On Writing: Passes and Plots

This afternoon I finished the rough cut of my 7th major draft of my novel, The Darkening Dream. In my process, a rough cut is a draft (in this case v4.55 — yes you can tell I’m also a computer programmer) where I’ve done all the major changes I intend, but I haven’t yet gone through and reread the whole book (again, for the 40th or so time) to fix up little inconsistencies I missed and to tweak and improve the prose specifically. Part if this is that different read and edit passes have different paces, and it’s not a great idea to mix them.

In a rough cut pass one is struggling to perform large scale surgery. To cut out big sections and sew them back together. To remove characters, objects, or character the motivations, purposes, or settings of things. I like to move fairly fast during this phase because I have to keep in my head all the little loose ends that need to be tied up (I try to write them in my change plan — a kind of chapter-wise outline of changes — which I follow as I redraft). Plus, during a big rough cut the novel is also “broken”. To me this is analogous to the period when a program can’t be compiled or crashes in some heinous way. So, I don’t really want to stop too long and noodle over a sentence. I don’t like either my novels or my programs broken. It was S.O.P. during Crash Bandicoot and Jax and Daxter to build a test disk every night that testers would play the next day. If your build was broken, this couldn’t happen and other people couldn’t work. Same with the book, I like to be able to give it to a beta reader if necessary. You can’t if it’s broken.

On a read-as-a-reader pass one drops the thing on the iPad (these days) and then read it from start to finish, jotting quick notes or highlighting problems. If you stop to fix them for too long, then you loose the feel of the book as it was intended to be read. This, by the way, is why if you want to really enjoy a book, you should read at least a few pages each day. If you take a two-week hiatus (or more), you lose too much continuity.

And finally, there is polish. In this kind of pass you line edit, or change on the fly. Improving sentences, polishing phrases, fixing errors, trimming fat, whatever. It’s possible while doing this to easily trim 5-15% out of a scene without actually removing any real content. This too has its easy analogy in programming: optimization, particularly of memory or code size (no longer very relevant). In this kind of pass you just work at the low level, and so you can move slowly.

So that was passes. Now onto plots and subplots.

In my previous major draft (v4.43 — don’t ask) my editors pointed out something huge that I was subliminally aware of as a problem, but hadn’t pinpointed the exact cause. I had two major subplots going in my book. One was the main plot, and the other was the villain‘s secondary agenda. I used to have three, but that was in versions before 4.xx.

To explain this, in v4.43 and before: There were the heros and the villains. The villains had this super bad plan going, and they had multiple sub goals serving this plan. The two main villains (meaning the ones who have points of view in my story, not the boss villains) had this separate — albiet bad — agenda to get something from a vaguely good third party. The heros were both the target some of the other offscreen villains and collateral damage of the pov villains. Now this was done originally to show that the villains were so badass that even distracted they were crazy nasty. The heros had as their agenda stopping the villains and saving themselves (nothing really wrong with that), however, they were never really able to understand the actions of the villains because of the mysterious secondary objective.

By making the seemingly simple change of merging the secondary objective and with something the heros had this entire situation was changed and improved. Now, the villains want something the heros have, and although they do much the same things they did against the third party + the collateral part, they do it all to the heros (and a little to each other, because they’re evil!). By way of analogy, before the heros and villains were on adjacent train tracks lobbing bombs at each other and trying to cut each other off at the pass, now they’re on a head-on collision course firing full time at the other. This got rid of the third parties which no one cared about, and had the net effect of creating literally dozens of additional opportunities for conflict and 5 or so new big head to head confrontations — and this is in a book filled to the brim with fights. Conflict is a novelist’s bread and butter, so this is win-win.

It’s also worth saying that to improve any work. Be it video game, novel, or whatever. When you get well articulated suggestions you have to be willing to try and view their merits objectively. This is with the end of judging if the end result would be better in an absolute sense. Of course, sometimes even if it is, the bang for the buck isn’t there, or there are tradeoffs. The changing itself, however, is part of the process.

One comment on “On Writing: Passes and Plots


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