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Fix the novel with a scalpel? Or an ax?

Posted: July 31st, 2010, 7:06 am
by Matt_X
Hi all,

I've written a 100,000 MS that I've had some revelations about recently. The plot is too complicated and I have way too many characters.

I started to plan the rewrite and it's looking very daunting. I think it would take another year to get the novel rewritten and streamlined to the point it's ready to send out (It's taken me almost 2 years to get to this point, even though I write whenever I can, almost every day).

But there is another possibility, one that I am afraid to look full in the face. Maybe this novel is beyond salvaging, and I should drop it in the round file and start my next book. It would just be so agonizing to give up on the work I've spent so much time on. But I don't want to send it around to agents unless it's perfect. And instead of spending a year making it perfect, I could pretty much write a whole new book in that span of time (I think my second will go quicker than my first).

Have any of you ever written a full novel and then put it back on the shelf without sending it out at all? How do you cope? And how do you know it's time for the ax and not the scalpel?

Grinning through angst,


Re: Fix the novel with a scalpel? Or an ax?

Posted: July 31st, 2010, 8:38 am
by poptart
I think it's more usual than not for an author to have written several dud novels before getting published. It's all part of the learning curve and your first attempt is unlikely to be your best.

It's hard to know whether to keep working at it or not. I find the real test is whether this story will leave me alone - I've abandoned projects in the past and feel irresistibly drawn back to them. So maybe the answer is to put it aside for now and start something else. In a few months you might feel the urge to go back to it again.

Re: Fix the novel with a scalpel? Or an ax?

Posted: July 31st, 2010, 11:39 am
by polymath
A tool analogy is good. Another layer of analogy might expand the labor pool from one writer to an entire construction crew and all their purposes and tools and skillsets, or a film crew. Bill Roorbach in Writing Life Stories, directed to memoir but applicable to fiction, talks about scaffolding. Scaffolding is the temporary structure a writer erects inside and out to access and work on the main fabric of a story's structure.

About a hundred sixty years ago, poeticists and narratologists started dissecting narrative structure from a scientific approach. It was the era when science went from trial and error empirical observation to the modern scienctific method and everything came under scrutiny. So, of course, literature came under scrutiny too. Gustav Freytag led the charge, determining a basic construction form that intuitive observation and emotional response gave him as a reader and stageplay audience. Then testing it against the literature of his times.

Russian Formalists stepped in and dissected folklore down to its most discrete discernible parts. Structuralists picked up the batton and ran down commonalities in forms and comparisons with and contrasts to existence. In the West, New Criticism adapted Formalist and Structuralist concepts to new processes while Modernism attempted to defy scientific analysis. New Criticism, Formalism, and Structuralism reached their heydays when Postmodernism arose mid Twentieth century refusing analysis and refusing to be pigeonholed. Structural approaches went out of vogue and haven't recovered. So in one sense, Postmodernism put paid to structural approaches to analysis and composition. Postmodernists questioned and challenged formulaic approaches to creative writing. They spited half the equation, favoring aesthetics at the expense of structure.

What didn't succeed is changing how stories are constructed. Story shape has not changed I imagine since the first story ever told. The terminology has. The level of scrutiny has changed. More and less, less and more. The quantity and quality of structural and aesthetic application changes. Structure remains the same because it fits cultural coding expectations. Aesthetics adapt to the times.

Reimagining the first story ever told offers insight for structure's tyrranical but paradoxically liberating influence, mostly from identifying and adapting storytelling formulas to one's own unique writing qualities and aesthetics. A three-act structure is the fundamental form. Beginning introductions, Middle efforts, and Ending denouements.

Safety, subsistence, and companionship are fundamental social being needs. Shelter, food and water, and society. Pick one. One complication. A saber tooth tiger circles the tree a troupe shelters in. The beginning, an inciting complication to act on or ignore. Act. A noble sacrfice of one of the weaker troupe members creates a distraction for the rest to get away. A first refusal to confront. Cruel by today's values. Efforts to find better shelter in a cave. The middle. Obstacles and setbacks impede efforts, and other troupe members are injured or lost to the following tiger and perhaps other dangers. The troupe flees. Second refusal. Along the way, the troupe gathers a burning branch. A cave is discovered. Climax. Efforts to find safety decline. All salient information is known. Outcome of the inciting complication is still in doubt, but outcome doubt declines. Exploring the cave, the troupe finds animal and human remains. A discovery, a reversal. A faint scent of saber tooth tiger is noticed. They're in the tiger's den. They build a fire at the cave entrance. The tiger approaches with the leftovers of a troupe member in its mouth. The troupe takes a stand and confronts the tiger. They drive it off, mortally injured. The troupe gathers around the fire and recounts the events. The first story is told. Denouement. End.

One complication to address. Only as many actors as needed. One cause and effect. Causation. An empathy-worthy high magnitude dilemma. Fear and pity emotional cluster built by the first troupe member's noble sacrifice. A central suspense question artfully posed and artfully delayed in answering from ongoing refusal to confront. Tension from empathy and suspense. And a purpose with opposing complications. Antagonism. A theme of survival. That's one formula. Tear down everything else, the scaffolding, and reveal the true fabric of the story.

Re: Fix the novel with a scalpel? Or an ax?

Posted: July 31st, 2010, 11:45 am
by dios4vida
Sometimes the daunting tasks are the ones that give the most frustration - and the most satisfaction. I understand exactly what you're going through, I have a 125,000 word high fantasy ms that's trunked right now. The only difference is that I actually DID send mine out and - shock surprise - recieved a load of rejections.

I moved on to another project and let that one sit. And even though it was hard to abandon it, I love my new WIPs and it's been a really good learning experience for me to write more. I think I'm a better writer and therefore can do better justice to this novel. It's been about three years now, and the story is creeping back into my brain. I'm thinking it might be about time to pull it out again.

I don't know if this will help you, but here's my plan for cutting down this novel: I'm going to take a pair of scissors to it. Literally. Cut out the good parts - the beautiful phrasing, the tense action, the "ooh, that gave me goosebumps" parts. I'll lay them out on my desk, rearrange them if necessary, and rewrite the story around them. I'm not going to reference my first ms, I'm going to come at it as clean and fresh as I can. Maybe the story will change a bit - maybe not. But in the end, it should be tighter, cleaner, shorter, and better.

Re: Fix the novel with a scalpel? Or an ax?

Posted: July 31st, 2010, 4:28 pm
by Matt_X
Dios and Poptart, thanks so much for sharing your experiences. It is great to hear from people who have been there.

I think your advice--going ahead with a new project for a few months and getting some perspective--is what I am leaning toward. The idea that I might not come back to the first book is a little terrifying. But if it really is beyond repair, than it's for the best. And with some distance I'll hopefully be able to tell.

Today I wrote a few pages on a new book idea I've been chewing over, and it was fun and exciting in a way my work on novel #1 hasn't been in these last few weeks of hand-wringing. And that's the point, right? This is supposed to be fun.

And, thanks.

Re: Fix the novel with a scalpel? Or an ax?

Posted: August 3rd, 2010, 5:27 pm
by JuiceinLA
My first draft was a 180,000 MS, and I loved every word, could not imagine what would need to be cut or changed. I wanted to move on and immediately begin the sequel. I promptly set it aside, started learning about the query process and sending query letters. I learned that no one wants to read the memoir world's version of war and peace. I was daunted, like you, with the idea of cutting almost half of my book. However, after setting my MS aside for a couple months I was able to pick it up with new eyes, and quickly cut to 140,000. I tightened up a lot, got rid of redundancy and took a hard look at sub plots and storylines that didn't contribute to the whole.

I can affirmatively say it was worth it to go back and edit. But take a breather, get some space and perspective. Read someone else. You'll be amazed how easy it is to pull the book together.

I hope this helps!

Re: Fix the novel with a scalpel? Or an ax?

Posted: August 4th, 2010, 12:43 am
by Omega12596
Matt_X wrote:

Have any of you ever written a full novel and then put it back on the shelf without sending it out at all? How do you cope? And how do you know it's time for the ax and not the scalpel?

Grinning through angst,

Yes. I coped by do what polymath suggested. I took the novel down to brass tacks and realized that while the core was solid, the outer layers were under attack. Not because the writing was awful, but because I wasn't the writer I needed to be to do that novel justice.

I take it out from time to time, in pieces, and read it over. I cringe at all the 'thats' and 'justs' and head hopping. And I grin because despite the sophomoric mistakes, the characters and their emotions still jump off the page and sweep me up. Maybe someday, I'll take it up and know I have what it takes to clean it up. Maybe I won't. And I've made my peace with either.

Knowing if one should shred a novel or give a full-body lift, well, that's something only you, as its creator, can decide. My .02? When I read through my novel, my fingers were splayed, I was embarassed a bit, and felt really daunted and irritated at the prospect of actually re-writing the thing. And that's when I decided to shelve it.