Thursday, November 4, 2010

[Novel Update] Victory is Mine!

I haven't done one of these in some time because there's basically only so many ways to say, "I'm still working on Chapter 15 and it's pissing me off." It's good to vent, but there's only so much of that that you're going to want to read. Probably none at all, actually, but sometimes I use my blogger's prerogative to go ahead and do it anyway.

So you can imagine that it is with great joy that I finally get to report that I have conquered Chapter 15 at long last! That's right - the THIRD version of this chapter is done.

It has a long and fretful history. I think I finished my first draft of Chapter 15, as far as I can tell from my records, in a single day back in March. It was short (only 8 single-spaced pages long), it was in the main character's POV, and, as I re-read through it, it was actually pretty good.I didn't like it at the time, but looking back on it now I can't remember why and I almost wish I'd just stayed with the original version. It's not inconceivable that I might decide to revert to it at some point, even after all the work since. It's unlikely, though.

Three months later, as I was preparing to take Chapter 15 in to the Writer's Roundtable for critique, I completely changed it. I decided that I needed to shift the POV to a secondary character so that they could talk about the protagonist in glowing, awe-struck ways that he'd never ever think about himself. Honestly, I'm not sure how well that worked, whereas with the main character's POV we at least got to see some of his previously-hidden attributes come out through his actions, dialogue and inner thoughts. Regardless, I re-wrote Chapter 15 over a weekend and brought it in to the group. I wasn't thrilled with it, but I thought it did a passable job, at least. I wanted to get the other writers' feedback to see what needed to be changed.

And boy did I. They really didn't care for it at all as far as I could tell. They took great issue (legitimately so, in my opinion) with the way the POV character's introspection kept interrupting the action of what was supposed to be a battle-scene. I needed that introspection, though - it was the whole point of why I'd written the chapter the way I had. It let me develop the secondary character (who will continue to be a player in the story) and simultaneously add depth to the protagonist. Making that need for information mesh with the desire for a streamlined, dramatic and tense battle-scene wasn't going to be a quick or easy fix. I ultimately decided to tear the chapter apart and rewrite it.

What I ended up doing - and it worked, I think - was to front-load most of the introspection and character development into the start of the chapter. I deliberately downplay the battle for the first several pages, making it almost a game to the POV character and his comrades. They're not taking it seriously, so it has no dramatic tension to be interrupted by all sorts of shenanigans like thoughts of fear, lust for a nearby love-interest, flashback to how the POV character ended up in the battle to begin with, and so on. Then, when the battle turns serious, it's more of a shock and it (I believe) does a better job of drawing the reader in than in the previous iteration where I basically just said, "There's a battle going on. It's a tense situation. Feel the drama!!" and forced the reader to comply (or not).

In fact, when I sat down to do my total re-write, pace and tension-building were a key focus for me. I actually broke the chapter's events up into five chunks (creatively labeled Section A through Section F) and placed each of them on a scale of rising action. A rose to B, which then dropped off a little. C rose again until it peaked and then it dropped off again with D. Finally, section E... Wait, let me get you the little diagram I drew - it ought to help.

So sections A, C and E were all designed to build tension increasingly higher, culminating in the chapter finale/cliffhanger at F. I figured it was going to be one of my longer chapters, though, (and I was right - it weighs in at 31 pages once I double-space it) so just making the whole thing one tense battle-scene with carnage from beginning to end felt like it would get tedious and make it hard to keep my reader on the edge of their seat. I needed to cut away every so often and let the tension settle a little, before going in and yanking it right back up again. It's sort of like in the TV show 24, when things are looking really bad and then they cut back to something else that's going on at Headquarters. It gives the reader/viewer a chance to catch their breath and perhaps let down their guard, so when you come at them again with a haymaker they're not expecting it.

And I have to say I'm very happy with how that worked out. The tension starts off very low for a while as I lead into how things are and how they got that way, all the while setting the expectation with the reader that this "battle" is more of a shooting gallery, with the "good guys" in very little real danger. Then WHAM! things go wrong and there's blood everywhere. I back off a little, letting them drive back that assault and collect themselves and them WHAM! I do it again, but moreso, and things get a bit ugly there for a while.

At point D on the chart, they literally take a break. There's a lull in the battle, and everybody gets to stop and rest for an hour or so. I use this opportunity to do some cool things with the POV character (introducing some secrets that he's previously only hinted at in the chapter), and I bring in yet another character just for a few pages so he can relay some important information about what's going on elsewhere in the novel. Everybody stretched? Rested? Had a little snack? Oh, good, because... WHAM!

We're on the wild E-ticket ride of section E (pun intended there), and you'd damn well better hold on because we're riding it all the way to the top! Section E is a madhouse of combat, death, attack and counter-attack, fear, heroism, cowardice, victory and defeat. All the cards are on the table and what started out as literally a joke of a battle is now very serious business to those involved. Friends die, people are set on fire, and the POV character literally finds himself at the hands of the enemy. And just when it looks like they might squeak by and survive somehow, WHAM! Section F drops a bomb (figuratively - it's not that kind of battle) and leaves us wondering if they aren't completely screwed after all.

I had another writer, whose judgment I feel is pretty good, read the final version for me and it got a thumbs-up, so I'm calling 15 done for now. When I get to the continuation of the battle in Chapter 17, I may need to go back to the original version of 15 and see if there's still stuff there that I want to use, because as I said re-reading that first version leaves me more impressed than I'd expected to be. In the meantime, though, I'm heading back to the beginning. Several months ago I came up with a new start to the story that I think does a better job of setting the stage for the book as a whole than the Chapter 1 I initially wrote. That chapter's all about the main character, but doesn't do much for the overall story. I'd been wanting to stay away from a prologue because I'd read that they're not too favorably received by some editors/publishers, but I don't think I can help it - this book just calls for one. I could get around the "prologue" problem by calling it Chapter 1, but I don't think trying to trick a prospective publisher/editor into getting over whatever anti-prologue hangups they have is the right way to go. I'm going to have to trust that it's not all prologues they hate, just ones that aren't necessary, don't work, or don't add value to the book. I'm pretty sure this one does, so I'm working on it. In fact, as of last night, I've finished an initial draft of it. All I need to do today is clean it up and move on. This makes me really happy, by the way, as I cranked out that whole prologue in two days. It makes me feel like I'm finally back up to speed the way I was in April/May when I was really hauling ass.

Next, my plan is to revisit chapters 1-14 and 16 and input all the edits, changes and ideas I've had since I started taking them to be read at my writer's group in February. By the end of November it will be one year since I started writing this novel, and I've learned a whole lot since then. The constant writing has made me a better writer now than I was a year ago, and I can use that to address issues in those early chapters when I was still feeling my way around. I know the characters better, I know how I want to tell the story better, and I think I can improve them. Also, I've got a lot of inconsistencies in those old chapters due to the iterative way I wrote them - my newer chapters reflected changes I intended to make in the older ones but haven't actually made yet. This would be too confusing for somebody new to my novel to make sense of, so it's been a very long time sine I've been able to share the early part of my book with anybody. When I'm done editing, I'll have a manuscript chunk that's readable that I can share with folks who have meaningful feedback to offer.

For now, I'm just glad to have Chapter 15's rewrite complete. It took way longer than it should have, and far longer than I'd imagined. It's time to get on with other things.


  1. Heya Mike!
    This is a most interesting explanation of how this chapter has evolved and your thoughts and changes through the writing process. I have only read this section of your blog, Mike, but it makes me very keen to one day read the finished product. I commend you for your efforts & the craftsmanship you are honing as you continue writing. I shall certainly read your other words related to your novel, when I have some more time. Keep up the good work, Mike, it sounds like a most interesting story.

  2. Thanks for the encouragement, Dianne!