Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Frankenstein Your Manuscript

The average word count of all books on Amazon is 64,531 words.

Think about that. Think for just a second, you writers, about how many words that is. (Interesting fact: that is exactly the number of words in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.)

Well, it's a lot. Maybe it doesn't seem that way because we throw huge quantities like this around all the time when we're talking about writing. In fact, it's probably what we would consider short for the average novel, but still in the range of a cozy mystery.

Still—if you can even write sixty four thousand, five hundred and thirty-one words? Please, do me a favor, and pat yourself on the back. That's a lot of freaking words. Good job.

But it's still only the beginning.

Someone announced on Twitter the other day that he'd finished the first draft of his manuscript. I'm, of course, that person who's like, "Congratulations! Also I hope you're ready to be with this manuscript for the next two years!" It's like signing a long apartment lease with a roommate you've never met, who may or may not be a serial killer. Sometimes we don't know when we sign up just how much work this novel will take to rewrite and revise later.

I mean, how unwieldy sixty four thousand, five hundred and thirty-one words are—no matter how much work it needs! When you've already slaved away over writing them the first time, and your critique partner has read them all, and now you've got a laundry list of slashing and burning and totally rewriting... THEN you have to carefully snip and cut and move each of those words (that you oh-so-carefully crafted and placed) all over! 

Where do you even start with that, with 64,531 words?

I find that question incredibly overwhelming. Sometimes after I finish writing a first draft, I don't even know what I've written. Picking it back up and reading it from start to finish feels like reading a book by my evil twin sister, whom I've also never met, and who I'm pretty sure wants to sabotage my career.

Note on Why I Use Outlines Sometimes

I've only recently gotten into outlining before writing. I had to do it with my last book, because it's a part of a series I'm co-authoring, and my collaborator needs to check over and give the nod of approval to an outline of each book before I roll up my sleeves and write it.

The side benefit of being forced into finally, truly outlining? Having that back-up plan I could call in gave me a lot of direction and guidance. 

When I finished writing a scene and thought, "What happens next?" That question was usually answered for me. A note in the outline gave me a seed and I could go whatever direction with it I wanted. Then, if I got stuck again, the outline would have more to save me.

Now, needing to revise other books, I was missing that kind of security. I mean, pick up 64,531 words and try to figure out how to take them apart, then how they go back together again to form a new, better whole—how much scarier is that than to start writing from scratch? 

The Reverse Outline

Reverse outlines are a great way to plan and execute large-scale changes.

One thing I struggle with is the ripple effect: when one change at one point in the novel effects a huge number of changes later in the novel.

My latest novel has a lot more balls in play than I'm used to having, and a lot of sub-plots need to constantly be moving together in lock-step. I've had to raise my plotting game significantly since I started it. Trial by fire, I guess.

But going back in and fine-tuning it, tweaking and changing each thread and capturing all of the ways in which the story changes as a result? It's a complicated web. And it would be foolhardy to go in and start changing things around or rewriting broken sections without thinking through fully how it will affect all the other balls on the pool table.

I started reverse outlining to get a handle on the bigger picture—and making sure I didn't forget to slip any important hints in along the way.

I have a short attention span.

How it works

The first thing you need to do is get a handle on what you've already got, and the reverse outline tells you what you've still gotta do.

I think it's important to write up an initial outline. After you've written a draft and handed it off to a critique partner, then waited to get the feedback and brainstormed it into a battle plan, it's hard to remember what you even wrote in the first place. It's been two months since then! After two months I can't even remember if the family dog is brown or black anymore.

I find that seeing my book boiled down to outline format really clearly and neatly draws the connecting lines between all the moving parts, and can help you see how all the parts work together (which has the secret and sometimes painful bonus of making the gaps and holes even more obvious).

Once you know what you're working with—once you have a passable map of those 64,531 as they stand, in their current grammatical arrangements—it's a little easier to pick stuff up and move it around, to see if you like how it looks before you really commit to it (and do all the actual cutting pasting and rewriting whole chapters from scratch). Salvage what you need from the draft graveyard and then assemble it into something new and better.

I use this second, revised outline like a guidebook during the revision process, the same way I used my loose outline way back in initial drafting. I can start making my changes from the beginning, knowing that I've already accounted for them in the later chapters—that I won't wind up with any hanging threads this time, or lose track of them, and my little monster I made won't escape.

I've found that the reverse outline is also a good way to brainstorm, too. When you've got a pile of complaints and recommendations from a CP, it can seem like a lot of heavy lifting to do without knowing whether you're even on the right track. Showing your outline to your CPs before you dive in is a good way to knowespecially in the context of large-scale overhauls—whether your daring, crazy idea might just work, before you stake the next two months on it.


  1. This is precisely my editing process! I'm a HUGE outline girl. It helps me get my thoughts in order. Also, since I use Scrivener, the outline makes it easy to move scenes around and rework subplots.

  2. Since reading The 90 Day Novel by Alan Watt, I've learned that I need to discover what STORY I'm telling. Story as opposed to plot. Because once I've finished the first draft, it's all too easy to come up with new developments for the revision. And then it starts feeling like a completely new project. Whereas if I have a handle on the story I can make sure the plot outline serves it.