by Leo Dufresne
Outlines, synopsis, Hero’s Journey, three-act plot structure… Everyone has a method to help you write your novel, more efficiently, more elegantly, more successfully. It would be interesting to see what the ratio is between works of fiction and how-to books on the subject.
I confess I have at least two shelves in my personal library dedicated to this topic. There were many nuggets I discovered in my research that helped me on my journey. However, unless there is some hidden way to make a living out of reading self-help books, at some point you have to put the instruction books down and just write. For me that transition took about three months. And once I began writing, I was consumed.
My writer friends would continue to share books or articles that had intrigued them. I’d smile and dutifully write the information down, knowing that I wouldn’t bother pursuing the material. I was writing and writers write. I had a solid outline, complete with index cards for each scene. One year later my first draft was complete. Along the way I had many of the chapters critiqued. The work was solid and I decided to hand it off to a professional editor.
For the next four weeks my thoughts of the editor’s reaction vacillated between a tearful phone call from him thanking me for the honor of reading my masterpiece to opening a mystery package containing my shredded manuscript. I think those weeks were the worst part of the whole ordeal that is a writer’s life.
My writer friends suggested that I use that time to distance myself from my work. The time away would help me when I needed to attack the manuscript again. I reluctantly sought out some of the material they had previously suggested. I began to think about query letters, loglines, synopsis and other items associated with pitching my work.
Although I tried to dig into them, it seemed premature to focus on queries or synopsis when I knew massive edits may be awaiting me. I looked at the logline I had kluged together at the beginning of my draft. It was off and I knew it. It represented where I thought the novel was going nine months earlier. A friend offered ideas on a new logline. I listened but wasn’t keen on it. I’d worry about this too when the work was complete.
And then the editor replied. It wasn’t a tearful phone call praising me. Much of my writing was good and he did enjoy reading my manuscript. But… The book was inconsistent and disparate. It began as a mystery with characters developed at that level and at some point switched to something more literary. Unfortunately the flat, non-layered characters couldn’t support the story in which they were weaved.
I went through the grieving process, anger, denial, and ultimately acceptance. I read a novel the editor suggested. I spoke with various friends. My goal was to develop a plan of attack to repair my manuscript. I had a list of scenes I needed to modify. It was a big list. But there was no plan.
Until I stumbled again on my pathetic logline. The more I contemplated this the more I realized this was the key. My novel was a journey where I had started off happily enough, but didn’t really know where I was going. My compass was broken and I was just riding the wind. It was a nice ride, but why would a reader want to go along. I was asking them to spend several hours reading my novel and I couldn’t even spend a few hours figuring out where I was taking them. What an arrogant ass.
For the next few days I put my energy into the logline. In the car, the shower, at work (don’t tell my boss) until finally I had something. It’s wasn’t perfect, but the effect was amazing. I wrote the new logline out and kept it with my manuscript. The re-writes began to buzz. I was in the groove and I knew it. It’s still work to edit a whole piece, but it doesn’t need to hurt. Best of all, I got the excitement back to tackle the book again.