I’ve been hard at work on the third in my Darwen Arkwright series for a little over a month now and had managed to get about 55,000 words done when I ran into a problem. My outline was uneven: detailed in parts, very sketchy in others, and though that wasn’t necessarily a difficulty of itself, I realized that I was fast coming to the end of the plot well short of my word count. This also isn’t a huge problem of itself, because my editorial process always tends to add stuff as I realize what the book is really about and how I might make it richer, so I always try to keep my first draft short.
But this time I realized I had a pace and tone problem. The entire final half of the book had become a protracted action sequence, and while Stuff Happening is generally a good thing—esp. if said Stuff involves danger, fighting, the occasional explosion etc.—I was concerned that it had become relentless and repetitive. I also found that I couldn’t work in the quieter moments of reflection and intellectual discovery that I needed in the second half because there was just too much going on and no time for my characters to think, let alone feel.
Years ago this would have been paralyzing. I would have panicked, I suspect, fearing that the book wouldn’t work and that I’d wasted a good deal of time and effort. If I could imagine a fix it would have seemed too daunting, too invasive, like cracking open my story’s rib cage so I could massage the heart. Such hesitancy would worsen over time as the scale of the problem calcified in my head and the book might just die on the table.
But I’ve been around the block a few times since then, and I’ve learned that sometimes you have to go in and fool around with the innards of the thing if the book is to survive. It’s not easy, and is always a real facing, one that can feel huge, overwhelming, but I’ve done it before so I know I can do it again.
The first step is to ask if the book is worth saving. Generally, for me, this is a no-brainer. I don’t set out on the journey unless I feel that there’s something at the core which is worth sharing. Asking the question again at this stage, however, is useful because it reminds me what I think is good about the book, and sometimes my answer will have shifted since I started writing. When I know what I value in what I’ve done, I can then think about the restructural editing without fearing that I will accidentally kill what I think is the best aspect of the book.
I needed to break up that long action sequence and insert a moment of lightness and calm in the centre, where I could build plot and character and do other things I wouldn’t be able to once the engine picked up speed. But changing the sequence of a book and moving its parts around creates all kinds of ripples throughout the text, all of which have to feel logical and consistent with the story, its people and its world. In this case I needed a reason to stop the plot advancing at such a break neck speed, and I found it by throwing a wrench into the works so that my characters simply couldn’t proceed in the ways they wanted to, the ways the first draft had permitted. They didn’t choose not to act; they had no choice.
This is, I think, often a good solution for books where the plot has run away with itself. Derail the action. If the characters simply can’t proceed—as opposed to having them change their minds or seem to forget their primary objective—you can’t be accused of violating character in service of plot. Indeed, such a strategy tends to foreground character by creating dramatic tension, since you now have some very frustrated people who have been prevented from doing what they know they must.
The unforeseen difficulty the characters face not only forces that moment of calm that I needed, it demanded that they THINK their way back into the action: in other words they resolved the tonal problem for me by figuring out how they could get back to the point where I had thrown them off course. The upshot was that I got to emphasize thought, give the reader a break from all the running about, and layer some thematics that I wouldn’t have been able to do without getting clumsy in the big climax. Along the way, I discovered things about my story and its characters which I can point up during the final section of the book with a fairly light touch.
Revisions like this need a lost of post op nurturing long after the sutures have been closed, and I’m still going through and tidying things up, making sure the time line makes sense, seeding issues earlier, and generally working to make the new version feel smooth and organic.
And you know what? It does. What seemed almost insurmountable only days ago is now largely done and dusted, because I wasn’t afraid to wield the chain saw and then stitch the bits back together. Years ago this book would be languishing because I’d be stressing out over the radical surgery required, but now the end is in sight and the book is stronger for the edit.
So what about you? Any particular large scale editorial challenges you are facing or have faced? Problems or solutions such an edit generates? Have at it.