The Dusty Novel

by Tosh McIntosh

(Originally published 6/26/12)

If you’re like most writers, you probably have one or more novels sitting on a literal or virtual shelf gathering dust. They may be calling to you, begging for attention, but you’ve been so preoccupied with a current project that it’s like wearing earplugs or a noise canceling headset. Or maybe real life has shoved your writing aside. But for whatever reason, you’ve been neglecting them. Now the time has come to blow off the dust and get back to work.

How you begin depends on your basic approach to writing and whether the novel is a completed or partial draft.

If it’s a partial, and you’re a writer who creates stories without an outline of any kind, you’ll probably do what you did to start with. Sit down and let ‘er flow from the blinking insertion point into blank space. If the novel is a completed draft, you’ll put on your editing hat and choose to concentrate on content/developmental issues or line/copy editing based where you think the novel is in the journey toward prime time.

But if you’re a writer who prefers to work with some form of story map in place, the task with either a partial or a completed draft is quite different, especially since you have many more options other than simply to begin writing new content or editing the old. You’re going to think in advance about how best to proceed, and the process will probably include a detailed evaluation of your existing story strategy and scene selection, handling of point-of-view, character arcs for the protagonist, opponent, and major supporting characters, just to name a few.

At the risk of offering an opinion with no way to prove it other than with personal experience, I submit that most of us make a classic mistake by our failure to recognize what emergency-room doctors and nurses know full well. It’s called triage, and the medical analogy is absolutely apropos of revising a novel.

I may be speaking only for myself (but I doubt it) when I say that my first inclination is to line/copy edit simultaneously with evaluating content and story development. This may not be a fatal flaw, but it certainly hinders the revision process. Here are the proper steps:

  1. Stop the bleeding. Translation: Evaluate the story from a structural perspective to determine if it works. This is the big picture, not the tiny thumbnail about where the commas are.
  2. Perform major surgery. Translation: Fix the structural problems. Excise all the text that fails to support a major structural element of fiction and stitch the patient back together.
  3. Perform cosmetic surgery. Translation: Make the happy-for-glad substitutions and tighten the prose by distilling the text into a richer broth. (Please pardon me for the mixed metaphor, especially two whose combination is somewhat distasteful . . . and there I go again!)

And just like in the emergency room, failure to accomplish these tasks in order may kill the patient.

With two short non-fiction books recently published, and my commitment to have the second Novel in the Pilot Error series on the Austin Indie Writers’ table at the Texas Book Festival in October, the time has come for me to wipe the dust off Red Line.

I believe in the value of having a structural concept for the story in place before writing the first sentence. Red Line is currently an incomplete first draft of about 63,000 words, two-thirds of its planned length, and the dust layer represents a year of shelf time. That means I am faced with a decision about how to proceed, and my choices are complicated by a plotting dilemma.

We all know how time flies when we’re having fun, so I’d best get to work.

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