Barbara Ashford is the award-winning author of six novels published by DAW Books. She is also a developmental editor and teacher. Her online course “Getting the Big Picture: The Key to Revising your Novel” will be offered in January-February 2019 through the Odyssey Writing Workshop, application deadline December 4.
When I began revising my first novel, I believed my story had good conflict, complex characters, and a world that was pretty cool. Okay, the plot was a bit of a scavenger hunt. And the novel was way too long. But trimming and refining was what revising was all about, right?
Well…that depends on your interpretation of “refining.” I ended up rewriting two-thirds of the novel and cutting 80,000 words from the final manuscript. But my biggest revelation occurred early in revisions: while my protagonist was blazing a trail through a magical forest, I realized that I had lost sight of the forest for the trees. What was this story about?
In the two years it took me to revise Heartwood, I sprouted an unnerving number of gray hairs, but discovered the importance of getting the big picture. That not only meant bringing the essence of the story into sharper focus, but analyzing the building blocks of storytelling—premise, theme, world, characters, plot, setting—to determine how they worked (or didn’t work) together to illuminate the heart of my novel.
Looking back on that time, my “revelation” seems more like “Well, DUH! Of course all the elements of a story have to work together.” But since then, I’ve discovered I’m not the only writer who has written a novel with elements at war with each other. As a developmental editor, I get a lot of manuscripts that demonstrate the same lack of cohesion as my first draft of Heartwood. So I began sharing my revision process in my critiques and in an online course for the Odyssey Writing Workshop.
The first—and biggest—challenge is identifying the heart of your story. One first draft manuscript I edited offered a lot of possibilities: safety, family love, embracing the possibility of an afterlife, putting the welfare of others before your personal desires. All of those issues were explored—and some were interrelated—but because none was paramount, the focus of the story was muddy and its impact was diluted.
Once you understand the heart of your story, determine if the other elements in the story are working together to illuminate it. Say you’re writing a story about freedom. Ask yourself:
• What issues relating to freedom are my characters struggling to resolve? That could mean anything from people seeking freedom from slavery to characters who are fighting to escape poverty, drug addiction or their own negative behavior patterns.
• What aspects of the world shine a light on the issue of freedom? Inequality between classes, religions, races? A lack of political freedom? Social mores that restrict individual expression?
• How does the setting test characters’ resolve to gain freedom? That might be a runaway slave confronted by a turbulent river, a drug-addicted mother at a rehab clinic or a reluctant debutante at a cotillion.
• How do my scenes/plot events show the increasing risks characters take to break free and their successes/failures/setbacks? How does the climax demonstrate whether freedom is—or isn’t—attained?
I needed to complete a full draft of Heartwood in order to discover the essence of the story. Whether you’re in that boat or still working on your first draft, make a conscious choice to name the heart of your story: “This is a story about freedom.” “This is story about injustice.” That simple sentence can become a road map to guide your writing. It can help you:
• decide which elements illuminate the heart of the story and which are sidetracks that muddy the focus;
• make a down payment on the heart of the story in the opening chapter and pull readers quickly into your world, your characters, and the drama that is unfolding;
• make informed choices about your protagonist’s journey;
• evaluate your cast of supporting characters;
• flesh out your world;
• fine-tune the chain of events necessary to fulfill the promise you are making to your readers;
• bring greater cohesion to your story, which will increase its emotional impact on readers.
For an example of how Barbara’s “big picture” concepts made a major difference for one writer, check out our next blog post, “The Revision Machete” by Derrick Boden.