When, years ago, I discovered Martha Alderson, aka "The Plot Whisperer," I found answers. This is especially true since I am what she calls a "seat of the pants" writer. I've purchased her books and DVDs and used them over and over. And check out her blog - she has fantastic tips there, and you can sign up for her newsletter.
I was truly delighted when Martha contacted me to host her on the eve of the launch of her latest book on this confounding subject: THE PLOT WHISPERER: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master (Adams Media, a division of F+W Media; October 18, 2011). Martha agreed to write a guest post on the revision process (another constant struggle, and trust me, I'm going to take the advice she gives below), and I'm thrilled to bring it to you.
Congratulations. You have written the first draft of your story. Before you embark on your first major rewrite, first take time to re-“vision” the overall project.
The first draft of a writing project is the generative phase. Rather than become dismayed when you are faced with a manuscript full of holes and missteps, even confusion and chaos, accept that this is part of the process.
Your first draft is a fragile thread of a dream. You know what you want to convey—well, maybe. Few writers adequately communicate a complete vision in the first draft of a story, especially when writing by the seat of your pants.
Without reading your story from beginning to end, for now simply create a list of scenes or chapters. Then, make a new plot planner by locating and filling in the four energetic markers—the end of the beginning, the halfway point, the crisis, and the climax. This allows you to analyze your story from a plot and structural level without becoming seduced by the actual words themselves.
1. Assign different colored sticky notes for the protagonist and one or two major characters. Give all the other characters the same color. Link the protagonist’s emotional chronology from scene to scene.
2. Sticky notes of one color follow the energetic intensity in the dramatic action in every scene, above or below the line. Place scenes that hold tension above the line. Put scenes with no conflict below the line.
3. Now, stand back from the plot planner and evaluate how many scenes fall above and below the line, and where. Consider how the rising and falling energy influences the pace of the story.
4. Next, compare the beginning and the end of your story. How do they tie together? Do both the dramatic action plot and character emotional development plot coalesce at the end for more punch and impact? Does the beginning foreshadow this clash?
5. Draw a line connecting the scenes that are linked by cause and effect. To determine the coherence of the overall story and the linkage between scenes, use your plot planners as a cause-and effect vision board.
Once you have let your story rest for at least a few days, read your manuscript all the way through one time as a reader. Keep the next draft in the back of your mind. You may find you have completely zoned out about the character’s emotions in your zeal to create lots of zip and zing in the dramatic action, or in your passion to create a binding historical and/or political timeline. Notice when the dramatic action plot is physical and concrete.
Feel when the character emotional plot is emotional, sensuous, and human. Read for the sequence of the dramatic action and where, in the next draft, you’ll want to explore and discover the character’s emotional development in greater depth.
If, when you reread your manuscript, you find that you have neglected the dramatic action plot, create concrete goals in the next draft that incite the protagonist to action.
Investigate how the loss, betrayal, hurt, or abandonment in the protagonist’s backstory affects her as she moves from and reacts to one action scene after another. Watch for references and hints of themes, and when and how thematic elements of the plot are most accessible.
In the next read-through, make notes on the rough draft hard copy of scenes that need to be cleaned up, expanded, and deepened in their treatment of the characters, action, and theme.
You may find the first draft is wobbly and scenes ramble. The complete vision of your story was a bit hazy the first time through. The action was tangled. The protagonist comes off as bewildering. You have glossed over an energetic marker or two. Don’t panic—this is good. As a matter of fact, the worse the first draft, the better. Trying for perfection before you know what you are trying to convey commonly leads to procrastination.
As you did with the first draft, write this new draft as quickly as possible all the way to the end. Work out the really big issues first and forget about the details for now.
When you finish the next draft(s) and you are certain that the core dramatic action plot and character emotional development plot work and the “vision” of your story is clear, use the next rewrite to begin grafting on details.
Martha Alderson has worked with hundreds of writers in sold-out plot workshops, retreats, and plot consultations for more than fifteen years. Her clients include bestselling authors, New York editors, and Hollywood movie directors. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA. Follow her blog, workshops, vlog, or follow her on twitter and facebook.