#12: Rediscovering Your Story’s Heart

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Dear Story Nurse,

I’m currently working on the third draft of the first novel I’m seriously thinking of seeking publication for, and it’s giving me no end of trouble. The characters have been in my head a lot lately, bugging me to finally get their story out the door, so I was wondering if you could help me out with at least one particular issue I keep running into again and again.

There are several scenes in the novel that I felt (and others agreed) didn’t quite work in previous drafts because of wonky character motivations, general lack of momentum, etc., and I’ve been finding that I’ll rewrite one of those scenes, feel much better about it, but then realize that I’ve messed with the continuity of the story (for example, by screwing up the timeline or eliminating a problematic/semi-useless character). Then when I’m patching up the continuity in another place something ELSE will change, and I end up caught in a seemingly endless cycle of narrative whack-a-mole. Do you have any suggestions for taming these pesky contradictory story elements?

—Revision Wrangler (he/him)

Dear Revision Wrangler,

This is a very common problem around draft three or four. You’re having a classic “can’t see the forest for the trees” moment, where the forest is an actual ecosystem; cutting down one tree turns out to disturb a vole habitat and fewer voles mean the owls go hungry and so on. But don’t panic! Just take a deep breath and step back. No, further back. Zoom all the way out. You want to see that forest as a forest, or maybe even as an irregular green shape on a map with lots of other shapes around it.

To break free of this analogy, it sounds like going scene by scene and character by character has been helpful for you to this point, but it’s not what you need right now. You need to see the novel as a novel, to grasp it in its entirety and understand not just the individual parts but how they all work together. You need to turn off your engineering brain and get the book’s gestalt. And how you do that is: you read the book.

Read it through as a reader. Not a beta reader, but a reader who just picked it up off a bookstore shelf and thought “Neat cover, cool concept” and bought it and took it home. Read it hungrily, like the world’s biggest fan of your genre. Savor it. Gloss over the inconsistencies. Suspend your disbelief. If there are things that absolutely throw you out of that trance-like reading state, then flag them in some way; otherwise, do your best not to take notes, even mental notes. You want to have an immersive experience with your book.You want to get the vibe. As you finish the book and resurface, remember what its vibe feels like. You might not have words to put on it, and that’s fine. Just hold on to that feeling. Write it to memory.

Read it through again as a reader, and this time observe your own emotional reactions and make very brief margin notes as you go: “I love this!” “This doesn’t feel right to me.” “This is getting boring.” “Ha ha ha!” “I got really excited here!” And frequently refer back to that sense of the novel’s overall vibe: when does it come through clearly, and when does it feel obscured or absent altogether?

Read it once through as an artist. If it helps, pick your favorite art form—either to create or to experience—and use it as a consistent analogy for your writing as you read. For example, I love to sing and to listen to music, so when I read books this way I look for harmonies and crescendos, for places where voices clash or where I would expect to see a theme repeat. Use whatever artistic analogy works for you. Or if you have even a hint of synesthesia, employ it. You’ll start to take more detailed notes at this stage, but ideally relating the art of writing to other arts will help you keep one foot in the realm of subconscious emotional experience. This stage of the process is all about marrying the conscious and subconscious, the craft and the art. The craft side asks questions (“What do all the bits that I thought were funny have in common?”); the art side answers them, perhaps in unexpected ways (“The supposedly witty banter kind of bored me, but the incongruous juxtapositions cracked me up”). Listen to those answers! Respect your experience of the work, even if you think it doesn’t makes sense or isn’t what you were going for. And try to keep your notes about identifying things that work and don’t and observing your experience of the work, rather than figuring out how to fix the problems.

Read it through one more time, and as you go, make an outline of the book as it is—not as you want it to be or as you think it should be. On your outline, summarize the notes you’ve taken so far. You’ll get something like this:

  1. Chapter 1
    1. Gandalf visits Bilbo [kind of slow start]
    2. Dwarves visit Bilbo [v. funny; hard to keep track of all the names]
    3. Exposition about Smaug [goes on a long time, not well integrated into story]

By now that engineering brain is probably panting desperately for a turn. Unleash it! Play around with the outline as a proxy for the book to avoid the whack-a-mole problem. Create individual timelines for the major characters to help yourself keep events in sync as you play with the outline (Aeon Timeline is great for this). Tinker to your heart’s content. There’s just one rule: every change you make has to make the book more true to itself. Stay in tune with that vibe. Don’t get caught up in things that are nifty on a technical level but leave the reader cold or distract from the conceptual heart of the book. Every book has a personality; every scene should reflect and honor that personality. Keeping that gestalt in mind will help direct your revisions so that they collectively make sense, rather than creating these cascading problems. You should also get some tasty intuitive leaps of the sort where you move five things around at once and everything suddenly snaps into place.

Once you’ve got the outline the way you want it, with all timelines synchronized, do a full revision pass and then read the new draft as a reader again. This time you should feel like the vibe has been turned up to 11, and your disbelief will stay suspended all the way through.

At that point, you can declare it good enough and send it out to editors and agents. They’re used to getting pretty rough manuscripts, and they’ll care much more about the book’s personality than about the picky details of continuity. Editors can work wonders with structure. What they can’t do is give a book a voice or a heart. So focus on bringing your book’s voice and heart out where an editor or an agent can fall in love with them, and don’t worry too much about the rest.

Happy reading!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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