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Me and My Excite-O-Meter: Having Fun With Structural Revision

Words Flow by katie wheeler, Flickr CC
Words Flow by katie wheeler, Flickr CC

Please welcome back guest Gaëtane Burkolter: born in Africa, she spent her early childhood in Switzerland, grew up in Australia and recently completed a four year stint in Italy. Gaëtane has a Bachelor of Arts (Communications) from the University of Technology, Sydney, and almost twenty years of experience in government communications and public relations. Becoming a parent relatively late in life opened the floodgates to long-suppressed creativity, and she is now a multi-passionate artist pursuing writing, photography, and painting. As an introvert and low-techer, she is undecided about whether she has what it takes to make it in the rough and tumble of the publishing world, but has “sneakily completed” the first draft of a sci-fi novel anyway.

Read more of Gaëtane’s musings on how to manage anxiety and other messy feelings for creative types on FaceBook, with her group First Aid for Writers [1], catch her on Instagram @cajetanedesign [2], and connect with her through comments to this post—but please note she will be responding from her home in Australia, and because of the time difference from the U.S., there may be a delay in her replies.

Me and My Excite-O-Meter: Having Fun With Structural Revision

I hit a rough patch a few weeks back, heading into deep revision of my first fiction manuscript. I didn’t know where to start. Overwhelm set in and then I panicked. What do I know about fixing up a dirty first draft? Where am I going to get the energy to trawl through that sucker? How could I possibly drag myself up off the floor to face my mistakes after the triumph of crashing through to ‘The End’?

And the most horrible, awful thing of all? The reams of advice out there. So many guidelines, so many excellent insights, so many guaranteed formulas for success. Terrifying.

I knew I needed to assess the overall structure of my novel. I also knew there was a veritable canon of texts I could draw on.

But.

I was scared to go there. I mean, some days I call this manuscript my crash test dummy. How could I hope to align that mess with all those fabulous formulas? Unfortunately, as a newbie novelist, anxiety often gets in the way, not just of my best work, but of any work at all.

After faffing about for several long days (okay, you caught me – it was weeks) I decided I needed to lighten up. I exhort my kids all the time to just have fun with school projects, after all. If I couldn’t face using formal techniques to assess my novel for revision, then it was time to get down to serious play. Even Einstein [3] believed that ‘associative play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought’ and I’m not one to argue with geniuses. Genii? Moving on.

People, I invented an Excite-o-Meter.

Oh yeah. You know you wanna know more.

I am a visual artist, as well as a writer, so for me play almost always involves images. And, I needed a way to make the daunting, sometimes technical language of classic methods more accessible to me. So I made a picture of my novel. (See Excite-O-Meter below!)

Here’s how I did it.

Step One:
I created a chapter outline. I scanned each chapter, most of which are roughly equivalent to a scene, and wrote a one or two point summary of what was going on, and/or the purpose e.g., “introduces MC” or “reveals first part of mystery.” I scribbled it all down in shorthand, without stopping to colour in the title page [4]. I didn’t need fancy, I needed it done, and by only putting down the bare essence I got it done fast–before the fear could sink its teeth in.

Step Two:
I took out some A3 art paper and some pencils and started plotting. Not the novel – a big graph on an XY axis. On the vertical axis, I put a scale of 0 to 100. On the horizontal axis, I put all the chapters, with page numbers, from 1 to The End.

Step Three:
For each chapter, referring back to my outline, I plotted the intensity level, giving it a rating between 0 and 100. I used my own heart rate as a guide. No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. Boom! Thank you, Mr Frost.

Step Four:
I marked the key structural points I knew of, in this case the ‘three act’ story arc and the mirror moment [5], that pause at the midpoint of the story where the character is forced to face herself, as defined by James Scott Bell [6]. I’m guessing you could adapt this graph to suit other formulas too.

And, here was the result:

Excite_O_Meter

You seeing what I’m seeing? Yep, my mapping of the story’s high and low points looks exactly like my cardiogram would if someone were to offer me a contract for publication.

Besides that, the visual made it clear whether Very Important Structural Milestones were there or not. Better to know either way, right? In this instance it appears they are. Conveniently (suspiciously so?) it all seemed to work out okay. Of course, bias may play a part in my assessment of intensity levels, but this I can check with crit partners.

The best part? Took me about an hour.

The Excite-o-Meter was only ever intended as a rough guide. It was a game I was playing with myself to break down the fear, to dismantle the mental barrier that told me “this is above your pay grade.” If the results had looked like a mess of spaghetti thrown against the wall by a toddler instead of something story-like I would have gritted my teeth and–eventually–applied a more detailed tool, but for now this is enough to go on with. The relief was so great I immediately didn’t write a thing for three days. But I suspect I might have taken three months to get started on revisions without this encouraging feedback, so I’ll take it.

My ramshackle, hand-scribbled Excite-o-Meter is hardly a thing of beauty, but it was fun and easy to use (read: NO PRESSURE). Most importantly for me, by putting aside rules for a moment and playing with the joy of a child, my creativity began to flow again. Having fun with your writing is one of the best reasons to do it in the first place, right? I’d love for you to try the Excite-O-Meter too, but the key is to find an approach that works for you. If you’re an audial or kinetic learner, for example, you might like to listen to how-to podcasts, or workshop your manuscript like a play with some friends. Less fear, more fun.

What has been your most valuable experience of play in your work? Have you broken the rules to have fun with revision? What’s your most useful method for breaking down mental barriers?

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