In the Wind Tunnel of My Brain

20131210-160641.jpgImagine a neat stack of printer paper about an inch, maybe an inch and a half tall (2.5 to 3.5 cm for those who live in countries with sane measurements.) There is about half a ream of it, or two hundred and fifty pages. On that paper are words, averaging two hundred per sheet, neatly typed or printed in Courier, twelve point, double-spaced. There are no page numbers.

Now, take that neat stack and put it in a wind tunnel. Turn on the tunnel. Turn off the tunnel. Sweep the result into a pile.

That’s my mental image of my novel’s first draft. Any of my novels’ first draft. I have three now.

This is not surprising. That was my image of my Ph.D. thesis, many years ago, and is why it never became an actual thesis and I therefore have no cool three-letter code after my name. Honestly, I never got it mentally organized enough even to do research.

Now, I am grateful to have three first-draft stage novels. I couldn’t have done it without NaNoWriMo. It helped get the spaghetti tangles of ideas out of my brain and into Scrivener projects, with lots of encouragement, caffeine, graphs, a hard deadline, and tactical nuclear devices.

But NaNoWriMo doesn’t help me make sense of what I’ve written.

When I am trying to make sense of what I’ve written, Scrivener helps and doesn’t help. The scriptwriting class I took a few years back helps and doesn’t help. I understand story structure; I have a vague idea of what I want this mess to look like at the end. I can break it into scenes (see the pages metaphor above.) But my overall view of the project remains stubbornly binary: I either see an amorphous pile of pages, or I see an individual scene. The mid-levels (acts I, II, and III; below that, chapters) elude me. I can’t bring them into focus. My grasp at this point is more appropriate to a thirty-page script — short story sized. Say, about five thousand words, not these fifty thousand word monsters.

What I need is my old scriptwriting teacher to go through my draft and say, “Cut that. Punch up the conflict there. And why is your heroine acting like a street tough here, and a nun over here? And who the hell is that?”

Short of hiring a really good editor (no funds, no track record to get me funds) my nerdly first impulse is to pick up a book on how to revise. I’ve looked at several well-recommended ones, which I will not name. Many people like them, but I think of them as “MFA-in-a-box”; they really don’t help me get a handle on the process of revision, just what to do when I encounter various problems within my draft.

That’s assuming I recognize the problem for what it is.

Instead, I am currently reading a “revision how-to” book with a different approach. The book in question is Rock Your Revisions by Cathy Yardley. Ms. Yardley describes her book as a map; for me, with my technical background, it is more of a process manual. It mentions all the things the other revision texts do; in addition, it gives a chronological ordering to them that seems to makes sense. Tentatively, it is much more my style — a definite process to follow, at the end of which a decent book, presumably, emerges.

I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.