Friday, February 25, 2011

Finishing the Novel Revision Exercises

Whew, the end is finally in sight! Working with the plot arc concept I introduced several weeks ago takes some time. Today, we have the last of our questions. That doesn't mean the editing is over, of course -- but hopefully you have a good idea of the trouble spots in your manuscript. I'll be offering more suggestions on revision in the weeks ahead, including tips focused on beginnings and endings. I'll also be doing a series delving into theme. But for the moment, let's assume you have some idea of your theme for your current work in progress -- or else take some time now to work it out -- and ask these questions based on your plot arc.

Analyze Your Plot Arc for Theme:
  • Do you touch on your theme throughout the manuscript? Are there places where you can add references, perhaps oblique, to set it up better? 
  • Look at your character arc. Does the MC experience an epiphany? Does she see herself differently at the end? How will she behave differently now?
And finally, one last step (or series of steps, really):

Analyze Your Plot Arc for Smaller Details
  • Look at cause and effect. Does each scene lead logically to the next? Are they in the proper order? Are any redundant? If you cut the scene, would you lose anything? 
  • Do you include all the clues your readers need for the story to make sense and feel believable? 

  • How long are your chapters? Any unusual ones? Should you make changes?

  • Go back through the manuscript and mark cliffhanger moments (note the page numbers on your inventory). Do they match chapter breaks? Can you add more cliffhangers? (See my series of posts on cliffhangers -- you'll find the topic labels in the right-hand column.)

  • Can you expand your strongest scenes for more drama?
Going through these lists can feel overwhelming if you try to do everything in one day. Make sure you take your time over each step, so you get the most out of these questions. You may want to only address one or two of them in an editing session. And remember, at this point, you don't necessarily want to start fixing things. Rather, focus on making notes on your plot arc (that's why you left blank lines after each scene description) so you know how to handle the work on your revision.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Coming Soon -- A Free Critique

I'm taking the week off from my usual posting, because a back injury makes it hard to sit at the computer for long. But I thought I'd give a heads up about something I'm planning. Given the popularity of free critiques of queries, first pages, and so forth on other blogs, I thought I'd join in, after I finish my series on novel revision. So let me know what you would like to see offered as a free critique -- query, synopsis, first page... ? You'll have to be willing to have the material and critique posted here, though it can be anonymous.

What's your vote?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Analyze Your Plot Arc for Subplots and Secondary Characters:

We are still working with that plot arc from several weeks ago. You know the drill by now -- use your outline to go over your plot and see what's missing and what's overdone.

  • Look at your subplots. Are they woven evenly throughout the manuscript? Do you need to give more attention to some, or space them out more evenly? 

  • Can any secondary characters be combined or eliminated?
The best way to do this is to use a different color highlighter is for each subplot and secondary character. That gives you a nice visual map of how often a person or plotline appears. For example, I did this exercise at the early outline stage for a book proposal I was developing. The main character was a 12-year-old boy. His slightly older brother, his major rival, held a strong role throughout the plot. Their litter sister had less of a role in the plot, but was still important to both plot and theme. By highlighting the chapters where she appeared in my outline, I noticed that she had little presence throughout the middle of the book. That warned me to find ways to include her in those middle scenes.

You can do this exercise after you have a complete draft as well, to find holes where you may have ignored a subplot or major secondary character for too long. (Note that you don't have to do this with every single person who appears in the manuscript. By secondary characters, I'm talking about those who still have an important role. If someone only appears once in passing -- a taxi driver or shop clerk, perhaps -- you don't need to mention them in your outline.)

For more help developing your secondary characters, see these earlier posts (you can also click on the "Secondary Characters" link to the lower right):

Not All Grandmothers Have White Hair (Making Minor Characters Fresh) 

Friday, February 4, 2011

Analyze Your Plot Arc for Emotion:

We’ve been working with the Plot Arc Exercise I posted three weeks ago. We looked at our plots for conflict and tension. Now it’s time to check the emotion. I asked you to list the major emotions for each scene, and underline the primary one. If you have little emotion, or only happy emotions, you probably don’t have a dramatic plot. In that case, you want to focus on making things harder for your characters.

Hopefully you have a strong emotion in every scene, probably a negative one—fear or grief or anger, for example. Strong emotions drive the story forward. But any emotion, no matter how strong, seems to flatten out over time. If you have a suspense novel where your character is on the run and constantly terrified, it becomes emotionally exhausting and even tedious, no matter how exciting the action. The emotion flows in a straight line, and straight lines become boring. Instead, you want ups and downs.

In Writing the Breakout Novel, Albert Zuckerman describes a scene from Gone with the Wind, where Scarlett is going to confess her love to Ashley. She’s nervous but excited. She starts out hopeful. He doesn’t respond as she wishes, and she starts to get anxious. She becomes determined and tries harder. He admits that he cares for her. She’s elated! But then he explains why they can’t be together. She flies into a rage. He leaves. She’s devastated. Rhett Butler pops up from where he’s been laying on the couch. She’s humiliated that he overheard. He tells her she’s too good for Ashley. She gets angry at Rhett....

See how many different emotions are in that one scene? And I’m going on memory here, so I may be missing some. Scarlett displays not only a variety of emotions, but strong ups and downs, from devastation to elation. Granted, Scarlett is an unusually emotional character, so your main character may not react with such extremes. You still want to make sure that he or she has a variety of fairly strong emotions. In that suspense novel, you want your character to feel relief, because she escaped. She’s exhausted, she just wants to rest. But she’s worried about will happen next. She tries to puzzle out the clues. She starts to get angry. Wait—what’s that sound? The fear comes back... and then you lead into another action scene. The low allows your hero’s—and your reader’s—adrenaline to drop, so that the next rush is a more powerful experience.

This holds true even if you’re not writing action books. Even a relatively “quiet” story about interpersonal relationships should still have a variety of strong emotions, though they may be expressed in different ways.

I recently finished an adult suspense manuscript. I tend to be a strong plotter, and I started with an extensive outline, so my first draft of a scene would have plenty of action and dialogue. Then I’d go back through and flesh out the emotion. I’d make sure I was giving my main character time to react and express her emotions, if only in her own head. On the surface, it might seem like this would slow down action scenes. But by fully exploring your character’s reactions, you increase the drama and keep your reader invested in the main character’s experience. We’re not just seeing what happens, we’re seeing how it affects our hero or heroine.

That’s a long lead-in to a short (but important) section of the exercise. Go back to your Plot Arc Exercise and analyze your scenes as follows:

  •             How many emotions do you have in each chapter/scene? Can you add ups and downs? (For example, your MC feels happy anticipation, then anxiety that things aren’t going as planned, followed by a shock, which causes humiliation, then anger, then despair.)

  •             Do the main character’s emotions escalate over time? As events get more serious, and the stakes rise, the emotions should also increase.
One caveat here—you want to avoid getting melodramatic. Remember, you want ups and downs, so quieter or less extreme emotions can provide some of those. Unless you’re creating another Scarlett O’Hara, don’t have your main character react excessively to everything. Save the powerful emotions for powerful events.