propel the reader more powerfully forward?

But now I've discovered what may be the keys that will be just the thing to guide me through the dismantling and reassembly process, to see if the manuscript deserves another run at publication.  Thanks to a couple friends, I've read--and reread--Robert McKee's Story and Larry Brooks's Story Engineering, a pair of marvelous books detailing their approaches to the hidden underpinnings of structure that make story truly work.  Eureka! 

So, is now the time to pull open that drawer again?


  1. If Story Engineering gives you a different perspective, a different angle to the same story, then pull it out and go for it. We have talked about Story Engineering a lot, and from reading it myself, I have a feeling you will see a new angle not there before, a new plot point not there prior. If this doesn't work this time, it will never be wasted time. Writing is NEVER wasted time. Find a different drawer to put it in and this time forget where you put it.

  2. Good advice, Keith!

    Okay, day one, the drawer is open. How does one go about this process? First thought is to analyze the novel from that structural perspective and see where it seems to "fit" the model, and where it fails . . . and then try to decide how (and if) it makes sense to re-knit the piece. It feels like standing beside a lake on a chill, late summer morning, knowing that first plunge into the water will stun . . .hold your breath . . . GO!

  3. I have a teacher friend who wrote a novel several years ago. I encouraged him to rewrite/revise/something. He pulled it out and just read it. Didn't do anything else. Just read it.
    Since it had been a few years, I think some distance and some time made it easier to look at it with fresh eyes and less bias. He said the changes he should make were clear, but he was also proud of the work he had done.
    So maybe just start by reading it?

  4. Oh, and writing is never a waste of time. I'm with Keith on this.

  5. So far I've done a bit of reading and touching up, but mainly I spent a lot of time noting tough questions--some of them from readers in the past, some of them just those things we all try to avoid and pretend they don't matter. Plus, I've done some highly productive staring off into space, on the back porch, in the shower, on my bike--well, I didn't just stare while riding, but I did focus on the novel and the ripping out of stitches. Some excellent ideas for ratcheting up the tension, so I've gone back and started revising and tightening early chapters and mainly dropping in some foreshadowing...and as I do that, I get more ideas and make more notes. I've been away from the novel long enough that I feel I can be more objective and productive about changes and deletions. Fun!