Howdy folx! How is everyone feeling? How's writing going? I've started using a quarterly planning method and I'm still settling into it, but writing wise, I did not accomplish what I set out to do in Quarter 1, so I'm buckling down for Quarter 2 and taking advantage of April's Camp NaNo to get through my delayed Harpy Girl's Revision. (I'm currently at 50k/100k!! woot!)
As I was awaiting feedback for this great restructuring, I spent the months of February and March reviewing various craft strategies and getting in touch with the heart and soul of my writing. I want this revision to knock it out of the park, and given the unbelievable standards of perfection put on writers currently querying, I feel like I have a monumental task ahead of me to create and query a novel that basically needs no revision and is ready for publication as queried. (Note from me: This is my own take on current trends and what I see agents and editors saying. I have no hard data to support this!)
The process of writing a book is monumental and there is no one size fits all method or way. It's a matter of pilfering strategies and methods from other people and combining them in a way that works best for you. There are a lot of elements that go into being a good writer. You need to have a good premise. You need to have a good work ethic and follow through. You need to be resilient. You need to write with your heart. You need to have a solid grasp of grammar and language. You need luck. Look, I could go on and on about this, but the tl:dr version is that you will never stop learning about ways to master your craft.
I'm a craft junkie (see my previous post on Craft Books: the Bedazzlers of Writing) and I love looking at how a text is structured--this also might be based on my career choice as a teacher of language arts. Who knows. But, when I was just a baby writer, structure was where I was weakest. I had some cool ideas and some great scenes, but they lacked cohesion and good pacing. I just couldn't wrap my head around what I needed to do. I've always been a more concrete thinker, so I needed firm guidelines to follow. I needed page numbers where I should want to hit certain elements. I wanted to know chapter length. And of course, all of these things are fluid and flexible. But I wasn't ready for that. I needed hard, cold numbers (the bane of every writer everywhere).
And I found what I needed by reading. Reading to write well is a pretty solid piece of writing advice. You need to read widely, in and out of your genre. You need to read good books and bad books. And you need to read objectively. There are things to be gleaned from every book--especially those that don't quite hit the spot for you. You need to really dig into why it's not hitting. There are a lot of hyped books I've eagerly put on my TBR only to get 100 or so pages in and my interest starts waning and it turns into a chore. At that point, I lean into the craft of the book. Am I not liking the premise or is it frustrating me on a craft level. (I've found that if books have Fae in them, I'm automatically out. I don't care how well written it is. NO FAE) Similarly, when I find a book I can read and my inner editor evanescences into the void, I tuck it away in my arsenal of writerly knowledge.
In the books that possess these perfect moments of cohesion between plot and character and world building and prose, I leave margin notes and sticky tabs. I highlight things I loved and tell myself why I loved it. I know, sacrilege. But I believe in well-loved copies of books filled with your notes and sticky tabs that you study and become your 'bible' on how to craft a solid story. I have a whole shelf of books that I've earmarked for craft purposes and books that are my go-to rereads when I'm revising or drafting to help keep me in that positive, forward thinking mindset.
The first bible I created was A Darker Shade of Magic. It's filled with margin notes, highlighted pages and I have documents breaking down the novel chapter by chapter.
I made note of how much backstory, dialogue, internalization, and world building was on each page. If characters were having a conversation, what were they doing? How much action/movement was on each page and what did Schwab leave to the readers to fill in on their own. I choose ADSoM because it was a book that captured my heart, that I couldn't put down and that ticked off all my boxes on what I think is solid craft. I'd also read ADSoM several times by this point, so I was familiar with it and ready to really dive in for a close read. (It is not however, the book I have read the most times... that would be Furyborn, sitting at about 20 reads)
So choose your book wisely! Find a book that holds your heart, that ticks off all the boxes of your criteria and then...tear it apart.
WAIT. STOP. DON'T ACTUALLY TEAR IT APART YOU HEATHEN.
What I mean is find each of its parts and lovingly note them, both as individual parts and how they work together to create the whole. It's like if you want to understand how a clock works, you take the clock apart and study how the gears and cogs operate on their own, but also how they move together to make the clock tick.
So, here's what I did. I made a chart in google docs (yes, if you're truly a chaotic demon you could do all this in excel) and went chapter by chapter. I started with the basics:
Number of Pages
Location (If a chapter started in x place and ended in another, I made note of that)
Then once I had that info, I dug deeper and added:
Purpose of the chapter (backstory? Set up? Travel? Character Arc?)
What was introduced (this is really only for early chapters & only used in later data if something significant was introduced relevant to the plot)
If possible, the actual time line (aka, what day was it? Day 1? Day 2? were days skipped? This was more for later in the book)
For the end of the book, I tried to do "time" as well because although I subconsciously know that books slow down at the end in the sense of time passage, I wasn't quite making that connection in my writing and I wasn't lingering enough in my ending to make it satisfying.
Once I've assembled all that data (I see you science nerds!) then I could look at how much time was spent on what and how that affected the overall feel of the book. If this is sounding like a reverse outline, it absolutely is a very specific version of a reverse outline.
A few interesting observations:
The first 100 pages of ADSoM are set up and as for the inciting incident, I think you could argue for different points (either when Rhy is given the necklace OR when Kell is given the black stone because both of those events have a significant effect on the story and change the original objective. In hindsight, the moment Rhy gets the necklace makes sense, but in the moment you're just like, oh, he got a necklace, whatever. Kell getting the black stone, however, is an immediate tip off to the reader that Kell's normal is about to change for the worse and he's made a decision that will forever alter his life. I can't say which is *actually* the inciting incident (and maybe neither! This is why I don't do well on multiple choice quizzes because I'm like, LOOK. I CAN RATIONALLY SUPPORT LIKE ALL THESE ANSWERS)
The end of the book, approximately 100 pages, covers the least amount of time. A mere few hours. The pace of the story is ramping up, but the telling of the story slows to a crawl--its a fantastic bit of crafting because she's showing us all the gritty detail and hitting delicious emotional beats and shattering our very souls by using this contrast.
So, how did this help me?
Once I could see the breakdown of how the parts made up the whole, I mimicked the process with my MS, making a table, assessing each and every chapter. And I saw a lot of gaps, a lot of places where things just didn't line up or have enough relevance. I was able to go in and restructure the bones of my MS and write something that at the very least hit plot beats. Which is important! That MS was, and still is, lacking many things, but it had a strong frame. My next MS had an even stronger frame by the time it was ready to query and it's something I continue to tease out earlier and earlier in each subsequent manuscript.
So now, once I finish a project, I create a quick chart that sketches out the chapters, the days, the POV shifts, and eventually, the acts (I'm a 4 Act Structure Stan). I really love having a visual of what's happening where and how much page space I'm devoting to various events in the story. This is not your typical reverse outline that focuses on plot and character dynamics. That's a whole 'nother topic. This is just a quick check to see where and what my pages are being allotted for.
So in my example for Tarnished Hearts, you can see the contrast of how many pages I allot to each day and how that compares to the chapters and space allotted to what happens at the end. I devote 17 chapters to the climax and resolution, whereas the rest of the moments are in the 4-6 chapter range. This is not the end all be all, but I find it a really useful visual as a self-check on my writing.
The overall takeaway here, is to not only read widely, but to find the books that really speak to you and to analyze them in everyway possible. The more you read, the more you'll find excellent examples of how to do all sorts of craft stuff. The Winners Curse or The Light Between Worlds are fantastic studies in quiet plots that maintain tension and rivet the reader. Daughter of Smoke & Bone is one of my major go-tos when I'm revising both because of the solid craft and the lyrical prose. I have the audio versions and listen to them when I'm revising. (not WHEN I'm like sitting at my keyboard revising, but like at the same general time) I have tabbed and annotated copies of books by Kristin Cashore, Rosiee Thor, Tara Sim, and countless others.
This is not a fast process, but one I highly recommend whether you're just starting out and working on your first or second MS, or if you've written a dozen or two. Its going to take hours to take apart a book, to deconstruct it and find all its parts and how they move and work with each other. But the payoff is worth it. I recommend picking a book and then committing to thoroughly analyzing a chapter or two a day. Don't sit in your favorite chair. Sit at a desk. Make your past Language Arts teacher proud with how deeply and insightfully you're going to analyze that text. The best part about this is that you'll have something just for you that emphasizes the things that YOU like in a novel. So even though this a craft-based exercise, it pulls in the the heart and the soul of your writing and can help you identify the missing elements in your writing.
In the end, the goal is to figure out what works best for you and why. This was something that really worked for me. I hope it inspires you to explore more about your creative process!
Good luck and happy writing folx!