Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Operation Manuscript Fix Part II - Going Backwards To Move Forwards

Moving ahead, making progress, by moving backwards.

This is what my little mind has been busy contemplating this week, in my quest to transform my not-quite-right, half-finished, second draft, into something really damn good.

I have a long road ahead of me, for sure, but instead of starting off blinding down the road of re-writing, I’m taking stock; and have realised that before I do anything, there are many ways in which I must step back, and work backwards, before I can move forwards with my work.

There are two people I have to thank for helping me reach this epiphany. Robert McKee, the author of STORY (aimed at scriptwriting, but oh so very applicable to the writing of novels) and our very own Kristen, one of the wise women here at ATWOP, who, after patiently listening to me moan about how my story wasn’t anywhere near what it should be, made a brilliant suggestion ... more on that later, but first, I'd thought I'd share with you some of the ways I think a little backward velocity can help propel a writer facing my dilemma of a not-quite-right story, forward.

Step back - from your manuscript and work out what genre you’re writing, and master it’s parameters.

I blogged about how I was doing that here, and why it’s necessary; I won't rehash that again, but simply give you what McKee has to say in STORY (he says it far better than I could):

“You must not only respect but master your genre and its conventions. Never assume that because you’ve seen films in your genre you know it. This is like assuming you could compose a symphony because you have heard all nine of Beethoven’s. You must study the form … Read everything … The most valuable insights, however, come from self-discovery; nothing ignites the imagination like the unearthing of buried treasure.”

Read, read, read some more, analyse books in your genre that you love and then, as McKee suggests:

“… look down through them all asking: What do the stories in my genre always do? What are its conventions of time, place, character, and action? Until you discover the answers, the audience will always be ahead of you.”

That is, your book will not work, will disappoint, if the reader (think agent, editor) picks it up expecting one thing, and finds the genre is badly executed, or not executed at all. As McKee summarises:

“To anticipate the anticipations of the audience you must master your genre and its conventions.”

Step back – and work out what your story is about.

I’m talking here of theme, or, as McKee defines it, the controlling idea of your story. He says:

“The more beautifully you shape your work around one clear idea, the more meanings audiences will discover in your film as they take your idea and follow its implications into every aspect of their lives. Conversely, the more ideas you try to pack into a story, the more they implode upon themselves, until the film collapses into a rubble of tangential notions, says nothing.”

Theme. In a single sentence. McKee breaks down Dirty Harry’s controlling idea to "justice triumphs because the protagonist is more violent than the criminals". Dangerous Liasons - hate destroys. Peter Falk’s Columbo - justice is restored because the protagonist is more clever than the criminal. Groundhog Day – happiness fills our lives when we learn to love unconditionally.

Now, you might worry that you don’t have a theme. Well yes, you do. It might not be readily apparent until you’ve actually finished a draft or two (in fact, if you set out to write with a theme in mind, you run the risk of your story becoming a didactic rant.) But a theme will be there, lurking in your subconscious and influencing the words on the page, the twists of your story. I know I never set out with a particular theme in mind for my book, but I’ve slowly become aware of it, and now I can see it on the page. It's something along the lines of this:

“Know thyself: know what you are, see what you are, especially your faults, or contentment will elude you.”

But why is knowing your theme, your controlling idea, so important? Because it is the lodestone, the guiding star, the anchor, of your story. It is what you write to illuminate. And any time you are unsure what should happen in a scene, or can’t grasp what a character’s action or reaction might be, the controlling idea is there to turn to - what am I trying to say with this story? How should I have this scene play out, how should this character react, what needs to happen in this subplot? Look to your theme for the answers.

Work backwards, and plot your book from end to beginning

This is the piece of advice recently given to me by Kristen (thank you, my dear!) I filed it away. And bang, the brilliance of her suggestion hit me yesterday, while reading McKee, who recommends the exact same thing when you're trying to work out where in the heck to open your story.

You see, you need, at some point, to work out how your story ends; what the final crisis, or, as McKee calls it, the Obligatory Scene will be, the scene the audience is subconsciously expecting from the clues and hints and the layering of your theme that were there from the very beginning of your story. The essence and echo of your beginning must also be found in the ending. He gives the example of JAWS - when the sheriff comes face to face with the shark's victim, we are set up to anticipate an ending in which we will see the shark and sheriff do final battle.

Once you have your ending, you can use it as an anchor to work backwards; not only to discover the right place to start your book, but to make sure everything between the beginning to the end is as it should be. Ask yourself: for a particular ending to occur, what must have happened in the scene before it? And in the scene before that? Before that? And so on, right back to the beginning. This process not only helps to identify the right place to start your story, it also weeds out any extraneous, unhelpful trips off the beaten track that your plot may have taken between "Once upon a time" and "The end".

Go back to the beginning and write afresh

So once all the abovementioned work and analysis is done, this is what I'll be doing; setting aside all those words I've written, and rewriting from scratch. Sob! But for me, starting with a fresh clean page feels right. There's something freeing about cutting myself loose from the not-quite-right stuff, and starting back at square one. I'm hella nervous, but hopeful.

Wish me luck!


  1. All the best Rachel. I will try and do what you suggested on this post. It might work for me, too! :)

  2. Thanks Len. :-) The only thing that keeps me sane in this re-thinking/re-writing process is the fact there always seems to be a new tool or trick to grab hold of and try!
    Having lots of options = a Very Good Thing.

  3. Really great post. It shows me a new way to look at my manuscript. A fresh step in the right direction.

  4. I've been in Operation Shutdown for about a month now.

  5. Another fantastic post, Rach. Love the insights you've gained from McKee, and of course Kristen (g). I'm glad to see that all the things I've been doing in my own work in the last couple of weeks tally up with these ideas, because what you've described here makes such blindingly clear sense.

  6. I have plotted backwards, sideways, and upside down. But the opening is not getting any better on mine. Grr.

    Best of luck to you, Rachel!

  7. I love this post, Rachel! This is one of those learning moments. I read the theme bit and immediately started to work on my wip's. Thanks!

  8. lololol, Rach! I remember when I told you that suggestion. There was a moment of silence and I thought, she thinks I'm crackers. lololol. Good to know it lit a lightbulb of inspiration for you! :)

    I do think plotting backwards works particularly well for those with a mystery in their story. If you look at it another way, reading through a mystery is like putting little pieces of a puzzle together to get a whole picture. Only when we work on a picture puzzle in real life, we've got the completed picture to reference. Can you imagine trying out a puzzle with no picture reference? Really hard. I think a mystery plot it the same. We writers need to see the whole picture to understand how to put our puzzle together. :)

    "Conversely, the more ideas you try to pack into a story, the more they implode upon themselves, until the film collapses into a rubble of tangential notions, says nothing." I really like this. So true. I think that happened to me with my first book -and then I had a lot of sorting to do!

    I really have to get some of these writing books! That or you just keep clipping the best nuggets of information for me! *g*

  9. Good luck! I'm plotting out a novel now and I expect I'll be using this advice shortly after I finish the first draft.

  10. @ Regina - glad my ramblings were of some help. Good luck!

    @ Rogue Mutt - ah, yes, Operation Shut Down is an operation I know only too well. But have faith; it shall pass. :-)

  11. @ Claire - thank you! And glad to hear you're on to all this; these stories of ours need to be written (eventually :-P)

    @ Tara - ah, but you haven't yet tried plotting in a figure 8 with a half-pike turn at the end ... ;-P
    Seriously, it does drive you nuts, this getting the opening just right. Have you got McKee's book? Cos I just scratched the surface of all he has to say about how to find your opening, things to bear in mind when deciding where it should come, what should (broadly) happen in it ... might be worth a read.Good luck!

  12. @ Zan Marie - oh, wow, glad I could be of help. Hope the writing is going great guns!

    @ Kristen - Silence? I'm surprised you didn't hear the cogs whirring and spinning in my head! lol. Thank you, madam, for a piece of very timely advice. And that puzzle analogy is spot on, too.

  13. Most excellent points, Rachel. I know the ending to my story, but don't yet have an opening. Might be time to work backwards for a while... I'm desperate enough to try that full figure-8 with a half-pike turn!

  14. Libby, lots of things about your book only become apparent once that first draft is done, don't they? The things you've done wrong, but also the little surprising bits of momentary brilliance that you had no idea you wrote. Always nice to discover them.
    Good luck with the plotting and the writing!

  15. Susan - LOL, I'd pay good money to see that!!! :-P

    Ah, I'm glad this might be of help to you; anything to bring your book a little closer to being in my hands ... (g)

  16. For the bit about working out what your story is about, I found it helpful (though still very painful and time-consuming) to pause and write the hook for my query letter before I'd actually finished my first draft (though you could certainly do it after that instead).

    It forced me to view with clarity what the stakes really were in my plot; what was important and needed emphasis, and what didn't.

    Best of luck with your re-writes!

  17. Great points! I'm in the final stages of drafting my first novel, and the editing stage has me pretty terrified. After reading posts like this it feels like it is actually doable!

  18. Adina - that's a great way to unearth the kernel of what your book is about, for sure; and to identify where the spotlight needs to go.
    Ah, I do love that there are so many different ways to get to Oz! :-)

  19. Witless - editing your first draft is vastly different to the writing of your first draft, but it is definitely doable. It's about learning and honing another set of skills, and there are loads of great books on the topic, like "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" by Brown and King, which you may find helpful.

    Good luck!

  20. Wow Rachel, you're brave! I'm not sure I'd be able to disgard all my words at this stage. But who knows? Maybe it will come to that.

  21. Sari - brave, or insane? The proof will be in the pudding. LOL.

    I think it helps that I've had a good three months of not writing much at all ... that distance has allowed me to see, very clearly, the problems with my WIP, and has also allowed me to separate enough - fall out of love enough - with my work to be objective enough to make that decision.
    Starting from scratch just feels right to me ... I'm hoping that gut instinct is right!

  22. Thanks Rachel - and Kristen. I'm definitely going to try that backwards thing, now that my story's finally close enough to the end. Oh, these revisions take work...

  23. Deniz, you're right, revisions are A LOT of work... but I think that's where the real, satisfying, fun is, in clearing away the overgrowth to find the story lurking beneath.

  24. I need some of your strength Rachel [g]

  25. Rachel,

    Great advice...thanks for posting!

    Would it scare anyone to know I once wrote a scene backwards, line by line? Well, I did. LOL. Crazy thing is, it worked and is one of my favorite scenes to this day. I knew where I wanted to get... getting there was the problem, so a'backwards I went. That had to be the most gray hair inducing writing session I ever had. Ah, what we do for our art. (g)

  26. That actually sounds really interesting, Jen!

  27. Jen, that is seriously hardcore, girl! LOL

    But then again, I suppose it's just a micro version if what I'm talking about. Probably not something you'd try for a whole book's worth of scenes, but I can definitely see how it would help.

  28. Rachel & Deniz -- LOL... it was an experience, that's for sure. (g) Not one I'd like to repeat, mind, but one I'd gladly endure again if I had to.