Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Playing With (Story) Blocks

Have I ever mentioned that the revision process is hell? While I'm working my way through this hellish process chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph and line by line, there has been one thing that stands out as the most helpful tool in my re-write toolbox and it's the thing that removed most of my hard chosen words and turned my manuscript into a small collection of half pages that are both voiceless and utilitarian. That tool is chapter summaries. It's such a simple idea- go through the manuscript one chapter at a time and summarize each one. So easy! So useful! Why is it so helpful? (It's cool. I know that's what you're thinking.) It's helpful in a few very specific, but really important ways.

1. Structure Check- Like a story, a chapter should have a beginning, middle and end. Summarizing a chapter makes it easy to spot if the chapter is delivering on its story responsibilities.

2. Chapter Cuts- This one is major but painful. In my earlier editing efforts I could feel when a chapter was dragging, but I couldn't bring myself to cut it. All that work just to be deleted? I couldn't deal with it. But, when that dragging, unnecessary or redundant chapter is reduced to a few paragraphs, it becomes a lot easier to draw an aggressive red X through it and move on. (Note: when I went back to the manuscript I straight deleted red-X chapters. I did not read the chapter again. The red X shows no mercy.)

3. Plot Overhaul- I suppose not everyone will need this one, but I sure did. My plot was seriously, majorly, horrifically flawed. Once those not-so-pretty chapter summaries were done, I could physically move things around like little wordy building blocks and see where the plot was lacking. Sure, it left me with some chapters to be written from scratch, but at least now, when someone asks me what my book is about, I have a confident answer.

Now to give credit where credit it due. I did not come up with this nifty solution. I have to give credit to Chris Baty who was speaking at the Crossroads Writers conference in little old Macon, Georgia. Maybe the use of chapter summaries is a technique known by the writing vets, but it was new to me, and when I was sitting in a hotel meeting room and I asked my question- What do you do when you're stuck in revisions? - Mr. Baty threw out chapter summaries as a real and constructive solution. His answer was neither fluffy theory blow-off nor bitterness laced shutdown, both of which are abundant at writers conferences. He said- here, try this. I tried. I liked. So, props to that guy. If you're stuck like I was, give it a shot. Maybe it will work for you too. Maybe.

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