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Changing Horses Mid-Stream (or How to Not Panic Over a Mid-Book Structure Revision)

Photo by Rick Grybos, Flickr CC

Our guest today is Lauren K. Denton [1]. Born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, Lauren now lives with her husband and two young daughters in Homewood, just outside Birmingham. In addition to her fiction, she writes a monthly newspaper column about life, faith, and how funny (and hard) it is to be a parent. On any given day, she’d rather be at the beach with her family and a stack of books. Her first novel The Hideaway [2] comes out next month and in 2018: Hurricane Season, also from HarperCollins/Thomas Nelson.

It’s scary to be in the middle (or worse—near the end) of your book and realize you need to make a huge change. I wrote this to commiserate with other authors who’ve done this sort of thing as well as to encourage authors who are up against this kind of major change.

Find Lauren on her blog [3], on Facebook [4], on Twitter [5], and Instagram [6].

Changing Horses Mid-Stream (or How to Not Panic Over a Mid-Book Structure Revision)

In my novel The Hideaway, one of the main protagonists is dead. (This is not a spoiler.) As I wrote the first draft, I questioned how to make this character, Mags, feel real and true. My first solution was to employ the use of a journal. The second main character, Sara, would find her grandmother Mags’s journal and through it, Sara (and the reader) would find out all about Mags’s life.

In my first draft, I scattered the journal entries throughout the book, alternating between Mags’s journal and Sara in present-day. But it didn’t feel plausible. I began to think that if Sara had found her grandmother’s journal telling all sorts of crazy things Sara never knew, she’d likely sit and read the whole thing cover to cover without stopping. At least that’s what I’d do. So I tried it again, this time inserting the entire journal into the book in one chunk. Now, the story went from one section—Act I, if you will—in Sara’s POV, to Act II of Mags’s story, then back to Sara for Act III.

As I sat with this structure and read it through a couple times, dread began to claw its way into my heart. The more I reflected, the more the entire journal felt like a crutch. I’d needed a way to tell Mags’s story and I’d gone with the easiest, most common path. Many novels use journals to great success, but for this story and this character, it felt like the easy way out. Her story came through a little in the journal entries, but I knew if the reader was getting a taste of Mags’s voice in the journal, it would be even stronger if Mags was her own character with her own POV, not just a voice from the past.

So, with shaking hands, I began what I dubbed “The Dual Timeline Challenge.” For a very short amount of time, I thought I might be able to just separate what I had of Mags’s story into chapters and intersperse them through Sara’s chapters. Oh, but that would have been way too easy—and it wouldn’t have given Mags the room she needed to develop and grow. Instead, I took the 25K or so words of her story and reworked them entirely. I expanded moments, deepened relationships, and stretched out interactions. I let readers see and hear Mags, feel her joy and annoyance and sadness, in a way they couldn’t in the static journal. This all sounds great, but truthfully it was excruciating. It felt like I was ripping apart what I’d worked so hard on for almost a year. But something told me it was working, so I continued the process.

Through changing the structure of the novel, it went from 68K to 98K—about 10K too long for a first-time author trying to land an agent. So, in the next round of edits, I worked on tightening. Cutting out excess words. Saying in five words what I’d said in fifteen. I tend to be long-winded, a trait not appreciated by most readers (or husbands, or kids, but I digress), so this was an important part of my editing process. Finally, somewhere around the 85K range, I began I feel like the story was finished. That I’d presented these two separate but connected women as well and as completely as I could.

Through this process of dismantling the book and piecing it back together, I learned that it’s hard to let go of the original vision of a story. If you’re anything like me, the initial idea presents itself to you and you see it sort of hovering in the air in front of you, all perfect and sparkling, and you take off boldly toward it using your best tunnel vision. It’s scary to stray from that original plot, those characters, or the structure as it first appeared when you brainstormed or outlined the book. But just as in life, our first ideas aren’t always our best. With time and a little reflection, sometimes our second, third, or heck, maybe our ninth idea is better—more developed, more nuanced, full of deeper emotions and understandable motivations.

The beginning is so exciting—all that promise, all those hopes. We set out with confidence and boldness, going in the direction we’ve mapped out and taking our characters with us. But friends, if along the way you begin to get the gnawing feeling that something isn’t quite right—that maybe you forked when you should have continued straight or the opposite—you stayed doggedly on the main road instead of taking that intriguing and previously undiscovered side street—don’t panic. Take a breather. Maybe even shut the computer for a day or two, but then come back confidently. Remapping or restructuring your story may feel like you’re derailing it, but you’re not. The worst that can happen is you try the new path, it doesn’t work, and you go back to the original. The best that can happen is that this side-road or new territory is just the push you need to hone your initial vision into something deeper and more satisfying than you thought possible when you first set out.

Have you ever realized during the course of writing a novel that you needed a major revision? How did you handle it? Did you wait until you finished the draft or did you take steps to make the change right then? I’d also love to hear from anyone who made the revision but then realized your initial idea had actually been best so you returned to it.