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.”
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!