Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mid-course Corrections

When it comes to the outline/no-outline continuum, I’m squarely in the middle. I have a detailed synopsis, and even an Excel spreadsheet. But I find I’m not patient enough to map out everything. I plan to a point, and I want to start writing. Forward ho!

But sometimes that gets me into trouble. And not just when I get to the point in my outline that reads “exciting stuff happens and everything is resolved.” The problem is not when the outline has holes, but the book does. And then it’s time for a mid-course correction.

I’ve had two major corrections on this book. The first one was eliminating a character I liked a lot. When I described him to anyone, including my agent, they rolled their eyes. I still think he could have worked, but I was about a third of the way in when I decided that I didn’t need to handicap myself. Who wants to win over skeptical readers? I want my readers on board from the beginning.

So I killed my poor defenseless character. And I came up with another way to move the story along, and I think the book is better for it.

Now, two-thirds of the way in, I just completed another correction. I had lost the sense of one character in my drive towards The End. I had the poor girl doing and saying anything in order to further the plot along, and she just disappeared.

Joyce Carol Oates famously wrote that writing the first draft of a novel is like building a house. The second draft, she said, is when you decorate it. I believe that, but if your characterization isn’t on target from the beginning, you end up building a Barbie Dream House instead of story that seems to be populated with actual people.

So I thought a lot about my MIA character, discovered some things I didn’t know, and went back through the manuscript to reveal them.

I try not to revise until I’ve finished a draft. And that’s because I like revising too much – it’s fun to uncover themes, embellish details, and smooth out bumps. For me, writing a first draft is fraught with anxiety. I worry that I may never be able to get the end. The plot may fall apart, or I’ll just lose passion for writing and take up felting or bonsai instead. Or maybe I’ll just start tinkering with the incomplete text and never finish.

But some types of mid-course correction are necessary. When doubts start creeping about a character or a plot twist, they can take over. If those doubts aren’t resolved, they can stop me cold. I need to be able to write with full conviction.

So in my current project, so far one minor character had to die and a major one was brought back to life. Not a bad trade-off, if it gets me re-energized. I’m hoping this will be enough to get to The End.


  1. I LOLed when I read "exciting stuff happens and everything gets resolved" --sounds like my outlining method. ;)

    I have a hard time finishing a first draft, too. My problem is that the idea in my head sometimes won't stick to the page the way I picture it, so I obsess over details and don't move forward. This was timely advice for me. Thanks, Kelly!

  2. Yeah, I'm stuck right now on a tough chapter to end the second act. A lot of stuff needs to happen, and I'm not sure what the best way is to get it out -- which POV, all on stage, or part off. But I'm figuring that this is the kind of thing where I need to just bulldoze through the scene, making sure I hit the plot points, and worry about revising later.

    Sometimes you have to revise as you go. Other times you have to just do what it takes to get through through those pages.

  3. I'm impressed you can use a spread sheet. I do all than mechanical stuff on paper ... still.

  4. You don't want your novel to be a barbie dream house??
    It's fun to see how differently people do things. Thanks!


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