I’m editing. Again. I’ve just finished an edit checking plot consistency, at the same time tidying up repeated or unnecessary words or unclear sentences. I’m bored with revising. I want to get a novel out there, and write something else. But I don’t think my book is the best it could be.
Now, I might be aiming too high. As someone who’s never paid more than £10 for a writing course, and has had only stories published, it’s probably unrealistic of me to expect to write smooth prose with cunning leitmotifs, brilliant plotting and masterfully handled unreliable narrators. BUT – there are certain things I really need to get in place if my book’s got half a chance of being read by an agent: a plot without holes, a protagonist desperate for something, high stakes. Why haven’t I got these in place already?
I started off fairly confidently. I had a theme, a story-line with a start, middle and resolution, each with some detail. But when I’d written it all, it was far too short to interest any traditional publisher. It was only a novella, in fact.
So I followed the advice of a writer friend and added a sub-plot. This got me up to a very thin novel.
I asked my husband to read it. He did. He liked lots of it, made various suggestions for improvement, and expressed incredulity at my plot twist. It relied on my protagonist being young and naïve, having grown up in a sheltered upbringing. But no, it was too far a stretch. Oh. Half my story replied on this twist.
So a significant rewrite was needed. Draft three.
Trying out my revised chapters on Scribophile, an online forum (this site has been invaluable to me) I found I had a new issue. Readers assumed that, because my protagonist was fourteen, it was a YA novel. I didn’t feel I could put it out as YA seeing as the sub-plot was only of interest to adults, but I was very attached now to this sub-plot and didn’t want to abandon it. Besides, I didn’t see myself as a YA author – it wasn’t the way I wanted to go. The solution? Upgrade the sub-plot to a parallel plot.
In one respect, I saw this could work out very well. To complement the foundling searching for a mother I had a mother who had lost a daughter. I enjoyed weaving the two together. The woman who protects my first protagonist became the sister of the second protagonist. The pauper boy who gives the first protagonist directions for escaping her cruel mistress became the son of the beggar who gives a dangerous illness to the second protagonist. However, the sub-plot had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the spotlight. It was planned thinly, because it was quite thin – being secondary. As a sub-plot, Meriah’s story lacked shape, drama and high stakes. So I added and added to it. This built up the word count, but now I had a bit of a mishmash. I had a ghost story, a romance, a mystery and the story of a woman trying to keep her job. I really needed to decide what I was writing. I went over and over the story-line to decide what was my main thrust and to get the other themes to submit to it.
Next, there was the shape of Meriah’s story. As a main plot, it needed definite peaks and troughs. About this time, I started reading John Yorke’s Into the Woods, and discovered the concept of the direction twist in the middle. I spent days playing round with Meriah’s story, writing out the plan in different ways, using my whiteboard and colour coding. Moving on, I rewrote her thread extensively. As I’ve worked, I’ve constantly questioned, tweaked, doubted. As a sub-plot heroine, Meriah could be quite passive. As a main protagonist, is she strong enough? And so I go on patching, and fearing I will never get to the end of it.
Would I have avoided all these problems if I’d planned in more detail? Even after putting away my outline for a few months?
I’m not sure. I think I could have avoided the issue of audience by thinking that through carefully. And now, after drafting the third novel that’s then fallen apart due to plot holes and story-lines that beggar belief, I might finally have a nose for them.