I have recently emerged from a massive structural edit of my third DARWEN ARKWRIGHT book, and I have to say that it was a tough one, maybe the hardest I’ve ever done. There were some substantial rethinkings of plot and character which I’d come to, thanks to my excellent editor at Razorbill, but which felt so immense that for a couple of weeks after getting the memo and coming to terms with its rightness, I felt utterly paralyzed.
In the end I think I rewrote about a third of the book entirely, throwing out (or rather cutting and pasting into a separate file) a good 25,000 words and replacing them with the same number of new ones plus another 10,000 for good measure. Even sections I didn’t significantly alter got moved around, sometimes dramatically, so that at times the process felt like being in a massive hedge maze, where turns you thought you’d made before led in different, baffling directions, and routes that seemed sure to point the way out took me right back to where I came in. It was, I don’t mind saying, pretty maddening, and my conviction that I was in fact making the book better as I worked, helped rather less than you might imagine.
I thought that today, and perhaps in another future post or two, I would focus on what DID help, beginning with what you might call the hopscotch approach to writing.
First, a confession. I tend to move in a very linear fashion through my story, especially in its initial drafting, starting at the beginning and moving sequentially toward the end. It’s all very orderly and, if I’m being honest, a little bit pedestrian without any of the wild thrills some writers seem to enjoy. I have always resented these hardier folks for being able to jump around their story so effortlessly, writing the ending first, then a bit from the middle and then—just for devilment—typing the opening page before skipping casually back to the end. To me, (he admits, loathing the puritanical sound of the confession) it always seemed a bit like cheating.
But when I get to these big edits where huge chunks have to be rewritten, moving sequentially scene by scene just doesn’t work for me any more. In my head I no longer have a single (if complex) narrative which comes into being line by line as I move forward. Instead I have an ungainly monolith (Massive, but Precarious like a skyscraper fashioned entirely, if improbably, out of Jenga blocks), something which already exists but which needs extensive rebuilding. I see the whole thing not as a series of discrete potentialities, but as a chaos of the extant, where any adjustment is likely to bring the whole construction crashing down on top of me.
When a book already exists, albeit in Ungainly Monolith form, it doesn’t make sense to start from page 1 and work sequentially through to the end. I have to identify each strand needing attention then work by plot line, or by theme, or by character, dipping into the relevant section, fiddling, adding, taking away, then moving on to the next bit which might be in an entirely different part of the book. I’ll go back to my linear Let’s Start At The Very Beginning (it’s a very good place to start) again when I’m done and the cracks and fault lines in all the new masonry have to be papered over, but till I get there, I’m playing hopscotch, jumping from section to section like a directionally challenged flea whose behind is (for reasons I cannot begin to explain) on fire.
I don’t actually remember how to play hopscotch so the analogy I’m making here is likely to be vague to the point of uselessness or just plain wrong, but bear with me a second. As I recall it, the game involves throwing a rock or something into a chalked square with a number in it and then hopping up and down the chalked ladder thingy (according to what the number was) and jumping over some squares in order to get to others.
Something like that.
I have no idea how you win, though judging by my sense of the game thus far, I doubt that’s ever a possibility which loomed especially large for me, and is even less of an option for a flea whose ass is on fire.
Anyway… The payoff for this unwieldy and probably wildly inaccurate metaphor for my purposes to day is this: when faced with a massive edit, or even an initial draft, writers often get stuck. They are in one spot (on the number 3, say) and need to advance, but can’t step on the number 4 because their little rock thingy landed somewhere else or (in writerly terms) they just don’t know what happens in scene 4. They acould go to scene 5, however, a scene they have a much better grasp on, and this is where they start hopping.
For me, the form of the jump from 3 to 5 might take shape as an inserted note to self marked with a character I could easily search for (an asterisk, say, an ampersand, or something else I don’t actually use in my writing). The note itself might look like this:
[* Insert really cool action scene here: something that picks up the pace, does X to character Q, reveals artifact Y which I need on page 257, lets character Z talk about H, and sets up plot point W. Maybe set the scene at night. In a lighthouse, because they are, you know, cool.]
The more information I add to the note, the clearer I become about the function of the scene, and the easier it will be when I return to it. Sometimes, in the process I discover that I CAN write scene 4 right now after all, but often I’ll just hopscotch over it to scene 5 which is fresh and shiny in my head, reminding myself to come back to scene 4 later (and maybe to scene 2 which now demands an explanation for why my characters will later go to a lighthouse).
The hopscotch method takes a lot of pressure off me, because it’s an IOU, a promissory note to my story that the gap will be filled; I have just enough faith in my own solvency to trust that I will indeed return and fix it. So now I can focus on the bit I really want to write, the part I KNOW, which is scene 5. When I’ve done that (and maybe scenes 7-10 as well) I’ll have an even clearer sense of what has to happen in that troublesome scene 4 and I can go back to it poised to join up the dots in the most interesting way I can think of.
I assume everyone does some version of this, yet I know of lots of writers who talk about getting stuck on a plot point, to whom I offer this little (slightly arch) respin of a familiar mantra: Write what you know now. In other words, get down the scene which is clear to you, even if that means dodging the set up for that scene or other bits which come earlier but which you can’t see yet. Get down the parts you can see, then get your little stone (or whatever the hell it is) and start hopscotching. You can rejoin the Linear Forward Motion Club (get in line, we have T shirts) when the cobbling is done.