Years ago, I embarked on an ambitious quest: Make my 1920s clockwork-meets-Frankenstein novel ‘Automaton’ into something I’m not embarrassed to have people read. I planned to accomplish this via Holly Lisle’s “How to Revise Your Novel” (HtRYN) on-line, self-paced course, and started the manuscript’s transformation from sad lump of coal to shiny diamond. Sadly, it was a slow-motion disaster.
First, the book was fatally flawed—the MC was a passive kite, tugged to and fro by every ally and villain who entered the story. Stuff happened to him, but he never had any agency. I wrote one hundred and twenty thousand words of him bouncing from location to location, never making a decision of his own. The book is excruciatingly boring.
The second, third, fourth, and a few other lessons from HtRYN required a full read-through, most of them requiring that I take notes about people, objects, settings, plots & subplots… it was a Sisyphean undertaking. I was nearly crushed under the weight of it all.
By the time I had gone through the first fourteen or so lessons of HtRYN, I had produced more pages of notes on my novel than I had pages of my novel. One of the last lessons I finished directed me to create a “revision outline,” which was supposed to help me re-use my existing scenes, rewriting portions of them as needed. I was to color code these scenes on index cards, with each color representing how much “new” work I expected to do for each of these scenes. I ended up with eight “blue” scenes (I’d have to rewrite at least 75% of the scene to pull it into line with my desired revision), and over seventy red scenes. The red color meant I was writing entirely new material, with no previous work to base the scene on.
My revision outline was essentially a plan for an entirely new novel.
I haven’t touched the manuscript since about a week after my last blog post on the topic, so very long ago. The notes and marked-up manuscript just sit there, taunting me.
I’m tempted to burn it all.
With some time away from the manuscript, I’ve learned a couple of things. First and most importantly,I have to push character motivations and conflicts to the foreground of each scene. She must want something and be working toward it. People and events have to be preventing her from accomplishing those goals, most of the time at least. Secondly, I need to stop “pushing through” as they encorage you during National Novel Writing Month. I need to be excited about each scene at some point; if I’m not—if it’s a dud and I’m bored while writing it—then I need to figure out what’s wrong then and there.
Another thing I learned was that I need to plan a thorough outline, one that I’m excited to write, one that uses character motivations to push the story forward, and personality flaws to make them stumble. Without that detailed map (aka: an outline), I’m too focused on the logistics of getting characters from a to b. And that makes for some really flat story telling.
So you’re unlikely to see much more about Automaton in the future. Sorry if you were hoping that it would come to something (I know I was). I’m going to work on some character designs, write some flash fiction to see if I can bring those characters to life on the page. I’ll be seeking out advice and lessons on how characters create and drive plot, and I will avoid fleshing out any idea that doesn’t have a compelling personality at the center of it.
I’ve wallowed in that disaster of a manuscript for long enough; it’s time to apply what I’ve learned.
It’s time to start making better art.