Friday, September 12, 2014

When You're Making Radical Manuscript Changes: A Helpful Technique for Writers

This week I'm both teaching and taking a retreat.  I'm teaching a wonderful group of fifteen book writers on Madeline Island, one of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior.  Island life is naturally isolated and perfect for focusing on creative work without too many distractions.  Since my online courses are on break between summer and fall semesters, I decided to use my after-class time on the island to focus on my own stalled novel.

Spring and summer derailed me creatively.  Two beloved elders in our family took seriously ill, requiring much attention, travel, and help.  I kept one toe in the water of my novel-in-progress, writing when I could. I put aside all radical changes; no time or head space to consider them--and their implications for the rest of the manuscript.

Here on Madeline, I have both time and quiet.  I packed my laptop, notes, and printed-out emails from my last round of serious critique, intending to dive back in.

I'd read this feedback when it came in early spring.  It sounded good, all good.  But nothing in me jumped into making those changes.  Instead, I sat with my book, and reworked some low-risk areas I knew needed attention.

Nothing too strenuous.  Small edits, character tweaks.  The bigger problems in plot, kindly addressed by my colleagues, remained untouched. 

Once my Madeline Island group settled for their week, once my suitcases were unpacked and my first evening went by, I felt ready.  Scared too.  I knew these radical changes would create literary earthquakes in my story.  Much would have to be changed, if I followed them. 

But they would also solve big problems I hadn't taken care of otherwise.  It was worth a try.

It took many days of concentrated effort.  Lists of questions that arose as I worked.  Nights of sleeping in the peaceful island air and dreaming up solutions--that gorgeous feeling when you wake refreshed AND with an idea to fix a hole in the story. 

The steps were so successful for me this week, I thought I'd share them, in case they help you when grappling with radical critique--changes you know have worth but will twist your book into a new shape.

Six Steps to Implement Radical Changes in a Manuscript
1.  First, I went through the feedback again.  Most came in emails, easy to print out.  I needed printed copies to do this step.  I underlined the main suggestions.  When two readers repeated the same suggestion, I starred these (more than one person mentioning the same problem means it's a big problem, usually).

2.  From the highlighted suggestions, I made a Changes to Consider list.  I hand wrote this, because it's all too easy to space out (for me at least) on the keyboard. I ended up with a list of four major changes ( the rest were small or already dealt with).

3.  I wrote each suggestion on the top of its own blank 4 x 6 inch index card.  For each idea, I brainstormed questions:  If I make this change, what will I do with . . .  (fill in the blank) and what about . . . . (fill in the blank)?  This took two days of concentrated effort, spacey thinking, revisiting chapters, and some desperation.  After two days, each card had a list of small and large questions that I needed to solve for the changes to work.

4.  Because of the desperation and heightened Inner Critic activity at this point, I sent a long, stream-of-consciousness email to a writing friend who knew my novel intimately.  Complaints, wailing, and questioning the ideas allowed new solutions to come in.  I also slept on it.  Before I went to sleep I listed the major questions.  It took a few nights, but I did wake up with several good solutions.

5.  By the end of the week, I was ready to read through the manuscript by chapter.  It's in Scrivener, so easily viewed by chapter.  I began to list changes each chapter would require.  I discovered many chapters, to my great relief, would not need anything more.  Later chapters needed more:  A scene no longer made sense, with the larger manuscript change, so needed rewriting or different placement.  I noted where the character wouldn't know this by this point in the story--another required change.  Etc. 

6.  This became a to-do list by chapter, very valuable because it felt manageable now.  I didn't have to revamp the entire manuscript, just certain chapters.  Now I began reworking the chapters, in order of appearance.  So far, I've made it through the first fifteen chapters, and I love the changes.  I sent the chapters to myself as one document via email, uploaded it on my e-reader, and read for problems.  Very few. 

The process worked well, because it took a huge task and broke it into manageable steps.  Each step could be achieved in several hours to several days.  I gained confidence in the new plan, and now that the changes are in place, I can see that my readers were right (darn!).

I'm very glad I listened, because the new version is incredibly stronger.  In plot, in character motive, in every way.

A task that I'd put off for eight months, finally tackled.  And only because I had enough time, quiet in my brain, and good lists that offered small steps. 

Perhaps you'll use this technique sometime, when a rewriting task looms large.  It sure worked for me.  

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