Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Anal-Rententive Left-Brain Novel-Assessment Exercise

This exercise is guaranteed to help you assess the first (second, third, whatever) draft of your novel and set revision tasks for the next. It takes ages, but it's worth it. You'll be amazed what it reveals!

Go through your manuscript chapter by chapter. Type the first line of the chapter, use bullet points to summarize what happens in it, then type the last line of the chapter. Skip a line. Do the next chapter. Keep going...

Weirdly, keeping your left brain busy allows the renegade right brain to range all over the place, triggering useful ideas and observations once you get into the flow. So keep a notepad nearby. But don't get side-tracked for too long. Keep going.

When you get all the way to the end, consider what floated up to make a list of things you want to look at closely. For example: character, emotion, description, the balance of scene and narrative, dialogue, transitions.

Isolate one element, and go through your "outline," highlighting/marking each place it appears on the page. Work through everything on your list, using a different color or symbol for each element.

You might track a character through the book, highlighting every place that character is present, mentioned or even thought of. Insights and ideas often occur in the process, as they did when you went through the manuscript page by page. Jot them down, of course.

But the greatest insights will most likely come when you finish the highlighting, spread the pages on the floor, and literally see the path of the character through the novel. Are there whole chapters or sections where the character is not there at all? If so, is his absence appropriate or do you need to find ways to weave him more tightly into the novel? What might those ways be? Scene? Narrative? Flashback?

Perhaps it occurs to you, looking at one character, that it would be helpful to see his relationship with another character more clearly. In this case, highlight the second character with a different color. Where do both colors appear on the same page? What happens between the characters on those pages? How does the accumulation of moments define—or fail to define—the relationship?

You can highlight for anything. If you notice a lot of narrative passages, highlight for both narrative and scene to see if they are in good balance. If your novel moves back and forth in time, highlight each level of time with a different color to help you see if they are in the right balance. If it has multiple points of view, highlight each. Is each character given equal space? Should each be given equal space? Is each different point of view necessary?

Perhaps tension concerns you. Consider the various elements in the novel that contribute to the overall tension, and highlight for each one. For example, if one of the novel's tensions lies in a character's realization that his girlfriend wants to get married fear that his girlfriend is pregnant, highlight every place in the book where marriage or anything relating to it comes into play. What do your discoveries about this and other tensions in the novel suggest in terms of heightening the tension throughout?

Where are the tense moments in the novel? Where, exactly, does the story torque? Are there enough torques, are they paced effectively, do they work? What do they suggest in terms of heightening these elements throughout?

When you’ve finished highlighting, spread the pages on the floor end-on-end. Viewed this way, the outline looks rather like a tapestry, the various elements threading their way through it. Let your eye take in the effect. Do the colors seem in proper balance? Are there any chapters that are significantly shorter or longer than the rest?

Now consider the elements you highlighted, one by one. Use your eye, your analytical skill, your intuition, and all you know about the craft of fiction to create a list of specific observations, questions, and tasks to consider during revision.


This exercise is adapted from Novel Ideas: Contemporary Authors Share the Creative Process, by Barbara Shoup and Margaret-Love Denman. (University of Georgia Press)

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