Monday, April 1, 2013

Backwards Outlining or How I Kill My Darlings

I've said it time and again on this blog and elsewhere, I'm  a pantser or discovery writer. I often start my stories (whether short or novel-length) with the main characters, the main conflict and a proposed resolution, and that's it. I love the joy of taking the trip with them. The downside, of course, is when the characters get distracted, so do I. I tend to write FAR more than I really need to as a result.

I've floundered around a lot with how to take a 200,000 word novel and cut it down to something that's traditional NY publishable. Note, I say traditional NY publishable. Electronic publishing, theoretically, has changed what we can sell as completed novels since the cost issues are radically different when you don't have to print the text on paper. Still, the NY houses still set the guidelines. Will that change? Probably, but for now, being publishable means sticking within "normal" word counts for your genre until you reach a certain level of success. No one is going to tell Stephanie Myer, or Brandon Sanderson to cut 80,000 words of their novels to meet the "guidelines." Given the caliber of those writers, it's really unlikely there are 80,000 words that could be cut from a 200,000 word story without harming it. Sadly, I'm not there yet.

Where does that leave me?

Cutting words and strengthening the ones I do use.

Since going to Dave Farland's Novel Rewriting Workshop in August, 2012, I've become aware of a new metric I can use to edit my novels in a way that doesn't harm the story. I've talked about Dave's Million Dollar Outlines and Blake Snyder's Save the Cat before.  It's these tools I'm using to "outline" my completed novel as part of the editing process.

Right now I'm working on the novel I took to Dave's workshop, The King's Falcon. Let me give you
a bit of background so this makes some sense.  I've been working on it for far too long. Originally the first draft was a whopping 300,000 words. Yup. That's not a typo. I realized that I'd actually written 3 books and started breaking them up. The first story was heavily character driven so while technically fine, I'd get comments back that "nothing happened." Not a good comment. So, I took the second book, which focused on the civil war and started merging it into the first so the looming battle actually occurs in Book I. I wasn't really successful at doing this on my own. Enter Dave's workshop. I knew going into the workshop that I had, at least, a pacing problem - too much of the character stuff still happened at the front of the book and too much of the action was stuck in the second half of it. Dave showed me how to pull the two story lines through each other and merge them.

Guess what? The end result of that process is a story that needs its word count trimmed, again. But what to cut? What's a "darling" and what's really necessary?

I've started a process that I call "backwards outlining" using Dave's Million Dollar Outlines and Snyder's Save the Cat, I'm outlining the completed story. Each scene must justify it's existence. What conflict is there? Do the characters change emotional beats within the scene? What information is being imparted that is critical to the forward motion of the story. Am I hitting the right emotional beats or story turning points at the right time?

Let me give you an example:

There's a story beat that Dave labels the "Call to Action" and Snyder calls "The Catalyst." Regardless of what you call it, it's that moment when your hero's world changes and propels him into the story. It happens at the 12 minute mark in a 110 minute movie according to Snyder (he's right, by the way).  That's just a bit shy of the 11% mark. In a 120K word novel, its approximately word 13,200 or page 52 (250 words per page). 

Again, I know my story drags. I'm going to be missing beats somewhere and adding them other places they don't belong. So where did my "Call to Action" fall?

Page 32. 

But wait. I'm 20 pages early, that's good right? Nope. It means my next section (the "Debate") drags on far too long because my midpoint is spot on half way through the text. Now I know where at least one of my pacing problems is. I can go back in and fix it. So, I'm moving a scene from the "Debate" section that doesn't fit forward to the set up phase where it belongs.

Let's go back to my "Call to Action" scene again. Here's the diagram of that scene:

Location: Interior, Sabryna's chambers
Falcon learns that Sabryna is dying. She wants Falcon to marry her widower to reclaim the throne and unite the kingdoms.

Emotional Beat: +/- Falcon starts curious as to what mission Sabryna will send her on, and ends up devastated by news of Sabryna's terminal illness.

Conflict >< Falcon wants everything to stay the same; Sabryna needs Falcon to be more than she is and accept her responsibilities.

That works, I have emotional change and a conflict. I also impart a lot of plot relevant information in the wrestling with the conflict. It's a scene I can probably leave alone other than to punch up verbs and tighten the prose.

What about a "darling" that I need to cut then?

"Coffee Clach" with Leesan and Iestyn
Location: Interior castle kitchen
Falcon catches up with her foster mother and best friend, and learns more about Mordent.

Emotional Beat: +/+  Falcon starts content and ends up curious.

Conflict: Ahm, I don't have one. Lessan wants the veggies cut up, Falcon and Iestyn do that. Leesan and Iestyn want to hear information about Falcon's trip, she tells them. Falcon wants to catch up on Court politics and they tell her. Everyone gets along too well.


So while there is needed information here and I love the relationship between the three of them. I can do a quick two or three line recap of the information needed in the next scene. This is a darling, not a required beat. It needs to go or it needs a major rewrite.

Anyway, that's my new take on editing. I'll let you know how the process works for me.


Don Hodge said...

Thanks Nancy. I pick up useful points, approaches, and FFT even though I didn't have the benefits of those classes.

Nancy DiMauro said...

Glad it helped you, Don. Thanks for stopping by.