Editing the plot document

Breakthrough! – ye draft bastard

I’ve finally finished my plot outline! – No easy feat when you’ve been rambling into your computer for a decade, hoping a structured novel will spill out of your head like a Homeric poem, and all that came out was a meandering stream of consciousness that more resembled Lost than Paradise Lost.

The biggest step was breaking everything up into chapters. Previously, I didn’t know if I wanted the novel to be structured chronologically or to shift back and forth according to narrative perspective, so I just left everything in one document per character.

I have no idea why I didn’t change this earlier: it makes the process so much more palatable – as a writer and for the reader.

I mean that sincerely: use chapters, always.

Getting plot, conflict and agency into a spreadsheet
The planning doc for CITADEL

As I mentioned before, my planning doc contains a column for plot, one for conflict and one for the agency of each character, colour-coded for ease.

Each chapter is also coloured according to which character it follows. This provides a visual representation of whom the reader is given the most time with, so you can even it out or skew it in favour of the main protagonist.

Need I say Mo?

It reminded me of a book I read at school, Sour Sweet by Timothy Mo. It wasn’t on the curriculum, by any means; we were asked to find a book in the library and write a critical review. I picked one that had kung-fu in it. That was the kind of kid I was at school.

The story tells of Chinese immigrants in London in the 1960s, narrated initially by the man of the family, Chen, as he tries to run a restaurant while avoiding any Triad entanglements. But as the book continues, the reader is sporadically introduced to the mind of his wife. Her chapters become more frequent as the father is drawn away from the family, until, by the end, she is the only person we follow.

That stuck with me. I liked how it made me feel – remorseful of losing Chen, but also the implications that it had regarding what was going on in the story. Why wasn’t Chen sharing his thoughts with me any more? Why had he abandoned me?

In my story, the structure starts out in blocks of chapters from one character at a time, but as things become more frenetic towards the end, they begin to switch frequently.

Although that means I have to be careful to instruct the reader whose head they’re in at the outset of each chapter, it makes for a frantic conclusion, switching perspective to reveal the world unravelling, and how different people independently affect the conclusion.

Now, of course, it means I have to get back to the actual writing, taking the corpse of the Chaos Draft, dissecting the bits I like and inserting them into a second incarnation. This is both exciting and frightening – what if my characters get to one of my plot points and just say: “No, I’m not doing that. That’s not me.”

I’ll have to either slap them about until they fall into line, or go back to the drawing board.

I HAVE JUST BOUGHT A NEW DRAWING BOARD.

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