Taking Our Novels From Second Rate, To Great!
For those of you who have frequented workout classes and gyms over the years, you have undoubtedly heard the expression feel the burn. You know what it means: feel the pain of a weak muscle growing more efficient through use, of your body becoming more honed and tight. Wouldn’t you like to do that for your WIP?
Allowing someone, especially another writer, to read your WIP can feel like exposing a newborn to the elements on a dark hillside. Yet it must be done.
We submit our chapters to beta-readers, writers groups, workshops, and writer friends. We take our beloved characters and plots and lay them at the feet of others. If we are very fortunate we know some good folks; some fellow writers who are willing and wise enough to help us.
If we’ve been doing this writing thing for a while we can by now distinguish the help that is truly needed, from the help that is just another writer’s opinion or prejudice. And that’s important. I don’t recommend taking everyone’s comments and using them. It’s your novel. You are the artist. Monet did not have somebody looking over his shoulder telling him not to use those greens and blues. (Or if he did, he knew enough not to listen.) We all have our own way we prefer a sentence to be structured, or punctuated, or a scene set. Those are suggestions to consider. They can sometimes be helpful, but…
There are the deeper, more weighty suggestions. Those that ask us to think about how a character is perceived by a reader. Those that question a plot twist, scene development, or pace. Those that highlight a sag in tension. These are the suggestions that set us to thinking and working on a weak slice of our novel, and if we stick with it, if we put in the effort, the result will be a leaner, more honed novel. One that will keep the reader licking her finger and turning the page.
I discovered a trick recently that I am going to share with you. It’s deceptively simple. But it helped me feel less overwhelmed by the whole rewriting process, because, like a weight machine in a gym helps us isolate a specific muscle, this little trick helps me isolate and focus in on one area, or solution, at a time. Here’s what I do:
- I copy and paste a section of the novel— where I’ve identified a weakness— into a blank document. (Usually between 4000 – 6000 words.)
- I give the piece a name and save it.
- Then I give myself a question that addresses the weakness that has become apparent, or been pointed out to me, like, what would my MC be feeling here? Or, how can I describe this scene so it draws the reader in? Or, how can I get across the information the reader needs, without giving away the twist?
- I keep this flabby piece of the novel open on my computer for however long it takes to write it the best it can be. It can take hours, or days, but it doesn’t get put back into the novel until I know, with certainty, that it does what it is supposed to do, and does it well.
- Then I copy and paste it back into the main body of the novel, and move on to the next Area To Be Improved. (I don’t allow myself to think of these as ‘problem areas’, because problem areas tend to become problems. Just a little Jedi-mind-trick I play on myself.)
I think the reason this method works so well for me is that it makes each issue seem smaller and more manageable. Instead of feeling the psychological weight of every place that needs work in the novel, I focus in on only the one I’ve isolated. I usually write anything new in red. But using track changes will work too. I like to work new parts in red because when I’m done I can see at a glance how much, or little, had to be changed. Sometimes there’s just a smattering of red in a section I’ve finished. Other times there are entire paragraphs of red.
I know there are many ways to handle whipping a novel in shape. I’d love to hear about yours.
Do you have any tricks for getting through the last rewrites? How do you go about the big process of honing your novel?