Rebuilding A Novel

So, as you know, the characters from my first two WIPs have been suggesting revisions to improve their stories’ chances of finding an audience. While Katharine continues to talk with the other characters in Summer at the Crossroads, Madeleine O’Brien of Death Out of Time has stepped up to the plate and made some serious changes. And I mean serious.

These pages are filling up—just like those in Katharine’s notebook. Don’t worry, Meghan Bode fans, she’s working on her novel, too.

My biggest stumbling block in getting the story right was the relationship between her and another main character. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t make anything work. And it left me questioning everything I had written and sent out for multiple beta reads.

Now, you need to know that Madeleine’s had various ideas for her story from the very beginning. At one point, she even suggested shifting it from sci-fi to thriller. Yikes. That should give you an idea how flexible she is about “the story.” So when it became painfully obvious that I was hopeless for writing about this particular relationship, Madeleine offered the solution.

Remove that other character. Voilà. No more “relationship” to get right.

Wow. Okay. But, Madeleine, I thought, you know that’s going to change half the story, right?

Of course she did. And she reminded me that no one ever said this would be easy. And then she introduced me to the new character who would replace the other one.

That would work. And I saw how much simpler it would be for me to get that new relationship right.

But Madeleine wasn’t finished. The story line was too complicated, she said. Much as she wanted to keep a particular set of characters in the book, they had to go—except for one who had been there all along (in the sci-fi version, anyway). That particular role would increase, but everything else would be reserved for Book 2 in the series.

Wow. Okay. But, Madeleine, I thought, you know that’s going to change another quarter of the story, right?

Of course she did. And she again reminded me that no one ever said this would be easy. And then she introduced me to the new story line that would replace the one of that particular set of characters.

That would work. And I saw how much simpler that would be for readers to follow.

Madeleine still isn’t finished with the changes. A number of minor characters will go. There are still too many potted plants in the room. If their actions are still needed, they’ll be assigned to more important characters.

We also need to create the scenes associated with the sleeker, streamlined story. While a number of existing scenes can be repurposed, most will end up on the cutting room floor. As I mentioned above, some will go into Book 2.

Some readers, especially non-writers, might ask 1) Is all that original writing a waste, and 2) Do “real” writers make so many changes to the story?

The answers are 1) No, and 2) Yes.

1) Writing is never wasted, even when revisions result in chunks ending up on the cutting room floor. Writers learn from the experience, getting a feel for the characters, the plot, the back story—in short, what works and what doesn’t. We learn where we’re too wordy, or telling too much instead of showing, or failing to get important points out of our heads and onto the pages. We learn to write tighter sentences, more coherent scenes, and seamless transitions between them.

2) If you read interviews with your favorite authors, I’ll bet most of them have revised at least one manuscript to the point where the first draft (and maybe even the third) is unrecognizable in the published version. Whether we meticulously plan or create on the fly, we’ve all written ourselves into a dead end and, after banging our heads against the desk and muttering curses at our Muses, admit that we need to start over. The stories will be better for it.

And the desire to tell the best story possible marks the best writers who stand the test of time. I’m not saying I’ll ever be one of them. But at the end, if I can honestly say I gave the stories my best efforts, then there won’t be any regrets.

54 thoughts on “Rebuilding A Novel

  1. Very smart to change up the characters. That can be a great way to regain momentum and get the story back on track. The difficult part, however, is having to part with the people we’ve created. We hate to see them go. In my current WIP, I’ve only had to ditch a couple minor characters, so the sting wasn’t too great. So far…

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    • Okay, WordPress just gave me an error message and said my original comment couldn’t be posted. I am really getting grumpy with the ongoing problems….

      It was hard to say goodbye to this main character, but I think Madeleine was tired of me banging my head against the desk and walls since this spring. And I do like the new character who replaces him. I just hope other readers will, too. This weekend I entered 8,000 words into the new version, which, admittedly contains some text from the original, but it’s still over half new. So I feel like I’m back on track.

      Given how well you outlined your current WIP, I bet you won’t need to make many major revisions!

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      • Congrats on the 8000 words! That’s great to hear. Yes, thanks to my outline, my second draft is proceeding smoothly. Should be done in a week and a half. Then I’ll read through it once more before handing it over to early readers (I’m going to update my progress in a post on Monday). I guess they’ll let me know if major revisions are needed…

        On a side note, I haven’t had any of the problems you’ve experienced with WordPress. Guess I’ll consider myself lucky.

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        • I hadn’t had them, either, until last week. But I’ve been hearing similar problems from other bloggers for several weeks now. Apparently the email notification problems are a known issue, and WordPress is working on them. But it’s sure taking a while….

          All right, draft two is almost done? Woo hoo! You’ll be working on query letters before you know it. 🙂

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    • Interesting times, indeed! But it is so good to hear these characters again after months of silence and struggling. I’ll find a way to work with all of them. 😉

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  2. I love the notion that no amount of writing is ever wasted. That’s very motivational for me, as well as reassuring. I’m glad that you’re able to surrender to Madeleine’s ideas. This should be a fun ride!

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    • Madeleine probably thinks I’m hopeless when it comes to writing relationships. 😉 But I think I can handle the one between her and this new character, and it helps simplify the plot. After the long break from the manuscript, I can see where it was still too complex. I think readers will have a much easier time understanding it now. There’s a massive slash-and-burn coming of minor characters, too…. At least she didn’t want to change it back to intrigue!

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    • Thank you, Rick. Every writer approaches the stories differently, and I think it’s helpful for newer writers to see that there’s no single way to write a good story. And I hope non-writers also enjoy seeing what goes on “behind the scenes” before those stories see publication. It’s probably clear from this post that my characters are very active in the process.

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    • I’m definitely of the school of thought that the characters exist “out there” and make themselves known to potential scribes. Not surprisingly, that leads to them being very active participants in my writing process. Sometimes that’s a hindrance, especially if they don’t want to put their flaws and insecurities on the page. Other times, though, it works fine. And whatever works for a particular writers is the right way for them to work, right?

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    • The changes are daunting, but I can see where they’ll make the book tighter and easier to follow for readers. And by removing some aspects that just feel awkward to me, I think I’ll have an easier time writing this revision that I did some of the original sections. Or so I hope! And now, I’m off to saddle up. 😉

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  3. So exciting that Madeline is taking charge and giving you solutions. I guess it’s true about putting the story in the bottom draw, looks like it’s worked for you. I’m sure it feels daunting to do all of these rewrites but you sound motivated too! Keep it up JM, I’m so looking forward to reading this story when you’re ready to release it to the world!!! 🙂

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    • It’s too early to say whether or not I’m improving the story. I honestly think I am, but it’ll take objective beta readers to let me know for sure when I’ve got a presentable draft finished. But setting both manuscripts aside for months like I did may have helped. I was astounded when the characters suddenly piped up with revision ideas that Monday morning on the drive to work. I’m hoping that these changes make it “easier” to write the revised versions. I’ll keep you informed, though, however the process goes. 🙂

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  4. When I decide on major overhauls, I often look at the hole it’s going to leave behind. I groan and hesitate. I don’t know why I still do that, as many times as I’ve reworked a story or scene. It never ends up being as difficult as I think it’s going to be. So many things fall into place that didn’t work quite well in the previous ms. It’s like in some recess of my mind I’ve come up with solutions calculated to work perfectly. While intuition tells me to make the changes, the details of how it’s going to pull everything together are hidden from me until I actually sit down and work on it, line by line. 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration indeed!

    I hope the rework is smoother for you than it’s presenting itself to be at the moment. And I so agree with what you said: that writing that never makes the final cut is never wasted, and big changes to the original work are part of the process. I hope this doesn’t come off as arrogant (because I don’t mean it that way) when I say I feel proud of you. You’re taking the challenge with the kind of attitude that encourages me to do the same. Thanks!

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    • A massive rebuild like this is daunting. But I believe it will make a better story, and that is driving me to undertake the challenge. I hope I’ll find, like you, that it won’t be as difficult as I fear. After all, most of the main and supporting characters will remain, and a lot of scenes could be “tweaked” to fit the changes. But there’s no denying that huge chunks will be cut and that many new scenes will be needed. Still, there’s a part of me that’s looking forward to it, and I take that as an encouraging sign!

      And I believe the fact that we’re willing to buckle down and do what’s needed to make our stories the best they can be is a good sign that we’re serious about being good writers!

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    • Hey, Kate, it is great to hear from you again! I hope this means we’ll soon be seeing posts from you—we’ve all missed you over the summer!

      You are one of a handful of people who, upon reading this post, knows exactly how much I’m changing this story. 😉 I still have my moments of doubt—will the new member of the “main cast” catch readers’ attention, will the revised plot be simpler but gripping…. But I reworked nearly all of the first three chapters this weekend, and my fingers are crossed that I’m on a good track. Time will tell, but it’s good to be writing again.

      I hope your summer break was both relaxing and productive! Please tell me we’ll be hearing from you soon. 🙂

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  5. Great work JM (but you know you’re going to end up with a completely different story right?? ;-)) I love this post, so funny, and so true. Keep hacking away, I’m right there alongside with you!

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    • You are so right, Gemma—it will be a different story! And yet, the core idea of it remains the same. My one sentence description is still valid: What happens when an archaeologist discovers the final resident in her eighteenth-century cemetery is a skeleton with twenty-first-century artifacts?

      But while parts of the story will remain the same, others are changing drastically. It’s shaping up to be an entertaining ride, so I hope you and other blog buddies will enjoy it!

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  6. I agree. Sometimes major changes are necessary when things just aren’t working. I’m glad you’re moving again!

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    • I am so happy to be moving forward again, too. This spring and summer were so difficult on several fronts. I’m hoping the fall and winter will be saner and less stressful. I’ve always thought the core idea of this story is good, and I’m so happy Madeleine has offered these suggestions for helping me do a better job of writing it!

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  7. Making big changes to a story is always hard. If the change is big enough, it almost feels like you’re starting again. But, as you – or Madeleine – said, writing a book is not meant to be easy. If it helps make your work the best it can possibly be, then it’s worth it, no matter how long the revisions take.

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    • Somewhere, there’s a quote about writing being a marathon and not a sprint. And that is so true. And if it were easy, everyone would do it. As fond as I was of the main character who was axed, I’m already growing fond of his replacement. And I dreamed about another of the characters last night. I’m taking that as a sign I’m on the right track! “Time” will tell. 🙂

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  8. You seem really positive about the changes, despite there being so many, so that has to be a good thing. I’ve recently deleted two characters from my WIP, meaning I’ve had to find a chunk of material to replace it, but that aspect has fallen into place quite easily in the end. Good luck!

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    • From what I’ve heard from other writers, I think it is a good sign when the revisions fall into place more easily than we expected. I feel a bit more positive about this version because I think I’m more comfortable with how to have Madeleine interact with this new character. Of course, we’ll see what happens when I get to the parts I need to start from scratch!

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  9. I wish my character, Julia, would tell me what she wants. So far, she’s being uncharacteristically silent and I could use her help. It’s as if she’s challenging me to dig deeper before letting me on her secrets. Hmm…that’s an insight that plopped in just as I was writing this. Thanks for the inspiration and I look forward to meeting Madeleine sometime.

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    • Sometimes we find those insights in the least expected places. 😉 I’m glad you found it here, and I hope Madeleine’s doings will spark Julia to spill the beans on her secrets. I was caught by surprise when Katharine and Madeleine spoke up again and didn’t have anything to write with in the car (my husband was driving!). The first thing I did when I got into the office was to jot down the main points on a piece of paper so I wouldn’t forget them. When the ideas stuck with me through the day, I took that as a good sign that I was on the right track this time. I hope that means Madeleine’s story will see another draft completed for beta readers before too much time passes.

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  10. I’ve read so many books where I’ve wondered why some of the characters weren’t scrapped entirely! I think you’re smart to recognize when things need tightening up and when they need to be completely overhauled. As a reader, it seems too many authors fall short on this…glad to know you aren’t one of them!

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    • I don’t mind books with an extensive cast—as long as the characters are well-drawn and all work to advance the story. And after having set this story aside for some months, I could see that a number of minor characters needed to be cut. I had already cut a major round of them before, so you know this story was too complex.

      It’s frustrating when I see problems like that in books published by traditional presses because I wonder why an editor (or agent) didn’t point out the problems to the author. Sometimes it’s an established author who now gets “free passes.” It’s not fair, but, of course, no one ever said life would be!

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    • Well, this story has been re-envisioned on several major levels! But I think I can writer a better, tighter, more entertaining story with these new ideas. And, really, writing good stories is what I want to do. 🙂

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  11. I love a pushy character. They can make you do the hard things that you don’t want to do, like switch it all up. It’s very brave of you, JM. I’m quite in awe of you right now.

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    • The funny thing is Madeleine’s really not pushy. That may be why it took so long to go from original idea to original draft of her story. She’s had a tendency to offer some ideas and then to go hang out on the beach with my Muse. Maybe she’s realized that I need her around to do justice to her story as I write it. 🙂

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  12. JM, sometimes I get so invested in a line or a paragraph or a story direction that changing it becomes an internal war of wills. Often to make the story or piece live up to its potential I have to let go and rework or begin again and usually it ends up being the direction to take.

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    • My fingers are crossed that this is the right direction now. The story should be easier for readers to follow with this revised plot line and cast reduction. And so far I like the new angle to it. I’m taking that as a positive sign—and having one of the characters should up in a dream the other night! 🙂

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  13. I don’t think your posts are showing up in my Reader. When I went away in the summer, I changed all the blogs I follow to not receive emails about them, mostly because I was a bit confused about roaming charges when I was abroad, so wanted to minimise the amount of emails I might receive on my phone! I’ve stayed with just using my reader now, and overall I like it better that way, only I’m worrying about missing out on some key blogs I follow, I know there are sometimes issues with posts not showing up there. I just came here on the off-chance because I realised I hadn’t seen anything from you for a while. This isn’t the first time I’ve been missing out on your posts!

    Anyway, I love how you talk about your characters taking over the direction of the story, I haven’t yet learned to step back and let mine do that! Glad you’re making progress here, sounds like it’s all coming together nicely 🙂

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    • I actually subscribed to my own blog when these troubles started, just so I could see if it was showing up in the reader. Of course, just because I see posts in my reader doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone else who follows my blog will see it. The reader would be far more useful to me if I could mark blogs as “read” and then have them disappear from view. Since trying to scroll through several days of posts is too time-consuming for me, I’m afraid I’m missing some good one.

      Some writers would say characters should never have control over the story, but that’s too extreme for me. I’m not saying we should let them run wild—the result would likely be messy at best—but sometimes it’s worth listening to them if we find ourselves stuck in a corner. I think Madeleine had some great suggestions for making it easier for me to write a good story. 🙂

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      • Yes, I subscribed to my blog right from the start, I was my first follower! I always like to know that it has arrived safely, both by email and in the reader, as you say though, just because we can see it, doesn’t mean everyone can! I agree that the reader would be much better if you could mark blogs as “read”, or just hide them from view if we don’t want to read them. Since switching to reader only, I actually unsubscribed from a couple of blogs that post several times a day just because it was driving me nuts having to scroll through lots from the same person!

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  14. Nag, nag nag. Oh but it will pay off!
    If it makes you feel any better, if you examine most famous famous paintings, you can see underneath the final layer are other lines and shapes – the more famous the painter, the more they seem to changed things.
    Writing is like planting crops – never ending battle and weed sprout up – and sometimes you realize the weeds aren’t a problem but really helpful plants you never knew you needed.
    Writing never wasted time – even if things shift drastically…your mind just needed to meander like a river for a bit…it is frustrating ….but what else is new?

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    • After months of hearing little from my characters, it’s so nice to have them buzzing through my head again. And if writing the story the best way I can means that these first two manuscripts are rebuilt, then so be it. All those words have been good practice. And if the likes of Raphael and Michelangelo could revise their masterpieces, then I can change my little stories.

      And I’ll also thank those extra hours at work that kept me distracted this summer and let the characters think over those new ideas and give them shape. 🙂

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  16. I really like this post, JM, and I love what it says about how stories change, and how characters themselves can sometimes initiate that change. Like you, I listen to my characters when they speak right to me: this doesn’t feel right, I’m better off without this, I’ve changed since the first time you came up with this scene/plot/other character. The beauty in this acceptance, I think, is that it allows us to mature as storytellers. Striving strength is one of those great and wonderful aspects of youth (whether we are physically young or not, we always enter into a new story as a child open to all sorts of changes), but knowing when to let go is a sign of real maturity. We might have fallen in love with this or that moment or character in the beginning, but realizing that a better, truer story can be made by difficult changes is an important stepping stone. It’s like getting rid of your security blanket, or saying goodbye to that first goldfish that jumped out of its bowl late one night.

    Congratulations and high-five to you! 😀

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    • Wow, I hadn’t thought of that once-pink, soft, cotton blanket it years. But one mention of “security blanket” and I can see my toddler self carrying it all around the house, even as the tatters and stuffing clumps grew from repeated washings…. I know I was ready to say goodbye to it, but I also think life changed when I did. 😉

      Acceptance is a funny thing. Sometimes we jump into it, ready for new adventures or making desired changes in our lives. Other times, though, it comes only after long struggles and feels more like “giving in” to the changing tides. With this story, it felt like the latter at first. But as Madeleine explained the changes and I began taking notes, my enthusiasm grew. To the point where I can “almost” believe I can do this. 🙂

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