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Novel Neepery

Last time I talked about my novel, I touched on some of the struggles I was experiencing as I started writing Act Two. I had progressed swimmingly through what seemed like a solid Act One beginning, with some really excellent writing, and then I hit the middle part and found myself dog-paddling.

I am reminded very much of my early attempts to write a short story, back when I was twenty and twenty-one. My instinctive critical faculties were well-developed — I could reliably tell when something I was doing was not working — but I didn’t yet know how to fix any of it. The result was that I kept starting things, realizing they were somehow wrong, and stopping.

Everyone I knew at the time wrote free-form, what writers these days call ‘pantsing’: just sit down and start typing and see where it leads you. That never, ever worked for me. The key to short fiction for me, it turned out, was knowing the precise end of the story, and quite a bit about the middle, before I started. The first story I began writing with the end already in mind was the first story I actually finished. I was twenty-two, and that story took the Grand Prize the next year in the Writers of the Future contest.

Obviously I brought that lesson along to my first attempt at a novel. I had the end of this book firmly in mind literally years before I ever wrote my first line of prose. But novels are much more complicated beasts, and I just spent the last two months figuring out that ‘the precise end and quite a bit about the middle’ is not enough structure for me to write a whole novel from.

It was poetry-writing classes in college which taught me that paradoxically, restrictions often aid creativity. Whenever we had a free-verse assignment I would flail around helplessly, overwhelmed by the limitless possibilities and inspired by none of them. But specify an intricate, confining form — a pantoum or villanelle or sestina — and suddenly everything would click. I did my best work, it turned out, under the tightest constraints.

By the beginning of November I’d become convinced that I needed help with structure, so I went looking for it. I listened to some writing podcasts, which led me to check out a book called Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, which turned out to be exactly what I needed, when I needed it.

Jak (who has written a double-handful of novels and has Opinions about the process) knows just how hard I can dig in my heels if I think someone is trying to impose an irrelevant rule onto my story. I can be entirely impervious to suggestion if my intuition says ‘this is wrong and doesn’t fit the thing I’m aiming at.’ So it’s a little surprising, even to me, that I had a positive response to something that is as frankly formulaic as Save the Cat.

But it worked for me in large part because I could feel how the beats lined up with things I already instinctively knew. It felt less like someone making a bunch of new rules and more like someone putting existing rules into explicit words — something my autistic brain is a fan of, just generally speaking.

Anyway, I took the Noemi novel and mapped it against the StC ideal, and learned that — confirming my suspicions — my Act One is spot-on, and then everything starts to unravel at the transition to Act Two. So. I’ve spent the last two weeks brutally ripping apart my novel — both the completed prose and the outline — and putting it back together again.

Here’s the thing. Most writers never sell the first novel they write. Usually, they have at least one and sometimes several ‘trunk novels’ that never see the light of day, where they are learning their craft as they go, and it’s their second or third or fourth book that becomes their professional debut.

I refuse to write even one trunk novel. For one thing, I’m fifty-two years old and have a lot of shit I want to say; I don’t have time to waste. For another, I’ve always come at things from the perspective that if it’s not going to be excellent it’s not worth doing. This is not an objective Truth, it’s just my Truth. Other people have other methods. In my twenties I lived for a while with another writer who had the same number of short-fiction publication credits that I did (I think it was seven, at the time), but also had written about seven or eight unpublished (and almost entirely unpublishable) stories for every one he’d sold.

I had one trunk story. Not one per published story — just one. Rifle, not shotgun.

Mapping against StC!WaN led me to the realization that I was ending the story in the wrong place. See, back when the plan was to braid Noemi’s and Estera’s stories and points of view together, the book’s finale was, sensibly enough, the event that involves both of them. When I split them apart (another brutal decision that I still believe was necessary), I assumed Noemi’s book would need to end at the same place, and I’d just have to hope that Future Karawynn could successfully rashomon the event when she wrote Estera’s book.

Jak, to give him credit, had already pointed out that this left me with what he joked was a ‘Regina Ex Machina’ in Noemi’s story, but at the time I didn’t see an alternative. What Save the Cat did is show me that structurally, I actually had two successive finales in Noemi’s Act Three. I realized I could, with surprisingly little adaptation, make the first one carry the weight of Noemi’s entire arc — and in fact, a scene that I’d already written in Act One had serendipitously set things up perfectly for doing so. In addition to cleaning up Act Three, this move would accomplish two other important things — cutting a chunk of length off this book (making it more commercially viable), and leaving the Noemi-Estera interaction unspoiled for the finale of Estera’s book.

I do lose one thread that I was planning to string between Act One and the epilogue, which is too bad, but it was never the most important one, and overall this new plan gives me a lot more than it takes away.

So I had a solid Act One already, and I’d pretty quickly zeroed in on a solid Act Three, which left me with the oh-so-common “muddle in the middle”. For the remaining week and a half, imagine a montage of a lot of intense thinking-faces, intercut with shots of typing in spreadsheets and on Scrivener notecards, and a series of lengthy conversations with Jak.

I am so lucky to have a Jak. I might have been able to talk this through with a partner who was an avid and thoughtful reader, even if they weren’t also a writer … but I might not.

Classic Sidney Harris cartoon: two men pointing at a series of complex mathematical equations on a chalkboard. In the middle is the phrase 'then a miracle occurs ...' Caption: "I think you should be more explicit here in step two."

As of yesterday afternoon, I feel confident that I have completely unmuddled my middle. Along the way I took every single other thing that has been bothering me about this novel and changed all of them:

  • Worried that the travelogue at the beginning of Act Two is too slow and insufficiently interesting? Excise that shit and summarize instead.
  • Don’t want to write sex scenes? Cool, make that relationship a romantic friendship.
  • Afraid that the logistics of getting the MC from Point B back to Point A for Act Three will drag things out at exactly the wrong time, because the only way of getting there is through Point C? Make a virtue of necessity and let Point C be part of the story.

You would think that losing around three months of progress would be a blow, but honestly I couldn’t be happier. I have a much more thorough outline now, I know exactly what I need to do, and everything that has been feeling wrong feels right again. Onward!

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