“Do you want to talk about the details of editing? How you look at the first line, the opening scene? How you examine the arcs and plot points? Do you want to give me the magic formula? Please?!”
Since Erika asked (she’s Ericka Kelly, by the way, and needs no help from me), and since our chat was light on details, I thought I’d put a simplified version of my method of revising Nita here, keeping in mind that I’ve been working on this book for over four years, so it’s basicallythe Winchester House of manuscripts. The simplified version ran long (OVER FOUR YEARS), so I divided it into parts. There will, of course, be huge spoilers, so you have been warned.
When I finished my first draft, I had 146,000 words for a 100,000 word contract. That meant, to me, that I had overloaded my narrative, not because I hadn’t hit my word count, but because my natural marathon length is 100,000 words, not 150,000. So I went through the manuscript using the benchmarks I always use. These should not be considered rules, they’re just the guidelines I use. YMMV.
- Identify the main plot and winnow the subplots.
- Find the turning points.
- Give each act a title or narrative function (“In which Nita discovers . . .”)
- Rewrite and tighten each act for that function.
- Plot the character relationships across the acts.
- Identify symbols, metaphors, motifs and tighten the arcs there to focus on theme.
- Look at the opening scene and the climax+resolution to see if I’ve hooked and bookended.
- Beta the hell out of that sucker.
IDENTIFY THE MAIN PLOTS AND SUBPLOTS
Most novel-length narratives have subplots, minor arcs that reinforce or act as foils to the main plot. The key is to identify which plots are minor and which is the Main Plot To Rule Them All, and then cut the minor plots down to the bone and make sure they support the MPtRTA. In the case of Nita, I had three plots and seven subplots. That two main plots and at least four subplots too many, just in case you’re counting.
The Romance Plot: Nita and Nick
The Political Plot: Nita and Nick vs. Cthulhu
The Political Plot: Nita vs Pure Island
The Family Subplot 1: Nita vs. Mitzi
The Family Subplot 2: Nita vs. Dad
The Family Subplot 3: Nita vs. Grandma Angelica
The Romance Subplot: Button vs. Max
The Romance Subplot: Jeo vs. Daphne
The Romance Subplot: Rav vs. Dom
Yeah, no wonder I hit 146,000 words. The first thing I did was pin the Nita and Nick Romance Plot as the main plot. That meant a lot of the detail work I’d done on the Political Plots could be cut back because they were now supporting plots of the romance plot: complications plus the pressure of working together and facing danger together spurring the adrenalin to speed the romance along. If there wasn’t an impact on the the romance in a political plot scene, it got cut back.
The family subplots were all over the place. Her mother was nuts; her sister is fantastic, her dad is a power in the background; and her grandma and great-grandma only had one scene apiece, but they were both off the wall, too. So I rethought them all into one subplot, linking them to each other to show why Nita would be so reluctant to engage emotionally with anyone, especially anyone with a big supernatural problem (see Nick) given the fact that her family was pulling her in different directions while smothering her with love.
The romance subplots were different. The Button vs. Max plot was the immigration/Other subplot linked with the Pure Island subplot, and it was the trickiest to bring off; the only thing I really had to do there was make sure it was a foil to the main plot, a different route for a romance to take, and then cut the hell out of it because I loved writing Button and Max and would have done their banter for another forty thousand words. The other two romances were so slight that they really just served to identify those four characters while each having a minor but important impact on the plot.
So that left me with Main Romance Plot, Hell Political Subplot, Pure Island Political Subplot, Family Subplot, Romance Subplot, and two very minor romance subplots. Six plots to arc.
Okay, the Hell and Pure Island Subplots were going to convene, so put those two together and cut the hell out of them.
The family subplot . . . sigh. Cut most of it. Mom and Dad can stay, Grandmas go into the outtakes on the website. Sister stays in the background making cheering noises, rest of her scenes go into the outtakes on the website.
The two minor romances play entirely in the background as complications of the political subplot; just cut the hell out of them and slide them in there and let the reader intuit they’re happening. My readers are smart, they don’t need everything spelled out for them.
So Romance Main Plot (Nita vs. Nick), Political Subplot (Nita and Nick vs Cthulhu), Romance Subplot (Button vs Max), Family Subplot . . . crap. Parcel the necessary scenes in the family subplot out to the other plots. One main plot, two subplots, that’s do able.
Gonna be a lot of scenes on that outtakes page. About 46,000 words, I’m thinking.
FIND THE TURNING POINTS
So I write in four acts usually. Acts are units of narrative, with the books main plot protagonist and antagonist anchoring the conflict. They are separated by turning points, events in the story that have such a huge impact that they turn the story in a new direction, making the narrative brand new.
My four turning points were:
- Things Get a Lot Worse: Nita finds out that the supernatural is real, and Nick hasn’t been lying to her when he smites somebody into a scorch mark to save her; she joins forces with Nick to save her island.
- Point of No Return: Having just established a new normal with Nick and their team to fight Cthulhu, Nita finds out Nick’s been poisoned and lost his memory and is now a threat since he’s rampaging around thinking it’s 1502, and she’s alone again, just with a fractured team and an island that’s coming apart.
- Crisis: Having cycled through four new normals with four new Nicks, Nita has just established a real relationship with him as they fight Cthulhu together, getting close to defeating him, when Nick is kidnapped to Hell where he’s going to die for real.
- Climax: Nita harrows Hell, kicks Cthulhu butt.
GIVE EACH ACT A NARRATIVE FUNCTION
That means my four romance narratives were
- Nita meets Nick, has deep suspicions but is attracted anyway; Nick starts to change.
- Nita falls in love with Nick, Nick becomes human.
- Nita stays in love with Nick because love is not love which alteration finds, and finds out he’s gonna love her, too, no matter what century he thinks he’s in.
- Nita risked everything to get Nick back, while he’s doing the same in Hell to get back to her.
That’s my story. That’s what everything has to support. That’s where the juice is for the reader. Every time I think, “But this political plot is so much fun,” I remember how I’ve skimmed other romances trying to get back to the part where the lovers are together. “It’s a ROMANCE, stupid,” should be engraved on my laptop.
REWRITE AND TIGHTEN EACH ACT FOR THAT NARRATIVE FUNCTION
And then I separate the file into those four sections (four is not a magic number, it’s just the one I usually write to), and I look at each section as a separate story, with the turning point as its climax. It’s a lot easier to revise 33,000 words or god knows, 15,000 words, than it is to wrangle 100,000 words. Because I want the pace to escalate, I try for acts of 33,000 words, 28,000 words, 24,000 words, 15,000 w0rds. I never hit those marks, but if I’m in the ball park, I figure I’m good.
The big thing I look for in the first act is hooking readers into the characters and through them into the plot. If they care about the characters and the characters care about the plot, the readers will care about the plot. I remember watching the first season of a TV show several years ago, and in the last episode they killed everybody, evidently setting up a cliffhanger for the next season, except they got cancelled; I remember thinking that was okay, I didn’t like those people anyway. Investing readers in characters is crucial.
The big thing for me isn’t if they’re attractive or brave or nice or funny, it’s if they’re vulnerable. Vulnerability is everything. So I need to look at the first act and make sure that Nita is vulnerable–she’s tough but an outsider and she lives her life saving other people while she’s dying a little inside–AND brave and smart and funny. She looks a little odd, but that’s a Crusie heroine for you. Nick is practically a super hero since he’s dead, but he’s also being poisoned and that makes things a lot more difficult for him since it changes him. Button is on her first day at a new job and all hell breaks loose, then she finds out something about her family and reality that makes the whole world seem impossible so she starts drinking. Then she meets Max. Max has spent his life serving one boss, a guy who’s like a father to him, albeit an exasperating, evil one, and then he starts to question everything he’s done as a minion. Plus he meets Button. These people are radiating cool control as hard as possible, so I have to make sure their uncertainty, their shock, their scramble to get to a new normal, their overwhelming fears and hopes and needs, are on the page. In the first act. Plus communicating to the reader that this is a romantic comedy. About immigration. Fuck. It SEEMED like a good idea at the time.
Invest the reader in the characters, set the expectations, establish the contract with the reader: This is a romance and it’s going to be funny and exciting and satisfying and irreverant, and you better be pro-immigration or you’re gonna hate it. Yep, it’s gonna be a bestseller.
Tomorrow (probably): The other half of this post.