I hate rewriting.
Writing is such a joy. Creating characters with distinctive personalities, riding down the roads my characters take me — it’s true, characters DO take on a life of their own — puzzling over plot twists, grinding out an ending that will be faithful to the characters, the plot and the reader.
Rewriting — that’s like going through old garbage, or cleaning out the garage. Yeah, you recognize a lot of good stuff, but there is the inevitable junk that makes you wonder what you were thinking at the time.
My writing group took a good shot at the first three rewritten chapters a few weeks back and surprised me with the things they liked and didn’t like. I worried about putting in too much backstory; they said the characters required more back story.
I’ve lived with these characters for five years now, at least some of them; I forget that my readers haven’t had that experience. So I’m struggling to balance the need to introduce the characters to a new audience against the need to keep the story moving, especially in the critical first chapters.
I arranged and rearranged the order of the first five chapters several times; I deleted a long dream sequence that started the book and wrote an entirely new short piece from the point of view of one of the antagonists.
Before I got the draft to where I could be happy with it, I had to create three tools. Without them, I would probably still be rewriting over and over those first few essential chapters. Here are the tools:
- One-line character descriptions. I wrote them (and continue to write them) every time a new actor, no matter how minor, appears in the story. This forced me to focus on the physical description and one key trait for each character. I relied on memory for what I had written in the first book and fact-checked those memories against the continuity file. These brief IDs led to, and contribute understanding to:
- The backstory requirements. This is a longer list of the characteristics and traits of the recurring characters. Those one-line descriptions I mentioned above also helped me identify which characters are the key actors. Here are the backstory requirements for one of the characters:
- Australian intelligence operative of some seniority and ethnology expert in South Pacific island cultures
- Saved, rescued Sebastian from certain death at least twice
To understand this character early on and to set up his important role in later chapters, I had to be certain that each of these points appears early on. One hopes they flow right out of the narrative. One hopes.
- Action outline. I learned this one a long time ago from my high school friend and renowned nature author and whale expert, Erich Hoyt. Most story outlines contain way too much material. An action outline includes ONLY those actions or scenes that propel the story on its upward arc to the climax. This is easier said than done. And this is one place where your chapter by chapter synopsis will help enormously.
Here is what the action outline for The Flight of the Spider looks like:
Terribly unimpressive, right? I count eight action points. I know there is a lot more going on between the points, but these eight items, one of which is marked with a question mark (since answered), MUST be included and the action from one must force the characters toward the next action point.
I used the action outline to find the answer to that first point labeled with a question mark. What would I possibly need the characters to do right at the start to propel them toward the next inflection point.
Of course, you will have to wait until I finish rewriting The Flight of the Spider to see if I succeeded.
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