Beyond the Midnight Mountain re-outlining
Simi draft 3
During the early drafts of Beyond the Mountain, I was pretty obsessed. Every bit of interesting conversation I overheard, every new style of architecture I learned about, every possible plot complication I thought of, I wanted to cram into Beyond the Mountain. I didn't want to waste an opportunity to add something original or fascinating to my story. I was in love with my story. With the world, with the main character Ket, with all the other characters. I wanted her love interest to be my boyfriend. World building was my biggest trap. I wanted to make my world rich and alive, and to do that it needed to be big and varied, right? That's a big reason the first draft was 40,000 words too long.
A second reason was I didn't have the story pinned down. It was in my head for a couple years, but I didn't think I'd ever write it down, so it changed all the time. It was originally based on some fantasy version of Medieval England. Every few months the main plot events morphed. Ket was originally a princess, and went through about 5 names that never quite satisfied me.
Another big reason was that I hadn't yet studied the writing craft in depth. I thought you couldn't just jump from one event to the next without some kind of transition in between, and I also thought you had to put an awful lot of action beats into dialogue, because that's what books do. How else will the reader picture the characters interacting? It turned out I was remembering books wrong. A lot of the action beats I thought I remembered were actually what I imagined the characters doing as I read. Yes, I did read books while writing mine. But it's hard to read a new book and study it at the same time. It wasn't until I went back and read old favorites, that I realized how wrongly I'd been remembering them.
So I began to read lots of books about writing--books on storycraft, books on wordcraft, books on inspiration and living a writerly life. They've been immensely helpful. Reading novels and paying attention to the story elements and mechanics helps a lot. Reading my own bad writing helped way more than I expected. During the first draft of BTM, I toiled over every sentence. Even if nobody ever saw that draft, I hated to think that bad writing might exist in the world with my name on it. I couldn't figure out how to make myself write fast, but I figured if I wrote slowly and did it well, I'd have less to revise later.
Fast forward a couple years. Still revising. That first draft took me about 8 months. The next 4 drafts took about 2 years. I hope to publish it this year, but it still needs at least one more good revision.
So then, Simi. Unlike BTM, I outlined Simi. I wrote down the seed of the idea, but not much came of it for 4 months. Then I found a fabulous book on outlining (Planning Your Novel by Janice Hardy). I outlined for 6 weeks, and wrote the first draft in 30 days. Right now I'm 3/4 through the second draft.
I'm able to write faster now. I can draft without caring that there's bad writing with my name on it. To be fair, it's not nearly as bad as BTM's first draft. But it could be, and I wouldn't worry that someone might see it. And if they did, and I wouldn't care that much. Now that I know I can do better, I can acknowledge my first draft is sloppy, relax, and move forward. If I have a great idea, I don’t try to squeeze it into my WIP, I just write it down for some future book.
I can see so many ways I’ve grown as a writer in the past 3.5 years. Here are the stages I’ve gone through:
As you can see, some things swing back and forth. Others have simply changed. I alternate between thinking I'm awesome and thinking my words and stories are garbage. Sometimes I feel both ways in the same week or the same day. But I'm getting better at the writing process. I have a better grip on story structure, pacing, and making personalities clash. Varying sentence structure and skipping unnecessary actions come more naturally now. I know how to fast draft so I don't get carried away with wordiness, or get bogged down researching details rather than getting the story on paper.
It reminds me of parents. I’m not one, but I’ve seen several first-time parents who wash the passy every time it falls on the floor, read parenting books, and run after their kid every time he toddles somewhere. By the second kid, they’ve outgrown washing passies, and every so often they’ll look up and ask if anyone happens to know where their kid went off to. They still swing between thinking they’re good parents and thinking they’re terrible parents, but this parenting thing is starting to fall into a routine.
There are still things I want to learn to do better. I would love to write a book with more characters, and I would love to write a series. Both require increasing the scale of the story in one or more ways (cast, geography, timeline, stakes, complications, etc.)--and that's what I have trouble with, coming up with enough story to fill the pages of even one book and keep a reader hooked.
I can't yet compare the revision processes of the two books, but I can already see that my second book has been faster and smoother than my first. I still love the world and characters of BTM more, because I've spent so long with them. I wrote BTM because I had a story to write. I wrote Simi because I had to write a story. But as I revise and research the world, Simi is coming more alive for me. And this second time around, I feel a little bit like I know what I'm doing.
Have you ever started a new project or hobby, and wanted to do everything at once? Running, sewing, horseback riding? Let me know in the comments below.
Beyond the Mountain has now been read and returned with feedback by 3 beta readers. One of them is related to me, and pretty easy to please as far as books go, so her comments were more encouraging. The other two betas’ comments were less encouraging.
Not that the readers were discouraging. But as I realized the problems my book has, I of course am very discouraged. There are large sections where little interesting happens. I can condense these parts, but it will throw the pacing off, not to mention making the novel much shorter. To counteract the condensing, I’ll need to add/expand other sections. That’s the part that has me staring at the screen doing nothing.
This week I’ve been trying to back up the beginning—which means writing a new scene. I know what I want to happen in this scene, yet words don’t come. In 6 days I managed 1,000 words. Yesterday I managed another 800 words, by purposefully making them garbage. For example:
“Just write something,” Yania said to the author, her voice echoing in the silence.
“I must congratulate that Talin warrior for winning a difficult fight,” said Tohoem, who apparently was also there.
It’s better than no words at all. I’ll have something to revise later rather than a blank screen. But I can’t make my brain switch back to first draft mode. I don’t know if it’s because working 3 years on this book makes me want it to be finished already, or if 5 drafts has made the current story too set in my head. I just know that once I have a whole manuscript, when I have to go add something, words don’t come.
And I’m going to have to add scenes, conflict, and who knows what else, throughout the whole thing. I’ve cried many times over this in the past 2 days. People advise to set the story aside for a while, but I haven’t worked on in 6 months. I’ve sent chapters to betas and looked at their feedback, and I’ve mentally brainstormed things to change/add, but I haven’t written anything or done any work on it until this week. I’d say 6 months counts as “a while.”
I’ve tried before to do an editorial map, listing each scene’s goal, motivation, conflict, and disaster. But for most of the scenes these items are blank, or repeats of the previous scene’s goal and conflict.
For a few months now, I’ve considered starting over with a new outline and rewriting the whole thing. Obviously this scares me even more than a mere revision. But it seems better to start over and do it right than to keep tweaking something that’s so lacking.
I haven’t found much online about rewriting from scratch. Most of the search results use “rewrite” to mean “revise”. So I don’t know what I’ll do. I know the last 3 years haven’t been a waste, because I’ve learned a lot about myself and about writing that’s helped me write my second book. But still, I can’t help feeling like starting over means all the work I’ve done on Beyond the Mountain was for nothing.
In my last post (3 days ago) I said BTM was getting closer to publishable-ness. Well fast forward to now, and it seems it will never be ready. The further I get, the more I realize its flaws. The more I write the more I wonder if I’m cut out to be an author. Writing is hard. A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people, according to Thomas Mann. But why is it so hard for me to flesh something out? To create new scenes? Why does adding words to a manuscript freeze my brain? Why can I know what happens and still stare at a blank screen?
National Novel Writing Month is in November. The goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. I've never participated, but I did my own Novel Writing Month in September. I drafted my book from start to finish in 53,456 words in 30 days. I later went back through and added a few details and fleshed out skimpy scenes, and counted that as still the first draft, so in the end the draft was about 60,000. Decent for a first draft. My target for the book is about 80,000. (It has no title yet. The placeholder title is Simi.)
It helped that I outlined the book in August. I wouldn't succeed as a pantser. I wouldn't come up with anything decent. When I wrote Beyond the Mountain I knew the whole story beforehand, but didn't know what I was doing, and pantsed my way through it. The pantsed parts weren't so great. For Simi, I outlined as much as I could beforehand. I highly recommend Janice Hardy's Outlining Your Novel. She has you brainstorm a lot of aspects of your story, and the exercises have you write a lot down so you can see where you have gaps. (I also tried Libbie Hawker's Take Off Your Pants. It seemed okay for writers who already have a pretty good idea of their plot, but it doesn't take you through any brainstorming. I'll give it one more try on my next book.)
It also helped that I was on a time constraint. For Beyond the Mountain, I researched as I wrote, and it took me about 8 months to write the first draft. For Simi I wrote first, and now I need to do a bit of research to fact check and add setting details. I hope doing it this way won't take as long. Rather than researching everything and seeing what I can fit into the book, I'll be researching only the things I need to know.
Now comes revisions. There are a lot of books and websites dedicated to plot, structure, character arcs, writing fast, letting your first draft be sloppy, theme, and writing style. But I haven't seen many on revision. Revision for me usually means staring at the screen and knowing what my problem is, but not knowing how to fix it. And without a time constraint (why is there no NaNoRevMo?) it's easy to procastinate. Fortunately Simi had a pretty clean first draft, so that's a step forward already.
I'm getting closer to publishable-ness with Beyond the Mountain as well. I've had one round of beta readers, and I know where it needs work. Now to figure out what to do about that.