I started my novel, Unison, in February of 2011, and officially wrote the end in June of 2012. During this whole time period, I woke up with this story on my mind, and it was the last thing I thought about when I went to bed. For a person with my short attention span, this is a long period of time to spend on one project!
It’s true that no matter how many times we polish our manuscripts, there will always be room for improvement. This is what makes it so difficult to know when to let go.
While working on my first draft, I concentrate on getting the story down, and I clean up as I go along. In my second pass, I do more clean-up; removing redundancies, overused words and grammar mistakes. In the third pass, I begin to sculpt the manuscript into what it’s intended to be. This is when I start to see the story come to life. I can sometimes spend hours shaping one paragraph. This is also the stage when the self-doubts about my story show up. When sentences don’t line up, metaphors sound contrived, or the third act doesn’t seem exciting or fulfilling enough, I start to wonder if I have it in me to finish. I ignore these doubts because the discomfort over an unfinished work is a normal part of the process of creating art. It may sound simplistic, but it works for me, and it keeps me going.
My focus when sculpting a manuscipt:
1. Go with instinct
2. Make it sing
Go With Instinct
I don’t say this lightly, and I also go with instinct during the plotting and writing stage as well. I’m currently in the polishing stage of Jessie’s Song, and I’ve already had plenty of moments where I got tired and wondered if all this time and effort make any difference. This has been my most challenging story because it went through so many changes. It started out as a high-concept screenplay I’d written for a screenplay class. The main character was initially a hit man who later evolved into a police man in the third draft. My confusion came because I was taking a lot of advice from a screenwriting instructor, who is great at teaching the craft, but our personal styles were very different. This is why it’s essential, as a writer, to gain confidence in your abilities because if you rely on someone else to tell you how a story should go, you’ll be writing their story. I should state here most screenwriters must compromise their vision because there are others involved in the process. There’s a lot of team work involved, and unless you’re Woody Allen, you’re going to have to make adjustments to your work.
One of the reasons I started to write novels was because I didn’t want to compromise. I know where my story wants to go. Because I gave myself the opportunity to see my story to the end, changes made to my screenplay won’t bother me as much. I find it amusing how my ego kicks into play here, but I don’t view it negatively, in this regard. Our ego is the tool we use to experience the world. We can either use it to work for or against us. I may write a blog about this topic soon.
While I was busy rewriting all the drafts to Jessie’s Song, my spiritual path forced me to change direction, and I couldn’t write the screenplay I started out writing. There was too much violence along with an incest thread. That was a whole other issue I wasn’t comfortable with. However, I liked the inner-journey of the story, and I didn’t want to give up on it, but I did…for a while.
After I completed my first draft of Unison, I decided to turn Jessie’s Song into a novel. I changed the protagonist to a jazz musician and took out the incest backstory, replacing it with a childhood rivalry between two friends. This shift strengthened the theme in that the protagonist and the antagonist both were raised in a similar environment and yet turned out very differently. I found it fascinating to explore what makes one person deal with hardship in a productive way while another one gives up. This leads me to my next point.
How can we tell if we’re going against our instincts?
If something doesn’t feel right, that’s one sign that tells me I’m going against my instincts. Jessie’s Song went through so many changes because I didn’t listen to my writer’s instinct. Sometimes, the problem isn’t as obvious. When I first began editing, I ignored sentences that didn’t feel right, as long as they were grammatically correct. I started to notice that through each pass, these areas would continue to bother me…even though nothing was wrong with them! And then something hit me after I spent almost two hours on one paragraph. Words are like musical notes!
Make It Sing
Just like in poetry, from word to word and sentence to sentence, there’s a beat to the narrative and dialogue. I noticed if I put important words on the down beat, this solved a lot of problems with the flow of the text!
From [word] to [word] and [sentence] to [sentence], there’s a [beat] to the [narrative] and [dialogue].
In my example above, from, starts on the pick up, and the down beat lands on word. All the nouns are on the up beat. When I first picked up on this, I knew this would help cut down my editing time even further. It used to drive me crazy when I couldn’t figure out why a sentence didn’t work when there was seemingly nothing wrong with it. It was the rhythm that was off!. Even when I play it back using text-to-speech, it follows the exact same rhythm!
Tip for non-musicians: tap your hand on the table while listening to the problem sentence. Once you pick up the rhythm, note when you hand lands on the table…that’s the down beat. You may notice the focus words are weak. Try adding and taking away words until the right words are on the downbeat.
Aside of the usual search for the best active verbs and strengthening of metaphors and meaning, I look for unusual verbs and nouns to ensure I don’t overuse them. I’m reading a book now where the author used the word, waft, seven times in the book, and I’m only fifty percent through. There’s nothing wrong with how the author used the word, but it did pull me out of the story where I took the time to count how many times it was used. Sometimes ordinary verbs work better to keep the reader involved in the story. It’s definitely a balancing act!
In Unison, one of my beta readers got annoyed over how many times I used the words, dome dungeon. When I read it the second time, I already noticed I overused the words, but I hadn’t yet reached the stage of cutting out everything that didn’t feel right. After the comment was made I went in and did some drastic cutting, and it flowed much better.
In addition to wordsmithing, I look for connections that I can use to link events together in a meaningful way. In many books I read, this is the most neglected area aside of mystery novels that are loaded with connections. Personally, I find connections to be one of the most important parts of sculpting a story. It’s what makes it feel like the sum of its parts. In my paranormal thriller, Jessie’s Song, my protagonist, Markos Adams, plays guitar, and he has a strong aversion to Gibson guitars. It started off as a joke, but the reason behind his aversion was revealed to me yesterday. His displeasure for an instrument transformed a mediocre chapter ending into something extremely profound.
The little things in a story can also help make a reader connect with a character and add a level of sentimentality. A cup of Bengali spiced tea shared between Markos and his wife also took on a deeper meaning in my story. It’s within these little things that we can attach a bigger meaning.
Tip: look through various props, idiosyncrasies and character preferences in your manuscript and see if you can use them in a larger way. Sprinkle them in throughout the whole story.
Reaching The Finish Line
After my story is sculpted, I send my manuscript over to my beta readers, whom I ask to be as brutal and nit-picky as they can possibly be. With Unison, I went over the manuscript a fourth time because it has various timelines going on, eight in all! I wanted to ensure I didn’t mess any of them up, and sure enough I did. After I finished, I sent my manuscript to the editor, and when I got it back I did a fifth read-through, and this is when I realized my manuscript graduated into a novel. At this point, I wasn’t afraid to let anyone read it. That’s how I knew I was finished. The feeling of accomplishment was amazing because I didn’t compromise and stuck it out. I’m going to use Unison as a benchmark for all future books. It’s been an exciting, exhausting and fulfilling journey and one I want to travel as many times as I can in my lifetime.
Love and light,