Around this time last year, I went to my novel critique group and listened to my peers talk about the first draft of Lost Notes, my 19th century historical novel. This is what I wrote about the results of that process:
I came away from Monday’s critique equipped with thoughtful overview letters, manuscript line edits and 10 single-spaced pages of notes from our several-hour discussion.
And now I’m digging into all this rich, fertile soil, not sure whether to plant or weed or water. The only way I’ll find out is to jump in and get my hands dirty.
My wonderful writing group, thorough as always, posed questions, offered big-picture suggestions and pointed out specific choices that don’t work. As I expected, my protagonist’s development isn’t fleshed out yet–it is, after all, a first draft, and I’ve been focused on plot and voice and world-building.
After a lot of consideration, I’ve decided to smooth out Henri’s journey before I continue writing any new scenes. It’s a dangerous choice, because I don’t want to lose momentum, but on the other hand, I’ve been struggling for weeks with the final chapters. They don’t feel right. And that’s most likely because Henri’s arc is incomplete and unfocused.
So even though I’m approaching the end of the novel, I’m going to slow down and work with the first 80,000 words for a while. Get my hands really dirty. Fill documents with new scenes and cut scenes.
A year later, two years into the writing process and beginning the third, where am I? Not all that far, page-count wise. In fact, those of you just finishing NaNoWriMo might laugh at my year-long output. I’m midway through chapter three. My protagonist Henri hasn’t even left for America yet! (You can read my apology letter here.) Of course since August, I’ve been working nonstop on launching Forest Avenue Press.
But I did get my hands dirty. I worked and reworked the same small patch of ground, over and over, until Henri’s spirit showed up on the page. Until unexpected things happened that felt exactly right for the story.
That small patch of ground, for the most part, was Chapter 2. I joked recently about how I was finally bringing the last installment of Chapter 2 to my monthly writing group. In fact, all I’ve brought (so far) in 2012 is four-page chunks of Chapter 2. I have 10,000 words in my fourth draft of Chapter 2, many of them written and then discarded at the bottom of the actual scene.
Even ignoring the parts I cut and dropped at the bottom, it’s a really long chapter.
It’s also a pivotal chapter, where the plot moves and shimmers and shakes and explodes in an inciting event that touches off a second inciting event that sets Henri on the Hero’s Journey. Clearly, I had to get him on the page properly before the plot could work. The version I brought to my manuscript critique group last November had a flat Henri but lots of plot. He was overwhelmed by circumstance, instead of being an active participant–or even active recipient–of what happened to him.
Did I do the right thing, cutting my work off before I reached the end and starting over? Absolutely. I wish this process had gone faster, but it has been an exceptionally busy year. My work has paid off because Henri is much more richly drawn now, and I’ve continued to perfect the voice that’s both historical and full of modern humor and sensibilities. Everything is where I want it to be.
Now I just have to finish Chapter 3.
What’s your longest chapter? Do you spend years working on one novel or do you write and revise on a faster timeline?