This winter, Odyssey Online is once again offering the course “Getting the Big Picture: The Key to Revising Your Novel,” taught by Odyssey graduate and award-winning novelist Barbara Ashford. The following essay, in which Barbara shares some of her insights on the topic, was originally published here on December 1, 2018.
Barbara has been praised by reviewers and readers alike for her compelling characters and her “emotional, heartfelt” storytelling. Her background as a professional actress, lyricist, and librettist has helped her delve deeply into character and explore the complexities of human nature on the stage as well as on the page. Her musical adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd has been optioned for Broadway.
Barbara’s first published series was the dark fantasy trilogy Trickster’s Game (written as Barbara Campbell). Published by DAW Books, Trickster’s Game was a finalist for the Mythopoeic Society’s 2010 Fantasy Award for adult literature.
She drew on her musical theatre roots for her second novel series, the award-winning Spellcast and its sequel Spellcrossed, set in a magical summer stock theatre. DAW Books released the two novels in an omnibus edition: Spells at the Crossroads.
A 2000 graduate of the Odyssey workshop, Barbara has taught eight online courses for Odyssey and has served on the staff of the Odyssey Critique Service for more than a decade. You can visit her dual selves at barbara-campbell.com and barbara-ashford.com.
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.
Odyssey Online Classes are announced on the Odyssey website each fall with application deadlines in December. Classes are held in January and February. To receive a notice about the upcoming classes, sign up for the Odyssey newsletter.