alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


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Ready to Move Forward with Your Novel? Start by Going Backward

Lost in a dark wood Photo by Lisbeth Salander, via Flickr, CC-BY-NC 2.0

Lost in a dark wood
Photo by Lisbeth Salander, via Flickr, CC-BY-NC 2.0

You know all those fairy tales about being lost in the forest? You start off feeling daring and intrepid and the next thing you know, the sun goes down and the path isn’t where you thought it was and there are scary noises in the trees and ah! what just grabbed my leg?

Revising a novel is kind of like that. You’ve got your main character, and she’s got a goal, and you’ve planned a couple of setbacks for her and maybe a little romantic interest off to one side and….whoa! where did that two-headed plesiosaur come from? I mean, it’s cute the way it flaps its fins and begs for dried squid chips, but your story is supposed to be set in 1950s Vienna. And since when did your heroine start tearing tissues into confetti and weeping at soap commercials? Your character sheet says she’s “strong and capable.”

As all readers of fairy tales know, there is one secret weapon against the fatal forest. The well-prepared adventurer intuits that the forest is not to be trusted and prepares accordingly:

Photo by Chris Campbell via Flickr

Breadcrumbs!
Photo by Chris Campbell via Flickr

When going into that dark wood of an early novel revision, reverse outlining is your trail of breadcrumbs. Plus, you get to play with colored paper and feel massively organized.

What is reverse outlining? For me, it meant going back over every scene I had written in the first draft and writing down the important parts of the scene on the front of the card. On the back of the card, I made notes to myself for the revision. What changes needed to be made? What was missing? (Usually transitions into the scene) What was excessive and needed to be trimmed? (pretty much everything to do with meandering around an unanchored setting) What was just plain wrong? (oops! Cousin Stella isn’t supposed to be pregnant anymore.)

Cards for the first two scenes in Act II (l, front; r, back)

Cards for the first two scenes in Act II(l, front; r, back)

When I finished my first draft I had a folder in Scrivener with about 20 new scenes (or scenelets) that weren’t in the original outline, that I had written spontaneously while thinking through the first draft. I didn’t have a place for them yet, but I knew they filled a hole in the story. The card process helped me find a place to slot in the new scenes.

Now that I’m about 40% of the way through the second draft, I cling desperately to these cards. The forest is dark and scary and haunted by plesiosaurs. But I have my trail of neon index cards shining through the poisonous smog, and I tiptoe carefully from one to the next, writing wrongs, adding settings, and erasing pregnancies, one card at a time.

My handy dandy sorting box. Just looking at its serene organization can break off a fit of muppet-armed hyperventilation.

My handy dandy sorting box. Just looking at its serene organization can break off a fit of muppet-armed hyperventilation.

The tabs on the left for P1, P2, & P3 divide the story arc into Acts (P= “Part”). Part 4 is lurking behind the cards standing on end on the right, which are homeless scenes that I’m pretty sure I know where they want to go. The blue tab on the right is my current location. When I finish a scene in the current draft, the scene card moves in front of that blue tab. I cannot tell you how good that feels.

Have you tried reverse outlining? Feel free to share what works for you. Tips on taming plesiosaurs also welcome.

Bonus reading: