A Writer’s Life: Arcs Over Rewrites

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr)

So “A Bridge To The Quiet Planet,” my sf/fantasy sarcastic road trip novel, is in editing.  I did a few passes, but now the goal is to tighten up the plot and characterizations.

Originally I had wanted to go over the story and truly re-work it to be “what I wanted.”  The plan was to re-outline the plot, and then do a mix of cut-and-paste, writing, and rewriting to flesh out the “new” novel.  But something felt wrong . . . that kind of thing that tells me I’m doing something wrong.

So that gut feel – why did it feel wrong?  It felt excessive, it felt like a lot of effort, and it also didn’t feel like it’d bring me much.  I’d spend a bunch of time building an outline, then try to shoehorn things in, and as my past experience had told me – I’d probably find plenty of other things I’d have to change.

It’s always important to listen to those gut feelings, and this one said it was a bad idea.

At that point, I discussed this with friends.  How was I going to tweak the plot?  After a few discussions, I went back to my lessons from Agile Software development – good improvement is often iterative.  So how would I truly improve the plot in iterations?

Well, in software you rarely go overhaul everything.  You tweak the components, improving this piece here, that piece there.  My novel wasn’t flawed, it just needed to be improved.  Re-plotting it would have been as logical as doing a working piece of software from scratch just to add a few new features or improve existing ones.

That’s when I realized what I wanted to do was improve various story arcs.  So this is what I’m doing:

  1. First, I went over my notes and thoughts, and wrote down the arcs I wanted to improve or make.
  2. Under each arc I wrote down the general things I wanted to do in story order.
  3. Now with that done, I plan to rewrite just the arcs, going through the story (which I know all too well) to just add to, tweak, expand, or reduce the story to embody these new or improved arcs.

What does this net me:

  • It’s easier.  It’s just not some giant re-outline that’d be inaccurate quickly.
  • It’s about value.  Each individual arc improvement makes the story better.
  • It’s atomistic.  Each arc improvement is roughly standalone, so I can add them with relative ease.  I can also drop them with relative ease.
  • It’s synergestic.  I’m working on one arc at a time, so I get to see the synergies as I go part-by-part (which plays into iterative improvement).
  • It’s iterative.  Each arc I add or improve in the story allows me to re-evaluate progress – and re-evaluate the other arcs I want to add or improve.
  • It’s more hands-on.  I’m editing arcs much quicker as opposed to making some plan, so it keeps me in tune with the story.

I’ll let you know how this goes.  But it’s certainly less of a burden on my mind, it gets me writing quicker, and it fits my Agile experiences.

– Steve