Rewriting a novel: self-critique

A nice reader told me my previous post How to rewrite a novel using scene cards, was more about “why” than “how”, and I agreed. I wanted to show everyone my new technique, thinking somehow that everything surrounding it was a matter of course… which it isn’t. So I went and renamed that post and will make this a series as I progress in the rewriting process.

In this post, I’ll focus on the first step: rereading and filling my scene cards, then critiquing each scene and the story as a whole.

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Rereading

girl-5-copieWhen reading my first draft, I like to pretend I’m a creative writing teacher providing constructive criticism to their student. This accomplishes two things: 1) it allows me to focus on what’s wrong rather than going straight into problem-solving mode and 2) it puts some distance between me and the draft.

The first point helps me move forward and not get stuck on individual scenes: at this point, the goal is to see the story as a whole, not to troubleshoot each individual scene. That’ll come later.

The second point allows me to see the scenes as they are written and not as I first imagined them or as I remember them. For example, I can see then that even though my narrator doesn’t notice her surrounding much, with next to no setting description she and all the other characters are just talking heads.

For some reason, it also allows me to judge my main character mercilessly. I love her, so I tend to be too compassionate towards her… like a mother who doesn’t see their kid’s flaws. I muffle her harsh words, soften her acts… like her being perfect could somehow make me closer to perfection. It can’t. All it does is make her unreal and boring. It’s not that I didn’t give her flaws; she has plenty of them. But she never acts on an impulse; she’s never conflicted about her own actions; she never let her flaws get in her way. She’s nonhuman.

Distancing myself from the book also helps me tell whether the plot works or not. I had a fairly solid outline for this book, but… either I never looked at it as a reader, or I couldn’t tell before writing the thing that it wouldn’t work.

I kept on throwing obstacles on my MC’s path, not realizing that I shouldn’t have made it so straight and clear to begin with. The result was that she had it too easy AND the obstacles looked like I’d stolen them from a B movie.

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Filling scene cards

After I’ve read each scene, I fill the corresponding card. As an example, here’s my first scene (featuring Ingrid Sunberg’s scene cards and my terrible handwriting):

Scene 01a

The notes in the margin were written as a quick-reference. I wasn’t sure whether I should rewrite the thing or delete it, but either way, I knew it didn’t work.

Most boxes are fairly straightforward, but I’d like to add a word on scene goals. A scene must always have at least one concrete goal, and one more abstract. For example, in my first scene I want to introduce my main character (concrete) and create empathy, i.e. make the reader care about what happens to her (abstract). For this, I’ll have to set the stage, introduce my MC’s external and internal conflicts, thereby hinting at some of my story’s themes.

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Critiquing

Right after I’ve read the scene, I go ahead and point out its faults in free form. It’s actually halfway between critique and brainstorming. As an example, here’s the back side of my first scene:

Scene 01b

Because it was the very first scene to be reviewed, I didn’t want to come to the conclusion I had to delete it. I tried saving it as much as I could… in vain. It simply didn’t fit in the book anymore. It had value all through the drafting process, because every time I had interrogations about my MC I’d go back and reread this scene to remember who she was, but that was it: it belongs in my MC’s character sheet, not in the book proper.

That being said, some issues relate to a whole bunch of scenes or even the entire book. For those, I have a separate binder divided into as many sections as needed. Currently, it contains notes and improvement ideas on story structure (especially “beats”, i.e. opening image/hook, inciting incident, first plot point, etc.), character development and 2 particular story arcs that don’t work.

It’s important I detach myself emotionally from my draft and not think in terms of how long or hard it would be to change this or that, which would only discourage me. I focus on what’s in front of me, what works, what doesn’t, whether a passage is too long and boring or whether it feels rushed, etc. Then I’ll have to focus on the baby steps I can take to reach the goal, which is a structurally sound and entertaining manuscript. Of course, I probably cannot avoid some degree of emotional ups and downs, but I want to avoid the downs to go so low I get writer’s block (which in my case is almost always due to performance anxiety).

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Notes for the rewrite

Now, this step is about finding problems, not fixing them. But if, while tossing and turning in bed at night or while reading a book on writing I suddenly see how a scene should be, I take notes.

In this case, I realised I didn’t want my book to start in my MC’s head, nor did I want her to introduce herself through narration. I wanted to introduce her by showing what she endures to make her dream of being a professional musician come true (external conflict), and how her issues with appearances and gender identity and double standards have an impact on her life (internal conflict). I might even hint at her total lack of social skills while I’m at it. “Show, don’t tell” as they say. A good example of what this might look like would be the short story Programme by The Loyal Brit.

With that in mind, I printed and filled a new scene card, which I stapled on top of the old one:

Scene 01c

Now I have a place and a date and even a mood, implied in “rough conditions of life”. We get to skip the introduction and go straight to the action and, shortly after, the hook. The card mostly serves as a reminder, so it’s okay if it’s a bit vague. I’ll figure out the details when I rewrite the thing.

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The next step will be to fix the story and fine-tune my characters. Only when that’s done will I actually start rewriting.

First post in this series: Rewriting a novel: the scene cards technique

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Rewriting a novel: the scene cards technique

The most important of my New Year’s resolutions was to rewrite my first novel. I thought it’d be long, sure, but I hadn’t realised how difficult it would be.

I tried in January, failed, then proceeded to write something else. I’d let the story rest so I could see it with new eyes. I tried again in March and failed again. I figured I’d edit the thing after I was done with my creative writing courses… which I plan on starting this fall.

Eventually, I realised that stalling wasn’t the solution. I needed a method: baby steps to bring me where I wanted to go. There is no doubt taking creative writing courses will make my writing better. But so will writing on my own. Stalling, on the other hand, just makes me waste my time.

I had the idea that I should do several rounds of edit: IMG_20170717_110113a
1) A rough edit, in which I correct anything related to themes, conflict, story structure, and anything related my overall appreciation of the story.
2) A finer edit, in which I correct anything related to character development, facts checking and scenes fine-tuning.
3) A language edit, in which I correct mistakes, remove unwanted repetitions, tighten sentences, and basically make every sentence as elegant and effective as possible.

Each of those rounds may, in turn, be divided as necessary.

I suspect rounds 2 and 3 won’t give me too much difficulty: character development is my greatest strength, scenes fine-tuning can’t be all that different from short-story fine tuning, and language, well… I’m a language professional. It’s round one that’s a bitch.

The main problem I was faced with was that a novel is so long that it’s difficult to remember every little thing that happens in it. Yet, as a perfectionist, I feel the need to know everything that happens. I don’t want scenes to get repetitive, for one; I don’t want to hammer my themes into the reader’s head, but I do want them to be clear; and finally, I want my characters to be consistent and to evolve at a natural pace.

I had seen “scene cards” here and there, but I thought people mostly used them to plan their stories. I can’t use them in that manner yet, my plans are not detailed enough and I do like to surprise myself while writing the first draft. However, I figured I could use them to summarise everything that happens in every scene of the book.

scene card

I found Ingrid Sunberg’s scene cards and printed a bunch of them. But as I filled them, I realised they weren’t optimal for my needs. Scene cards should probably be tailored to every writer and every book. So I made my own version in MS Word, three per letter-sized page. Feel free to use them or modify them. Here’s a PDF version in case that works better for you.

My novel has a little over 60 scenes in it. Just like that, I reduced an 85,000 words novel into a very manageable 20 pages.

boo-yah

However, as awesome as it may be, it’s still just a way to make a very detailed summary. There is almost no visible relationship with rewriting or editing.

I must admit I spent a few minutes hours staring alternatively at my cards, then at some part of my manuscript, until I figured the next step: reread the book from cover to cover and critic every scene on the back of the page. Critics include everything from very precise comments about a detail to “rewrite the whole thing” to “delete this scene” (I can safely delete stuff because I’ve kept a copy of my first draft from which I can restore deleted scenes if need be). This method has the added benefit of making me see every scene in relation to the rest of the book. This process doesn’t take too long: I can do a few scenes every day.

The next step will be, most likely, to look at my detailed scene cards and reflect upon the story and everything that happens in it and add even more comments on the back of my scenes and in a note book that I keep for more general comments about the story.

When that’s all done, I can start rewriting efficiently, because I’ll know exactly what needs to be done. And efficiency is important because… basically the whole thing will have to be rewritten to some level.

Yep, you read that right. I honestly thought, when I finished the first draft, that it was “clean” and didn’t need too much editing. But in the meantime, I’ve read and critiqued great books, and I’ve raised my expectations for this novel. That also allowed me to take some distance from my beloved first draft and see it’s worst flaws, at least. For the rest… I’ll find alpha/beta readers and hire an editor.

There is no great writing, only great rewriting.
– Justice Brandeis

Second post in this series: Rewriting a novel: self-critique