Big Cast Novels

When you have a big cast of characters for a novel, you have a big set of challenges ahead of you.  The first of these is deciding who your main characters are.  This sounds like it should be obvious and easy to answer, but I know from first-hand experience that you, the writer, can be very, very wrong about which people your story needs, and which storyline actually works for the characters.

Sometimes you have to write a chunk of the book (or at least a few scenes) before you get a real feel for what/who works and what/who doesn’t.  My personal rule of thumb is, if a character just flows out effortlessly, that’s your main character, or at least one of your primaries.  If a character you plan on being a primary figure in the storyline is difficult, frustrating, or no fun to write, CUT THAT CHARACTER!

Let me tell you a fun little anecdote about my upcoming NaNoWriMo novel.  I came up with the initial concept about thirteen years ago.  Yes.  Thirteen years ago.  I started the book five times, got about ten chapters in, and realized it wasn’t coming together each time.  So I’d stop, work on other projects, and do some world-building for this novel on the side.  Whenever I’ve finished a short story or a draft of my other novel, I’d come back to this one.  I talked to some of my writer friends about it.  “Cut your main character,” was their advice.  Cut my main character???  But she’s the main character, right???!

This summer, between drafts of my Erica Flynn novel, I sat down and looked over my notes about my thirteen-year project.  And holy heck if I hadn’t modified the storyline to the point that my main character had become entirely unnecessary to the plot!  I’d been writing her out of the book for years, subconsciously.  I didn’t enjoy writing the scenes that focused on her, I didn’t like her much (although I admired some of her personal qualities), and I wasn’t inspired by her.  The characters I’d written the best material for were either secondary to her, or pitted against her.  These are now my main characters.  My original protagonist is gone, not even a bit part.

Go with your instincts.  Who do you enjoy writing about?  Either you enjoy writing those parts because they’re really good parts, or you’ll write them really well because you like writing them.  No matter which direction that cause and effect goes, you’re going to end up with better material.

Also, write up a list of all your characters, and write out each one’s “through line” for the book.  What changes about them – whether it’s internal or external?  The characters who change internally and externally are your strongest, automatically.  Those are your main character nominees now.  Tweak their through lines.  Make them stronger, more dramatic, more interwoven with the overall plot.  Play around with it!  Have fun!  No, I’m not being sarcastic.  Really – have fun with your writing.  You can be miserable later, when you’re revising.  Hah!  😉

Plottin’ & Schemin’

Sorry, that just put the Beastie Boys song “Rhymin’ & Stealin'” in my head.  Anywayyyy, I had a mini writer’s retreat with Marian Allen last week to do some work on our respective upcoming NaNoWriMo projects this November.  I’m using NaNo to write the first book in a trilogy I’ve had in mind for ages now, so naturally our shop talk got around to plotting techniques.  I’m normally not much of an outliner, and if I do outline, it’s usually not in much detail, but (a) the plot of this trilogy is extremely complex, (b) there are a lot of characters, and their stories interweave and affect each other, even those who don’t know one another personally, and (c) it’s a trilogy, which means I want continuity between the three books, and I don’t want to get to book three and say, “Crap!  I wish I’d mentioned THIS THING I NEED FOR THE PLOT TO WORK back in book one!  Now I’m going to have to shoehorn it in and treat it like it’s been the case all along!”  Of course, that would only be a problem if books one and two were published by the time I was writing book three, but let’s give me some credit here and say that’s a possibility.

I know quite a lot of events that need to happen for the main plot and for the subplots (and there are times when my subplots directly affect the main plot, too), but the order of many of the events is up in the air.  At the suggestion of my writing buddy, I tried a more visual structuring technique:  Take a piece of paper and mark it off into rectangles – 9 columns and 3 rows.  In the fifth column of each row, write “Turning Point”, in the next-to-last rectangle write “Climax”.  Your first box is your setup, the last box is your conclusion.  Start filling stuff in.

Now, I modified this somewhat to accommodate a 3-book storyline.  For the trilogy, each book gets its own row, so there are 9 rectangles per book.  That means less nitty-gritty plot detail can go into it, but the general shape of all of it comes together in one place.  I have 18″ by 24″ paper (for painting, usually) and many colored pencils (for coloring books, usually), so I color-coded important characters and got busy.

While I don’t think this will be a solve-all for my plotting problems in this series, I think the combination of a list-form, all-just-text plot file  with this visual structure layout will be highly useful.  Already, there are times when my brain gets stuck with one format, and just switching to the other type of outline unsticks it.  The more tools you, as a writer, have, the better, because every single project is different, and a tool you never needed before may suddenly be really useful for your next story!

Drafts

While I haven’t yet started the hopefully-final draft of my current novel, I’ve learned a heck of a lot in the process of writing this book.  The last novel I finished (six years ago) is a big wad of mistakes tangled around some good ideas, and it’s beyond me still how to extract the good stuff from the mess.  So when I started the first draft of my new book – The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn – I took a very different approach.

In the past, I’ve agonized over rough drafts, trying to make them as close to final drafts as is humanly possible, the idea being to eliminate as much of the rewrite process as I could.  Truth to tell, that’s worked great with short stories, but a novel is a whole different animal.  The trouble with trying to write a perfect first draft is, it takes forever, and the content is not always as pertinent to the story as you thought it was at the time.  You get too focused on the details, and lose sight of the big story.  The details are much easier to go back in your rewrites and fix, though – mess up the big story, and you may never figure out how to untangle the good from the bad.

In addition to writing, I also dabble in graphite drawing.  One thing I learned from drawing is, if you get the whole picture sketched out and make sure that everything is proportionate and that the composition is strong, then when you add the shading, you’ll end up with an excellent picture.  If you start filling in shading before you’ve finished your outline, however, you’ll usually notice (eventually) that your perspective, proportion, and/or composition is off, and trust me, you will never get the picture to look right if you’ve already started the shading on a badly-done sketch.

So when I started my rough draft of The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, I applied what I learned from visual art to written art – I thought of the first draft as a sketch.  I did it quickly and stayed loose with it, making adjustments but not getting too attached to any one line, removed what didn’t work and didn’t fill in all the empty space (subplot) until I’d finished the main storyline.

My first round of rewrites was heavy work, but, for me, it’s much easier to add material than to cut it.  I had lots of ideas for subplots, and tons of notes about the secondary characters and their backgrounds that I didn’t know whether to include in the manuscript or not during my whirlwind first draft.  When I sat down to work on the second draft, I looked over what I had and made notes about what was needed, what felt like it was missing, where the characters came off flat, etc. and coordinated that information with what I had made notes about.  All I had to do was expand on ideas that had already occurred to me, figure out where it made sense within the story and how it would affect the larger plot, and shape the story accordingly with the new material.  Almost everything “missing” was accounted for in my notes, and although it was hard to come up with the stuff that wasn’t accounted for, it was muuuuch easier than cutting out the “extra” notes that I’d made for things that really wouldn’t have worked.

The third draft, which I just finished last week (weeee!), I had some beta readers’ feedback to work from.  The majority of the rewrites on that round were for clarity, consistency, maintaining the readers’ suspension of disbelief, pacing, and improving scenes that weren’t working or weren’t working well enough.  There were still a couple areas of major expansion, but for the most part, it was troubleshooting.  I imagine the next draft will be no expansion and all troubleshooting (though that may be wishful thinking – haha!) but I’ll have to hear what my theta readers (is that a term?) have to say about that!  *grin*

Structure

So you finish your first draft of a novel, and you’re ready to edit.  It needs more work than just proofreading – there are things you need to work in, move around, combine, cut, rethink, etc.  In other words, it’s time to look at the overall structure and see where everything should go for clarity, effect, and pacing to be the best they can be.

Sometimes it’s easy to see where something can be plugged in, but when it isn’t so obvious, it can be daunting, to say the least, to start rearranging your manuscript, changing the tone of scenes and dialogue to make it all fit together cleanly, unsure what the domino effect of all that effort will be.  And if it doesn’t work, you have to undo everything you’ve worked on for weeks or months, and start trying to tackle the problems again.

It’s really hard to hold the entire structure of a book in your head (even your own book), so I decided early on in the editing process of my current novel that I was going to try a different approach to rewriting on a novel-length scale.  I made a plot layout for the whole book.  For each chapter, I did this:

  • Chapter # / Title
  • Characters’ Goals & Motivations:
  • Chapter Summary
  • Questions Raised:
  • Points of Conflict:
  • Larger Plot Movement:
  • Notes & Suggestions:

Goals and motivations are whatever your character(s) in that chapter are striving for, whether that’s “defeat the evil overlord” or “have a positive conversation with his son” or whatever.  If you have multiple characters, answer for each of them.

The chapter summary is just a brief account of the events, like an episode guide.

Questions raised means anything that either the characters themselves are asking, or that the reader may be wondering during/after the chapter.  “Who is the evil emperor?” or “How did that cheerleader learn black magic?” or “Why did the zombie cross the road?”  Anything hinted, foreshadowed, unexplained, etc. that you mean to follow up on later.

Points of conflict should include inner conflict as well as external conflict.  It will really help you pinpoint character development over the storyline arc, as well as helping you pace the action and the lead-up to the climactic scenes of the book.  If a chapter seems to have no conflict, either (a) cut the chapter or (b) dig deeper for some inner conflict or character dynamic conflicts, and make sure the rewrite brings those to the forefront.  People don’t have to fight or even argue to be in conflict – they don’t even have to be upset with each other.  They just have to have some goal or need that’s at odds with one another.

Larger plot movement – what, in this chapter, pushed the story arc forward?  It’s fine to have a chapter here or there dedicated to subplot, or to deepen the characters, but if you find you have multiple chapters in a row that don’t move the story forward, it’s time to rewrite or rearrange.  Also, if you have a high ratio of chapters that don’t move the story forward, you probably want to re-think some of the material.  And yes, character development that affects the action in the larger story does count as plot movement!

Notes and suggestions is for anything you realize as you’re reading, like, “I never answered this question in the whole book!” or “Oops, 3 chapters in a row with no forward movement.”  “This chapter is kinda short, not much happens…might be a good place to plug in [this scene].”

I found that this really helped my focus with multiple elements of rewriting.  It really helped me pinpoint pacing problems, troubleshoot boring chapters, keep the characters’ interactions true even as the characters and their relationships changed and developed, and figure out where I had room to maneuver new material into the book.

I hope it can be likewise helpful to you.