Plot. Here we go. It's the aspect of novel-writing I have the most books on. I'm not even going to go into all the deep theory of plot development, at least not at this point. This is a personal blog about trying to rescue a book from the mire of abandonment (is that a thing?) and so I'm going to focus on what I found as I did my first examination of the book.
Here's a summary of what I did and in what order:
- Read through the first two chapters as a reader, just to see what was there.
- Create a pdf of the first chapter and do a detailed, careful re-read, making a note of ideas, problems, required changes, and other general issues.
- Stop, wait, and...
I stopped after that intensive re-read, realising that it was pointless just to edit each chapter, when I didn't know whether I needed that chapter, or even if the rest of the book worked. Before I got seriously granular (i.e., carried away), I needed to see the granules.
Also, I'd forgotten what happened in the book.
I knew the beginning (Io spies on Arandes going to meet other Servants and decides something's up), a few early scenes (she goes to the former Duum Academy, her sister comes home), and that eventually she leaves Amin Duum and ends up at the Nas Ashca to meet the High Ashad Isha.
Bear in mind, if you recall from the last two weeks of this, somehow that took fifty-two chapters and one hundred and eighty-two thousand words.
I remember more of the Lord of the Rings plot than I do my own book at this point.
Finding the Plot
My next step was to get a better sense of what happens in the first book. This isn't quite the same as identifying the plot, but that's a whole theoretical argument about the difference between "plot", "plot points", and "events" that I'll have to come back to in a minute. What I needed was a bird's eye view of every chapter.
For this, I used the print copy of the first draft. As you can imagine from the above, it's stored in a huge lever-arch file, but I also needed to be able to work in a comfortable space, when I wasn't necessarily feeling my best. Being disabled (Autistic, living with depression and anxiety disorders), I spend a lot of time conserving spoons* by working in bed.
Looking back, I should probably have used the Scrivener file for this bit, but I wanted to be able to briefly look at the text and get a sense of the action (if any) in each chapter. I also wrote out the chapters by hand, because I find writing out by hand often helps me get to grips with things. I can remember how things look on a physical page than on a screen. Plus, my partner was using the office and so I didn't have access to the big second screen. If you want to do this more easily, I recommend using two screens or split screen if you can.
Figure 1 is a photo of most of the notes. You can see that I restricted myself to one line, just a few words, to describe the events of the chapter, even if chapters included multiple scenes. I also made a few notes if nothing of any significance happened. It frustrated me that I couldn't get it all on a double page. The last six chapters are on the following page (Figure 2).
Figure 1: Chapter List
Figure 2: The Last Six Chapters
The Next Step: A Series of Questions
What I've always done when I'm writing, whether it's a PhD thesis or a novel, is work by asking myself a ton of questions. When I looked at the chapter list, I started with the question, "What happens here?" I could see that there was very little actual plot. This is common if you're a pantser. You write what you feel like writing on any given day, whether it fits or not. It's why pantsing requires a lot of re-writing and revision.
It's actually difficult to describe or break down what happened next because this is where I have to break with any kind of formula I might have and just... go away and think about things. From the outside, this looks like staring at this set of pages and not really trying to figure things out. I know there are methodologies out there which go into extreme levels of analysis and detail for different types of plot (Story Grid, I am mostly looking at you). But a lot of the creative process is something that happens in the back of your head while you're doing other things, and it's not something you can put in a neat seven-step article.
As I looked at what I had, I could see the novel could really be broken into two halves, largely based on where action occurs. The first eighteen chapters take place in Amin Duum itself. That's over a third but not quite halfway through. If it was half the novel, it'd be easier to say that the big escape arc was the midpoint break, but it didn't quite fit.
The second, longer, half details Io's journey to the Nas Ashca, introduces a B-plot where Arandes goes back to Amin Duum in an attempt to rescue Io's sister and simultaneously introduces us to other important characters like Vasha and Tascha**. After a couple of days of wandering around the house with this basic structure in my head, I came up with an idea.
I had two options:
- I could compress the Amin Duum section so that less happens and it's over very quickly, removing extraneous matter, but keeping the basic framework in place.
- I could expand the Amin Duum section, develop it into its own story, and make it the whole of the book.
As you can possibly tell from Figure 3, I went with second option.
Figure 3: The First Third
Note the line pointing out where Io leaves Amin Duum, and the notes I've made indicating where there is space to add material because essentially, nothing happens in this chapter.
Why do that? Surely, if I wanted to make the story tighter, taking out the fluff and the faff, I'd want to compress all that. Well, if I was wedded to the original plot, maybe. The advantage of that nineteen-year gap is that a lot of my attachment to the book looking the way it did when I first wrote it has faded. What if, I thought, I made the first book about Io's journey? What if almost all of the book takes place in Amin Duum?
This opened up a lot of new options. I promised last week I would mention Star Wars: Andor, which we started watching over Christmas. I've also been watching videos examining why Andor works so well, and what makes it such an effective story. This inspired me to think more about Io as a character and how she comes to see the city she's lived in her entire life. It made me consider how to effectively re-develop that setting.
The story as it is now is a basic Chosen One plot. It's like Star Wars: A New Hope in that regard, except looser and flimsier. The reader doesn't really know much about what Io thinks or feels about anything, or who she is as a person. Amin Duum the city is non-specifically oppressive, but not particularly to her. Over the last few months, I've seen a few creators*** I respect discussing the issues with Chosen One plots, and find I agree.
I don't want this to be a Chosen One plot. I also want to be able to do something as impactful as Star Wars: Andor. It may only ever reach three people, all of whom I know by name, but that isn't the most critical thing at this point. What matters to me right now is doing the best, most meaningful, work that I can.
In Conclusion Therefore...
At this point, I know I need to develop more action, give Io a solid plot arc, add more detail in terms of the world she lives in, and how she responds to all of that. Who is Io really? What does she want? Why does her story, of all the stories in this city at this time, matter?
That, I think, is for next week. In the meantime, I'm going to creatively steal an idea from the amazing podcast "Start With This" featuring Jeffrey Cranor, one half of the team who brought us the genius Welcome to Night Vale. The podcast has now ceased updating (although please, Jeffrey, do more episodes!) but included a set of exercises at the end of each episode. "Create" was an exercise to do and "Consume" was something to read/watch/listen to. I'm going to borrow/creatively steal this idea, since why not introduce a little hopefully helpful audience participation. Therefore...
Consume: Listen to Start With This, specifically the episode from August 2021, which covers artistic burnout. It's a great discussion covering a range of issues relating to writing and creative exhaustion. This matters to everyone, but especially to anyone who deals with additional chronic illness and/or disability that affect your ability to consistently create.
Create: Think about a TV show/film/book that has stayed with you, that you feel changed you in some way. Why did it have that effect on you? Journal to discover what about the story, plot, character, or setting appealed to you and why it matters to you.
*For an explanation of spoons in the context of disability and specifically autism, read this.
**It's unfortunate that their names are so similar, but I'll do another post on that in the future. Short answer for now is that in the revised idea I have in my head now, similar names hint at the idea that even though these characters are superficially on opposite political sides, they are under the surface on the same side.
***Check out Council of Geeks presenting a personal analysis of the problem with Chosen One plots here.