One of the things writer Anne Lamott is famous for is her advice, “Give yourself permission to write a shitty first draft.” To me that’s a kind of liberation theology for writers, but that’s a subject for another time. Today I’m going to continue to pull back the curtain on my writing process, at least as it relates to getting all the scenes in order for the second draft of this book.
So: “Give yourself permission….” Done.
“Write a shitty first draft.” Done.
OK, maybe “shitty” is a relative term, but while my read-through of the first draft got a “not bad” rating, as I wrote last time there were problems with the timeline, that is, the sequence of events in the plot. Timeline is especially critical for this book for two reasons.
- One, it needs to end at a certain time of year in order to take advantage of certain weather phenomena in Dallas.
- One-a, there are other events in the book that take place outdoors. They needed to fall at times of the year when they could take place outdoors or something would have to change.
- Two, this book, like its predecessors The Eternity Plague and Chrysalis, has five–count ’em, five–interconnected story lines happening at once, so the sequencing of the events in each story line needs to be right.
Since I knew I had problems, and on top of that I had about 50 scenes that weren’t organized into chapters, I had two tasks that needed to happen pretty much in parallel: figure out the overall timeline and get those scenes into chapters. Then I could look for the scenes I already knew were out of order and identify where they should have gone.
Because I’m a “plotter”–that is, I work from an outline–building an updated outline of the story would take care of those tasks. I do this using Microsoft Excel. Yes, the spreadsheet program. I have a column for the chapter and scene number, a column for each major and key minor character, and a column for the timeline. With Excel, I can have as many columns as I want and not have to worry about trying to fit them all into one page, even in landscape format, which is what I’d have to do if I tried to use a Word table.
Since there are five major characters–Janet Hogan, the protagonist; Lisa Lange; Sarah Green-Dale; Reverend Will Baxter; and Lew Crandall–that’s where the spreadsheet started. Then I added the key minor characters associated with them, plus one for “Others.” To make them easier to see, I color coded the cells on the spreadsheet row with the characters’ names: pink for Janet and her crew, red for Lisa and her crew, etc.
Instead of one chapter/scene column, I put two in this time: one for where each scene fell in draft 1 and the other for where they needed to go in draft 2. Next, I added one column for how each scene related in time to the one before it, and one more for what calendar month and year that scene fell in.
Then, on the row for each scene, I wrote a brief description of what happened in the scene in the column or columns for the characters involved.
The end result: 18 columns by 142 rows! In other words, this, taped up on my guest bedroom wall:
Yikes. That’s three landscape-format pages wide by 10 pages tall! It’s so big, I had to split it into two 3-pages-wide by 5-pages-tall sets. This technique is NOT for everyone!
Before I printed this monster out, I did that sorting of which scene needed to go where. Here’s an example from the beginning of the novel.
Outlined in blue, you can see how I planned to bring three scenes from chapter 2 forward into chapter 1.
I also worked out the timing. Here’s the timeline for those same scenes.
But aren’t those August 26th scenes out of order? Well, by strict definition, yes, but hey, I’m a writer–I can finesse that! “Two weeks earlier…”
Great! Now I had a plan and could start editing.
But of course, no plan survives first contact with reality, and that’s what happened today. I was chugging along, working on what was supposed to be scenes 7 and 8 of chapter 1 when I discovered that they needed to go before the three scenes I’d pulled in from chapter 2, not after! D’oh! OK, that’s an easy fix.
These are some of the reasons why the first draft of a novel should NEVER be the final draft.
And you thought writing a novel was easy.