I should go back through this blog and make a running tally of every time I say something to the effect of “I have no idea what the fuck I’m doing”. Since I feel that way a lot, I’m going to assume it’s an essential part of being a successful writer.
For the past 5-ish months I’ve been working on these “character maps” for my novel. My thought-process there was that, in the same way that writing out chapter summaries in chronological order and then rearranging them to base a revision on worked for taking me from the draft to the first revision, mapping out the arcs of each of the supporting characters could clarify structural matters – when certain key moments take place in the story, consistency of characterisation, seeing where the dead weight lies, etc. – and take me from the first revision to the second. Sounds great, right?
Well it’s taken me 5 freaking months and I’m still not done. Now to be fair, that is in no small part due to the terrible, soul-crushing semester I’ve had at uni; grades are pretty great on the whole but in terms of actually being a student it’s been terrible. However, that’s no the whole story: it’s just a lot of heavy lifting to carry this plan out at all, and looking back over the notes I’ve made it looks like way too much work put in for way too little reward. So I think at this point the healthiest thing to do, both for myself on the whole and with regards to my novel-revision specifically, is to just call it what it is – a fiasco – and rip it out at the roots, kill this toxic progress before it continues any farther, and start over again now that I’ve got a bit of free time to play with (and if I’m not accepted into Honours, it may be the last batch of free time I ever have before being drafted into the world of office-jobs and flipping burgers) (or, depending on how committed to my post-adolescent anti-establishment attitude I am, living on the street).
My revision plan needs revision. It’s brainstorming time.
Okay. Chapter summaries worked once; will they work again? I don’t think so, simply because the revision I’m working with right now is the product of putting that plan into action in the first place. I’ve already gotten the desired result out of that plan: a more coherent narrative structure. There is definitely room for improvement, but just looking at where chapters come in and what happens in them and shuffling it around isn’t going to be enough this time. I need different information.
The information I need is the role that each event plays (as well as where it happens in the story, so I’ll need to remember to include chapter tags or something, thank Thor I’m using Scrivener). I need to know, specifically, which roles are vital to the story and which are not.
So do I just stick to what I’m doing, but maybe start over and make it as to-the-point as humanly possible? The only thing I don’t like about that is the loss of nuance that comes with looking at character interactions purely as tools used to tell a story; yes that’s certainly their most important function, but conveying a plot is not the same as telling a story.
On the other hand, all of that nuance is taking up a lot of space, and honestly a lot of it is less nuance than internal monologue – through the filter of third-person narration. Good writing can bring nuance out of the barest-boned of plots, and that’s how you get a good story. Pick your battles and all that.
I mean this story was never meant to be about plot to begin with, but it’s gotten that way. It was a supernatural character-study with very (intentionally) blurred lines between metaphor and literality with regards to the supernatural aspects.
So … actually start over again from scratch and write an entirely different story that’s closer to the original idea that I had? Because that wasn’t a story; it was a story-seed. That has nowhere to go, really. It’s done. It’s finished. I could write it, but I don’t think it would be rewarding.
But okay. I have a list of chapter summaries still sitting around that should – should – adhere to the current structure of the edit I’m working with; and I have three, almost four, character-maps already written, unwieldy and overblown as they may be. Is there anything that I can do with that, instead of rushing off to start from nothing and work my way up? Again?
I guess the problem with these character-maps isn’t that they’re bloated, per se; it’s that they’re bloated by design. They weren’t meant to generate concise instructions for what to do next; they were meant to act as a response to the character-arcs as I read through them, indulging my censor so that the next time around it would have nothing to say. And when I say that’s what they were “meant” to do, I mean it was a process that was structured in such a way to suggest that that was what they were meant for, and would have been if I had thought about it a little harder or whatever. In any case, that is the use that I can get out of them, and actually identifying that kind of makes me want to finish them – not to use them as useful notes, but to use them as a repository of first impressions. And then I can do the more concise work later without over-thinking it; and if I want to come back to them and delve through them for ideas on where to go next, they’ll be right there waiting for me.
Okay. That sounds like a good idea – read these character arcs in the same way as I’d read through the entire manuscript and make notes in the same way as well: as a first reaction. That way I’ll still be focusing on the character-arcs, which I do think is a good idea to get started on now even if I don’t end up making it my primary focus for whatever form the next revision plan takes, without the pressure of having to use these notes for something once they’re done.
And since that’s very non-committal, I do want to make much more efficient, analytical character-maps as well. Character summaries I guess, collections of key points with each character and an overarching sense of the role they play in the story.
Most importantly, and because I didn’t do it the first time: I need to account for Tallulah as a character. I think I noticed that she wasn’t really “doing” anything in this story – her story – about a year ago, and one of the good things that has come from doing these character-maps has been seeing that, yeah, that’s kinda true.
Ideally I want to be able see each of these character-arcs as a story in and of itself that serves the primary purpose of helping the main story-arc to progress, which is Tallulah’s arc. I don’t mean like all of these characters get their own completely stand-alone, completely satisfying plot within the bigger plot, because it’s not their story, but I do want their roles to be concise, clear and vital. I am totally happy to have their stories “compromised” a bit in order to better keep the focus on Tallulah – they are all figments of my imagination in the end after all – but for the sake of solid storytelling there must be clarity, there must be solidarity, there must be internal consistency, and most importantly there must be closure. It doesn’t matter if it’s shitty, disappointing closure; it just has to be closure.
That sounds like a mission statement for the story rather than a plan for revision, but still. That’s what I want.
Okay. I have a plan.
So, the new plan is:
- Identify what it is that Tallulah needs from each of the supporting characters, and in doing so also conveniently end up writing a summary of her own character arc, like a boss
- Relying mostly on memory and then looking at the list of chapter summaries that gave me the structure for this current edit of the manuscript, pick out key character moments and build (hopefully very concise) plots out of them
- Compare what Tallulah needs to what Tallulah gets from the other characters
- Use this comparison to make a plan for the next revision
- Do the next revision
And before I do that I’ll finish the current iteration of the character-map plan that I’ve got going, simply so that I’ve got a general idea of what I’m working with, and I may end up ditching it after all and that’s fine.
Cool. We’re in business. I now have something productive to do with what will hopefully be a month-long-ish break between semesters.