Thoughts on Shrinking Novels or: How I Learned to Stop Drafting and Love the Outline

Shrinking Pen

It's a small world after all.

After three weeks of trying out Michael Chabon’s Sunday-Thursday writing plan (see “Personal Life” for 1,000 words/day, five days a week schedule), I quickly (at least compared to my normal routine) generated 15,000 words. Scenes upon scenes became chapters upon chapters.

Then the bad news: I ran out of road on my fragmented, sparse outline.

This is the third time working on this particular novel in five years. Like a hiker walking through the woods by flashlight, I knew where I was, but only vaguely where I had been.

Then a writer friend recommended the Shrunken Manuscript Technique (SMT). It sounded like a great way to get an overview of the completed manuscript’s scenes, effective chapters, and themes. Here’s the gist of what I learned.

1. Just because it’s interesting doesn’t mean it’s part of the story. First and second draft, I tried different voices, tenses, points-of-view. So, too, every theme and event I thought could work in the novel. Lost in all of that was an interesting, compelling story that I could parse out thanks to a global view of the work.

2. Outlines create the skeleton, drafts create the heart. I treated outlining like doing taxes, as if  planning would drain the soul from the novel. It ended up mush, so stuffed new plot threads it couldn’t settle down and tell one story.

Reverse engineering an outline from my draft, I see that the early chapters push the readers along and a lot happens, but nothing pays off. This is an easier fix than it sounds like when you remember …

3. Everything needs to connect back to the character. Know what he or she wants, create an antagonist and obstacles, and then make things as hard as possible. Heap on bad, then do it some more. The stuff outside of that should develop the character or world, at minimum. Can’t explain exactly why the character is in a scene and it doesn’t add to the plot, world, or characters? Then it’s just stuff. Stuff that can be cut.

4. Just because you’re not writing, doesn’t mean you’re not creatively engaged. At some point, maybe a year ago, I should have said to myself, “Stop writing for a minute. Figure out what you’re writing about.”

I had learned that writing was about the number of words you kept putting on the page. So I kept pushing the draft along, slowly learning about the setting and characters, but not what story would matter to them. With SMT, I couldn’t read the whole novel and lose the forest for the trees. (I’d go blind trying.) Forced to truly consider the basic arc of events I realized even the best scenes only work when they make the reader ask “What happens next?”

I know the characters and have written up a rough time line and outline. In the end, I’ll probably cut about a quarter of this draft to get down to what really matters.

No worries. That’s what second novels are for.

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