Change the process, not the words

What do you do if you are struggling with a process and, in one moment of clarity, realise that you’re not making progress? Instead you are hammering on in the same fashion hoping that this time, this time, it will have spectacularly different results?

I currently have five thousand words and four measly scenes for my ‘edited draft’ of the novel, one of which is the opening which I’m still not happy with. What am I doing? I have no idea. I’m scrambling around in the dark again hoping that my eyes will adapt rather than just reaching out to switch on the damn light.

I need a new plan of action. I need achievable goals that are measurable. I need to find a way to see the bigger picture rather than focus just on scene-level. I knew this when I started November, but I’ve been sucked back into the rewriting phase. I’m spending time on sections of the novel that might not even stay. I’m writing new scenes that will, in all likelihood, have to be rewritten because I’ll miss out some significant element of the plot, or the theme, or an aspect of foreshadowing.

In short, I’m doing it wrong.

Last week I started a beat sheet in Excel (see below) to keep track of all my scenes, but as I don’t seem capable of moving past the third scene this is beginning to seem fruitless. So it’s time I stopped messing with the details and start to fix the big picture instead. Radical new approach needed.

scene breakdown eg


So, goals for this week include:

  • Identifying the key scenes for the first quarter section of the novel
  • Determining how each of these scenes contribute to characterisation, theme and purpose of the overall novel
  • Ensuring each scene has a valid goal, motivation, conflict and disaster (using beat sheet above)
  • Breaking down what I already have for these scenes from the current WIP and placing them correctly
  • Marking those sections that need to be rewritten
  • Sketching out scenes that need to be rewritten (to include foreshadowing and key aspects identified above)

I need to find a system of revising and editing that works for me. I keep falling back on rewriting because I find the writing phase comfortable, and even though I know my standard of writing is higher than it was, the act itself isn’t improving the overall work. This is what November was all about: trying out methods and approaches to editing so that I could start to make sense of the process.

If I don’t move on from the first few thousand words of my novel it will never be finished; which is often the same problem that can arise when writers constantly revise as they go. They end up only ever writing and rewriting the first part of their story. I need to make a complete pass through the whole novel during this editing phase, not just tinker with the beginning.

No more rewriting scenes over and over.  I need to fix the plot structure and address the key scenes before I start refining them. So here goes. Let’s hope I’ll have more to show for my November by the end of the next week….


16 responses to “Change the process, not the words

    • Steal away. I know I ‘borrowed’ the idea from several different sources – the main one that influence mine was Cathy Yardley’s ‘Rock your Revisions’ (and ‘Rock your Plot’) – well worth a read if you’re struggling for direction.

      Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

    • When I find the magic answer I’ll become rich, I’m sure!

      Making good headway now I have a reformed plan though. The scene by scene approach seems to be working for the moment – beginning to get a good sense of the whole through the sum of its parts. Also doesn’t feel like I’m cutting huge sections and have a lot to rewrite – working with what I’ve got and improving it rather than starting from scratch.

      Good luck with it! Please share your success once you get through it – we all need to know there’s light at the end of this (very long, dark) tunnel!

      Take Care, Cat

  1. I get sucked into the same kind of problem: futzing with details instead of stepping back and looking at the big picture. I’m currently reading Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. If you can get past his ego, it’s a terrific book for plotters and pantsers.

    He claims there are six core competencies that every good book needs. Those six drive the narrative and give you the big picture.

    Good luck!

  2. Wishing you peace of mind, Cat. I couldn’t agree more with Terry’s advice – write forward, leave the rewriting for Draft 2 – let it all pour out and don’t look back. You’re not doing anything wrong, but you may be expecting too much out of this initial draft.

    I am reading an incredible book – short, powerful – “Art and Fear” – and just read the line, “to require perfection is to invite paralysis.” I think I’d like to tattoo that to the back of my hand. 🙂 Keep going!

    • Oooh, what an interesting phrase: you’re right about having it tattooed on the back of the hand. I must write that up somewhere and put it in a prominent place (in lieu of a tattoo!).

      As I mentioned in my reply to Terry’s excellent advice – this is actually my third draft, so the story itself is already written: I’m just try to tie all the loose ends together and get a better understanding of how to improve the story. Until recently I’d only been tinkering with the first few pages, which is getting me nowhere!

      Thanks for stopping by to comment. I’m off to find a piece of paper and some felt tips to write up that quote 😉

      Take Care,

    • Thanks Rachel: I’m not usually one for a spreadsheet, but I’ll try anything that might help me move forward at the moment. Come back in a couple of weeks and see how it turns out!
      Take Care, Cat

  3. Hi there Cat, I read your piece last week about rewriting, and I did feel for you! Having written nearly 20 novels over a period of 20 years, over half of them before I had the internet on which to find things like these spreadsheets, can I give you a bit of advice? Just write the damn thing! Stop all the editing and re-writing NOW, and get the first draft written. Write a brief plan out for the story and chapters (and I mean a few lines per chapter, it shouldn’t take you more than an hour) so you know where you’re going (and will therefore not write a load of stuff you’re going to cut later), and just write it. Start refining it when you’ve got it all down. You’ll probably get new ideas along the way, but you need to work out the basic plot BEFORE you start, so that everything you write is relevant to it.

    I do realise you’ve come to some of this decision on your own anyway! The problem with this sort of obsessive rewriting is that you can no longer read the words on the page. That classic advice about leaving a book a few weeks between edits WORKS. I had to learn that too, and am still having to remind myself of it!

    This post isn’t quite relevant to you as you’re not at this stage yet, but its sentiments might help.

    Best of luck! What you have written may already be better than you think. I hope this helps 🙂

    • HI Terry,

      Thanks so much for your comments, and your advice does sound very sensible. However, this is my THIRD draft and I know if I just continue to rewrite then I’m going to have the same problems in the next draft.

      Had I followed your advice for my first attempt I think I wouldn’t be in this position now, as I would have plotted and understood my characters, their motivations and the themes of my story. Unfortunately, I jumped in headfirst and wrote something that was interesting, but not well written or well structured. I’ve since rewritten it once already so this manuscript is closer to what I imagined than the ones before – yet still not what I hoped it could be.

      The blog post you link to is definitely relevant for me because I think for the past few weeks I have been trying to rewrite to perfection, and I’ve not been successful because: 1) I didn’t understand the bigger picture of the novel, 2) There is no such thing as the ‘perfect’ novel and 3) I was putting too much pressure on myself to get everything right on my next draft.

      I left three months between finishing my last draft and starting this round of edits, and only now do I realise how much I missed out because I went chapter by chapter, rather than trying to get an overall understanding of how the novel works (and themes, etc). Hence the change in approach.

      I really appreciate your support and advice. Thanks so much for stopping by and offering your wisdom: 20 books in 20 years – I can only dream of being so productive!

      Take Care,

      • Glad it helped, Cat – if you want any more ‘pearls of wisdom’ (!!) or just what I’ve learned from experience, do ask 🙂

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