Passing through Submissions Anxiety, 4: Smooth Moves

The last thing all the writer resources talk about is plot. Plot was my weakness in Eureka, and is less of an issue in Insignificant Holy – I was trying to get less done on the artistic side, so mainly I wrote a story. But I think plot is the stumbling block for lots of novelists, because the scope is so large and it has to be helped out in editing.

Very few of us end up writing the same story we think we’re going to.

To that end, good editing is key. So many of the resources on writing talk about elements of the novel and talk about process enough to insist having one’s bum in one’s chair is the first and most important thing to do - but when it came to editing, I needed sterner help. I was splashing around in a great pool of WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING?

This is why I went searching for editing tips, and I loved the tips by Holly Isle. Read it! She’s brilliant. I think she’s removed some of her steps – or else I’ve combined more than one bit of advice and stewed it for myself, but what I have come to is this:

  1. Rest the novel. Give it, and you, some time to breathe.
  2. Print the thing out.
  3. On one page in a notebook, get reductionist.
    1. Write a one paragraph summary as per Nathan Bransford’s mad-libbed query – here’s what’s important: “[protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist’s quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist’s goal].”
      Eg: Russell the Rodeo Clown loses a leg at the Turnerville Rodeo and must return to his family farm in defeat; he was planning to return a vanquishing hero rather than the loser his family accused him of being. Once home he learns the bank is threatening the farm with repossession in order to cover the cost of dad’s Disneyland Vacation addiction. Using all his tricks of distraction, humour, and machismo, Russell is able to overcome his family’s scorn, the challenges of lack of leg, and his pathological fear of chickens, to save the farm and be the hero.
    2. Make note of your most important themes &/or symbolisms.
      Eg: Chickens – being unable to spread one’s wings and fly…
    3. Make note of your protag’s most vital internal and external conflict. Eg: Phobia, self-doubt, family addiction, bank
  4. PAPER COPY EDIT (Pull out your picky editor): Split each chapter into scenes. I wrote these in my notebook. Each of these scenes should be a little play in itself, whether internal or external. They should usually contain:
    1. one setting
    2. feature a major conflict
    3. sometimes feature theme
    4. should move the story forward as per the query
    5. should have an introduction, rising action, and an action the character experiencing the conflict takes towards resolution of the moment – although it should obviously still leave drama on the table for your overall rising action. (So running away weeping works as a scene resolve, even if nothing is resolved in the big picture.)
  5. Where themes or substories were dropped, make a note in your notebook to cut them throughout. Where themes or substories grew up as you were writing, make notes to add scenes to firm the storyline up. 
    For adding in, I used post-its more than my notebook –  if I realized I had to add something apropos of a theme, I’d write WHAT I needed on a post it note, like a brief outline, and put it on the paper copy manuscript in the place that scene was needed. Paper is really the best way to envision the scope of the thing all at once.
  6. Chapters should end with rising action. These scenes can hang without resolution. If they’re not dramatic, re-shuffle your chapter division. Rachel helped me see I had a bad habit of chaptering at the end of a day when my character is winding down. Don’t do it.
  7. Any scene that doesn’t have conflict gets axed, or if the scene is important to character or theme, gets situationally appropriate conflict written into it. I would usually long hand write a “sketch” on the back of my paper of what was needed.
    (When you do your write in again, keep these bits you’re axing in a slush file. Sometimes you can cannibalize your slush file for depth elsewhere.)
  8. If you’re resisting axing something – a scene that isn’t really carrying conflict that makes any sense to the larger story – then understand your characters are probably hiding something from you. There’s likely internal conflict here that does serve the larger story, and you have to figure out WHAT THE HELL they’re doing. So sit with them awhile and figure it out. For me, these scenes were the most important for the book.
  9. Changes to tempo, detail, setting, wording, etc., should be made in margins, or notes as to what’s wrong with the feel of that. Anything that ‘sticks out’ too far, even if it’s because it’s good, needs examination: you need to maintain the fictive dream, not to make people think how interesting you are. Of course, some poetry is a lovely thing: letting the beautiful stay to be discovered and cherished is fine, as long as the reader moving quickly after the plot or a character can chase over it without stumbling or slowing down.
  10. If you’re like me, make sure that any time your characters get emotional, you ride them to be honest. I have a profound fear of being maudlin, and so let my characters get away with reporting rather than experiencing. This may actually be *true* to someone’s experience, but it makes for hard to read fiction.
  11. Read out loud where you’re stuck.
  12. When done, you should have a really good sense of your whole novel. Rest it again.
  13. TYPE IN EDIT (Pull out your tempermental artist): You’re back to shitty first drafts, here, because you’re writing again. All those scenes and paragraphs you’ve asked yourself to rewrite need to get rewritten, inspired. Try not to futz too much with sentences your editor has fixed, but anything longer than one sentence’s minor changes deserves the full on hallucinatory and unhinged re-write. You may find stuff the editor missed.
  14. If a whole lot of your manuscript changed in 13 – say, more than 25% – definitely go back and print out and do a PAPER COPY EDIT – only when you do it next time, only do the sentence , paragraph, and character edits. Don’t rewrite a whole new plot, or you’ll be writing this book forever. No book is all books. If not, you can rest it a day or two and reread that which you just rewrote on the computer, with your perfectionist editor brain, get back in there.
  15. Now, you’re done.

The essence of plot is conflict. Conflict, for a lot of people – myself included – is an anxiety producing state. You’ve heard “write what you know”, yes? I think in plot this usually translates to “be sadistic to your characters in ways that echo conflict that scares the living shit out of you”.

If it scares you enough, it might scare you to submit: I think the best cure for this is resting the manuscript, and editing the conflict so that it’s not yours anymore – it’s your story’s, and your characters’.


  1. Awesome. You have just done the world – including me – a real service.

  2. SWEET.

  3. Holy shit. This is real work!

  4. Thank you a million times over, “sterner help” indeed. I remember reading On Writing oh those many years ago and thinking OK if I can just get this thing written and then put it in a drawer for a few months…something will happen at the end and then I’ll toss it in the air like Mary Tyler Moore’s hat or what? What then? How do I turn off “get it out” and turn on “make it better”?

    Thank you. For doing the legwork and for sharing it.

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