Friday, April 8, 2011

Holding a novel in your head

One of my biggest struggles as a writer is my inability to reflect on my entire novel at once.

I want a big picture view, so I can decide what genre to classify it as, or how best to pitch it. I want to know what parts are slow, what parts are too fast, and whether my main character is likable.

Instead, I find the novel in my mind is like a jpg that's too big for my computer screen, so I need to scroll sideways and up and down to see the whole picture, mentally switching from character to character, chapter to chapter.

Maybe I should write short stories! Does anyone else have this problem?

Perhaps it's because I'm a visual thinker; I use mind maps, plot charts, images of my characters. So I really wish I could draw a picture of my novel. Then, if I stared at it really closely, I could see all the characters, all the plot points, how everything flows together, the resolution at the end. But there's just no piece of paper big enough.

However, over time I have found some ways of getting close to what I want:

My tutor, author Julia Green, requires all of her students to write a page-long synopsis of their books. Describing an entire novel's plot and characters in such a brief format enables a writer to see where the book's logic might fall apart or questions go unanswered.

I can hold sections of a novel in my brain, so I've taken to dividing my novels into different chunks based on characters' journeys and plot points. Then, when I hold and analyze each section in my head, I can better understand how the whole might work.

Darcy Pattison, in her book Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise advocates the Shrunken Manuscript. She has more details on her website, but basically she recommends literally shrinking your manuscript (single space, no chapter breaks, a tiny font) so you can print it and visually consider the entire thing at once (Do all the weak scenes fall in a row? Are any parts description heavy? Unusually long? Equal time for characters?).

How do you analyze your novel as a whole?


  1. A fascinating topic, Anne! It's always interesting to "see" another writer's process.

    I've read about authors that make a collage for each book, with pictures from magazines for the characters, places, even clothes in the book as a visual tool. I'm visual in the sense that I can "see" my story playing out in my mind, as if I'm watching a movie, so then I'm just focused on the best way to recreate what I'm seeing for the reader using words on the page.

    As for my method of getting the overview, that's another thing I love about Scrivener. Not only can I look at the synopsis, I can color code it to track subplots or scenes featuring various characters to assess the balance and flow of the plot.

  2. I find it's very helpful to have a conversation with someone completely new to the book answering the question 'what's your book about?' Some people might call it the elevator pitch, but it's not that really, it's trying to pin down the basic premise plus the themes. I also find this a helpful way of working out what the title should be.

  3. For my WIP, I wrote a synopsis first. That really helped. Then I expanded on the synopsis and wrote chapters summaries. It's made writing the first draft so much easier because I have the chapter summaries open on my screen at the same time. It's easy to flip back and forth between chapters summaries and even insert notes/reminders in future chapter summaries so I don't forget to include something I mentioned earlier in the story.

  4. Elisabeth: Interesting point; I've heard about the character collage too. I wonder if I could make an effective BOOK collage?

    You color code your synopsis, then track those different elements in Scrivener? That's really bordering on genius! I might have to borrow that idea!

    Keren: Talking through the story is really helpful for me, too, just seeing how it works in others' heads, but also what parts are important to me in the telling. That's a great point. The problem, of course, is finding enough patient listeners!

  5. Kelly: Ah, a plotter. I'm so jealous. =) But actually, I've started doing this, too! I outline my book after it's already written, but it's been tremendously helpful to have a shorthand way to see what happens in each chapter, and then to add notes, consider flow, etc. I need to be more persistent with it, though, because I keep changing the book and not the outline! Really helpful tip, thank you.

  6. My way wasn't very high-tech, but it really helped seeing the big picture: I wrote brief chapter summaries on post-its and laid them out on my desk (a wall might be even better) then highlighted different POVs (I have two) and different plot threads in different colours, so I could check that it was paced properly.

  7. I've always wanted to try the Shrunken Manuscript technique.

    I think the draft synopsis helps me think of a novel as a whole. But I'm a totally scene chick so it is hard for me to get to that big picture level. I like to be in the weeds.

  8. GF: I love post it notes, and note cards. Something about them being physical (rather than digital) and mobile. Glad it worked so well for you! It takes so much time to get that set up, but I think that might be something that would work well for me, too.

    Karen: I think the Shrunken Manuscript would work well for me, too, but I've never gotten around to doing it. Even with a shrunken ms, it's still a lot of paper. But I know I'm just being lazy, I'm sure it would be a really good visual.

    Yes, I definitely think in scenes, too! I love the mental picture of us wading around the weeds! Which is a strength, too!

  9. I haven't done it, but several of my friends have loaded their manuscript into an e-format and read it on their Kindle. They say it gives them a way to view the entire manuscript.

    I love paper too much, and need to hold my mock-up, but it does sound like a simpler process, doesn't it?

  10. Hmmm... interesting, Bridgette! Yes, I'm a much better editor on paper, but I can see how reading it in a different format would help you notice different things. I have read other people's manuscripts on my ipod touch (not quite an ereader) and it is such an efficient way to do it. Thanks for the suggestion!

  11. GAAAK! (technical term). I detest synopsis writing. I've gotten one down to three pages, and one sentence and one paragraph, but one page?

    I repeat, "GAAAK!"

    God bless agents who don't require them.

  12. Anne: I will say writing a synopsis for yourself is much less stressful than writing a novel for a publisher or agent. But yes... GAAAK indeed! It's not really fun. =)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.