The Art of Fiction:
The Big Picture
by Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. This is another in the series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink. Read more about Lisa.
"You should be able to sum up your book in one telling sentence. If you can't do this easily, it likely means your novel still needs work." —Lenard-Cook
Quite a few of my students have undertaken novels this year, a fact which delights me. But what delights me still more is that nearly all of them recognize that typing "The End" is really only the beginning. Helping these students turn their visions into novels that work is one of the greatest joys of teaching writing. This month, I'll show you some of the lessons they're learning and how you can apply these lessons to your own revision process.
What's It About?
How many words does it take you to answer this question? You should be able to sum up your book in one telling sentence. If you can't do this easily, it likely means your novel still needs work. How can I say this with such authority? Because until I could come up with such a sentence for each of my novels, something was still missing. Now I can tell you that Dissonance is about a mysterious legacy that leads a Los Alamos piano teacher on a journey of self-discovery, and that Coyote Morning is about two women in a New Mexico village who learn that life's greatest threats arise far more often from what you already know than from what you don't.
The formula for answering the question "What's it about?" is, at its most basic, protagonist + what's at stake. The difficulty is that, in a novel, what appears to be at stake on the surface and what's really at stake are often two different things. In The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, for example, while the autistic narrator focuses on the dead dog, what's at stake is really his own carefully constructed world. Similarly, in Life of Pi, the narrator focuses on day-to-day survival when what's really at stake is the very nature of reality.
"Fill in the blanks for your own novel and see if you can easily answer this question [What’s it about?] If not, you've still got work to do." —Lenard-Cook
This may sound deceptively simply, but when you try to apply it to your own novel, you'll see that it's not. I can easily write "about" statements for others' works-in-progress, but that doesn't mean the concept is on the page; it just means I've gotten good at figuring out what someone's trying to say, even if they haven't said it yet. For example I can tell that the novel one of my students is working on is about a man looking back at his life —but it isn't yet about the larger issue she'd like it to be. Nor is the novel another student is rewriting about a young woman who learns that people are not what they seem. Neither of these descriptions sounds distinctive enough because the novels don't yet show what's at stake on the page.
Here's the formula again: protagonist + what's at stake = what it's about
Fill in the blanks for your own novel and see if you can easily answer this question. If not, you've still got work to do.
"Once you know what's at stake for your protagonist, you're ready to look at what you have and see how it fits into this larger picture." —Lenard-Cook
From Big Idea to Scenes That Work
Once you know what's at stake for your protagonist, you're ready to look at what you have and see how it fits into this larger picture. For this step in the revision process, I print out a hard copy, turn to a fresh page in a notebook, and get comfortable in a room other than my office. At this point, it's safe to say I've read this novel at least 100 times. I've probably printed out hard copies at least ten different times, marked each up, and then typed my edits into files saved with different names. (I usually name each file by month and year, to keep things simple. And each novel has its own directory. But I digress.) The copy I'm working from now feels to me pretty close to final, and on this read-through I'm going to resist (as much as an obsessive rewriter like me can) marking up the manuscript.
Chapter 1, Scene 1. Marjorie & Janet, 2005. Janet tells Marjorie Eleanor died. Names all 4 main characters, establishes who Eleanor is, fact that M. doesn't know much about E. Establishes character & voices of M. & J.
I'm very happy with this scene. It now does precisely what I want it to do. But it's probably the 50th different first scene this novel has had.
Now, here's a scene I cut totally from this same novel: Janet meets Sy. Flashback to how Janet & Sy met. Backstory on J & S.
Without knowing what's at stake in my novel, I couldn't cut this scene, especially as it was one I liked, in and of itself. So why did this scene end up on the cutting room floor? Because Sy is a secondary character, and the lengthy backstory of how Janet met him doesn't belong in a novel where what's at stake is how a decision Janet's mother makes early in the novel affects each of the characters. So while Janet and Sy's backstory may be interesting, it doesn't belong in this particular novel.
"I liken the process of fine-tuning a novel to finishing a weaving. Every thread, every color, every pattern is part of the whole." —Lenard-Cook
Being Meticulous Pays Off
I'm a messy writer, at least in the early drafts. Taped to my printer is this quote from Gustave Flaubert: "Be regular and orderly in your life…so that you may be violent and original in your work," to remind me that I can afford to be messy in my early drafts because the more I revise, the more meticulous I'll become about fitting all the pieces together.
I liken the process of fine-tuning a novel to finishing a weaving. Every thread, every color, every pattern is part of the whole. I check to see that every thread is pulled tight, that none are left hanging. I test the weaving for strength and see how it looks in different lights. Only when I'm satisfied with it from every angle do I let it go out into the world.
This fall, I'll be devoting a column to your questions. If you have a nagging question about the craft of writing, email me in care of the editor-in-chief of Authorlink at firstname.lastname@example.org.