A few weeks back I was feeling pretty good about my writer self. I had finished the first draft of my novel, read through it and made some changes, and spent a ridiculous amount of money printing out 300 pages.
Then I began a class on novel structure, taught by Lani Diane Rich (author of many books), the same person who taught the Discovery writing class I took earlier this year. The basic synopsis of the class is teaching beginning novelists the ins and outs of a four-act novel with seven anchor scenes, learning how the action builds from one point to the next. If you can remember back to middle school English, it's similar - but more detailed - to the basic graph of a three-act play, with fun terms like "rising action" and "denouement" (Mrs. McCormick would be so pleased I remember those things).
First off, Lani is a terrific teacher and her classes are a lot of fun, but they are also work and she will be completely honest when you share pieces of your work. As she should be - that's exactly what I wanted.
The first thing we shared was our opening scene, which for me is my first chapter. It's about 1,600 words or so, eight or nine pages double spaced in Word. Each person in the class reviewed each of the scenes with specific questions in mind and Lani did the same.
She warned us ahead of time she would be brutal if it called for it, and she was - but in a good way. There were pieces of mine she really liked, and pieces she didn't like. She followed that up with great suggestions on how it could be better, most of which I agreed with. (I should note at this point she also recommended we share the scene with some friends who didn't know what the story was about, and see what they expected from the rest of the book - this was a fantastic, and revealing, exercise.)
After that I felt pretty good. She was honest and brutal, but she didn't shred it to pieces - I counted that as a win.
The second exercise was taking the action in our book and applying it to the structure presented in the class. I thought this would be easy, since as part of the planning for my novel I kept an Excel spreadsheet where I detailed the action by chapter.
It was not easy. In fact, it was really, really freaking hard - a zillion times harder than I expected. There were points where I'm supposed to be talking about my own book, about something I had written and spent countless hours with, and I didn't know what to say, didn't know what was right. Or, as I wrote it thought, hey, that doesn't make sense.
Predictably the honest critique exposed all of that. And it was, again, awesome and revealing and I wouldn't change a single thing about it, but at the same time it's a tad depressing. I plan on incorporating about 70% or so of her suggestions into the next draft of the book, but it does mean some very drastic changes. Characters will be minimized and in some cases their entire roles in the story will be changed. My main character needs to be harder, tougher, and the next draft will reflect that.
In fact, with Lani's suggestions, other suggestions from classmates, and my own thoughts, I made a list of (so far) 10 things I will focus on in the next draft. Some of them are big, some small. Some chapters will be totally redone, some will just be tweaked. Some points in the story are going to change drastically.
This is a daunting task, especially after having already written 300 pages and having felt pretty good about it.
But at the same time, another exercise was to read my own novel like a reader, just making notes of things that did and did not work. My conclusion? It's a long way from what I thought it was in my head - but it's also not horrible. There is some good stuff here and I think with my list of focal points I'm going to pull out a much tighter story, and I firmly believe this next phase will be completely worth it.
So here I am, getting ready to begin. I've put it off for a week, dealing with some stressful times at both of my jobs, but this weekend the next draft will begin.
Some authors love this part. Wifey and I went to Tawna Fenske's book signing in Beaverton last week and another well-known Portland author, Bill Cameron (whom I admire and respect and writes similar stories to mine) was also there. I awkwardly introduced myself - we had chatted on Twitter but never met in person - and after he placed my face with where he knew me from, he asked me about my own progress. I told him about the stage I was at and he nodded, knowingly. This was his favorite part, he said, because this is where a story really finds it's voice. Lani said almost the same thing, as did Tawna.
I'm ready, story. I'm going to dig that voice out of you, shredding to pieces whatever needs shredding, and it will be good (when I want to be really cocky I can think "great").
Wish me luck!