Leticia and the No Right Answer Monster

I just realized that I’ve been blathering on about doing revision, and I’ve never said exactly what I’m revising. Other than it’s a novel, but then, you knew that.

It’s my Camp NaNoWriMo draft from July, code-named “Leticia.” It’s a political thriller, and very hard sci-fi. I wrote a little about my main character in this post from July. Having stopped floundering, I’m now creating a scene chart as suggested in Cathy Yardley’s Rock Your Revisions. It’s slow going, in part because Leticia is first-person, and Ms. Yardley’s outline allows for switching point of view. There are no POV switches in a first-person novel… and I’m using that as my current excuse.

Partly though, I’m daunted by the amount of work left to do. I’ll need some serious research–the state of the art has changed since I worked as a rocket scientist in the Dark Ages. And there are whole sections of plot and characters that are just, well, given a quick drive-by blast in my draft.

One scene at a time, Sandra… I need to focus on creating a scene chart of what I’ve got. Then I can see where I need more scenes–and I will need more scenes. I suspect I’m not going to get out of this for fewer than 100K words before cuts. Then I can revisit my characters’ motivations. Then I can realize my Martian setting more fully. And then….

Well, you get the picture, I’m sure. It’s a slog. I know some authors find this to be the most exciting phase of writing. Maybe later I’ll agree. For now, not so much.

All I can say is that I am far more impressed by published authors than I was before I started this journey. This stuff is not easy. Doing a structural analysis of a rocket engine part–that’s easy. Writing automatic exam software to accompany a textbook–that’s easy. This is hard, because there is no “right” answer. There are no written customer specifications other than what I glean from my own reading and the advice of other writers. I fight my terror of “no right answer” every step of the way.


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.

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