Working With What is Almost on the Page
We talk about Sarah’s book as a combination of the words on the page; what is already there, and the ‘idea’ of the book; the intentions for the book; the ‘ideal’ book that doesn’t quite exist on the page yet.
I help her get clarity about the trajectory towards that ‘ideal’ book. Then Sarah revises so that it is realised more fully on the page. We’re not exactly assessing what is on the page, but what is there in embryo, what is almost there on the page. With every draft, the trajectory gets more clear, more precise. We’re going to England. We’re going to the Cotswolds. We’re going to Bourton-on-the-Water. We’ve overshot the turn. We’re going to the deli. We’re buying a brownie.
“Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery.”
Finding the Ideal Reader, Identifying the Genre (and Accidentally Writing a Middle-Grade Thriller)
We’ve been working on the ideal reader for the book, which has been a bit tricky since we both agreed the ideal reader is aged about eleven or twelve -right at the high end of middle-grade. Older kids and adults might enjoy it too, but, like Watership Down, it would be primarily considered a children’s book. Similarly, it has dark elements and ‘intense’ themes that a less mature audience would probably not enjoy. This has required some careful thought as Sarah revises. In our latest session, which I’ll describe in a minute, you’ll see what I mean.
After the first read through, we also discussed the genre. I said to Sarah that the opening scenes and premise of the book were compelling, and felt like a thriller. Would this be something she’d be interested in developing in the next draft?
Sarah saw what I meant, even though this was a bit of a surprise because it was a children’s book. The book took on a whole new light when seen in this way, and I could see she was excited about rewriting the villain with that in mind. I helped her to think about the obligatory scenes of the thriller, as described by Shawn Coyne, author of the Story Grid. We bashed some ideas around about how her book could fulfil a reader’s expectations of the genre, without being predictable. Then it was over to Sarah to redraft.
Shaping the Book into Acts and Mapping Character Arcs
Once the new draft was in place, and we knew we had the story laid in, we paid attention to the book as a whole as well as the various character arcs. We used story theories such as The Hero’s Journey and identified the different ‘Acts’ of the book; where the pace should be ramped up towards an ending payoff, where we could afford to linger over introducing allies and mentors. We paid particular attention to the main protagonist, Rowan. We look at his character arc, working out the big shifts in his attitude. We changed one character from male to female as we realised there was a missed opportunity for a feisty female character to take the stage.
We’ve deliberately had a break from the book so that we can both come to it with fresh eyes.
Both of us came away from this latest reread with a sense that certain aspects of the book were striking the wrong note; a slightly ‘babyish’ note, as Sarah put it. We pinpointed exactly what elements were doing that, and marked them for revision.
The changes Sarah is going to make to the tone of the book should be relatively simple, most of it is just things like names that sound too pretty. Nothing that could be a flower fairy. The lactivist in me was a bit sad that we needed to remove the references to Rowan and his sister having milk from their mother. We also came up with an alternative to the word ‘mother’. We were trying to remove anything that infantilised the main protagonists too noticeably.
What I find is that as the bigger issues are resolved, smaller issues like tone jump out at you to be addressed. I know when a scene needs more structural work because I find it impossible to line edit. I can’t focus on polishing up a sentence when the scene itself isn’t working yet.
While the first sequence of scenes only needed line-editing, I hit a point where I knew there was scene work to do. In the first act, Rowan is still relatively powerless, and he is trusting others to deal with the inciting incident (a terrifying predator stalking the clan). It is only at the end of the first act that he realises it’s up to him to save his family. We knew this was necessary from our previous work on the Hero’s Journey. Rowan is in denial. That is an integral part of the character arc. But since the reader is limited to Rowan’s point-of-view, Rowan needed a ‘stand-in’ problem to give narrative drive up to the culmination of act one.
We worked together on shaping the sequence of scenes where Rowan is in denial, making sure they had conflict and crisis. From the reread, I knew which scenes were not up to scratch, so we focused on re-conceiving them. We improved each scene’s moments of crisis and integrated them into a sequence about conflict with a particular character. This work also improved the culmination of the act.
On a bit of a roll, we continued this scene work into act two. By asking a specific set of questions of each scene, we could see that one particular scene had a necessary function in the story, but wasn’t very compelling, and was a bit too similar to the one immediately before it. We were able to work out a new way of writing the scene which had us both smiling at the brilliance of it. When you hit on a great solution, you know it.
Sarah came away from the session with a post-it note plan for revising those scenes, and we made some exciting discoveries along the way. When you work on making each scene compelling, it’s incredible how those ideas that make the hair stand up on the back of your arms seem to happen. The book comes to life before your eyes.
Sarah’s been sending me through the rewrites as she works on them and they’re great.
I love this job.
With thanks to Sarah for encouraging me to post this Behind the Scenes account of Creativity Coaching for Writers.