Revising the Novel: Everything In Its Place

The reverse outlining is complete. I’ve got my scenes all cut up on little strips of paper and tucked into a plain business envelope to make sure I don’t lose any as I gear up for travels later this week. I’m so excited about this next step of going back through, scene by scene, and cross-checking what I’ve written with what I now know about how my characters look and behave, how they relate to each other, and the general order of events and information in the novel. I don’t think it’s going to be easy, but I do think it will involve actual writing and that’s the thing I’ve really been missing these past 2 weeks.

Reverse outlining taught me so much else, too, about the different points of view I was utilizing to handle the two main narratives in the novel. I can see now how I can use Aaseya and Rahim’s narrator, which were very similar, as one main voice for the Afghan parts of the novel. I can see, too, how the orphan boy’s sections, however short and lyrical, are still going to be better left separate from any other points of view in the book. And on another read-through of the ending, I do think that the way all the points of view (and therefore all the narrators) come together in the final scenes is acceptable in terms of craft and exciting in terms of storytelling. In other words, because of some other point of view and structure corrections I’ve made earlier in the manuscript, I think the rule-bending I’m doing at the end will be an acceptable experience for the reader.

I’ve also learned that the “pertinent information” in each scene was often tied to flashback or a summary and aside. You’ll remember that my instructions from Wonderbook for reverse outlining were to basically block each scene action-by-action and write down any pertinent information on the side margin. That pertinent info, or PI as I’ve come to call it, might look something like this: “Rahim does not want to work for the Taliban anymore.” Basically, it’s information that is not directly stated in the scene but is readily implied. Another example of PI might be that “Nathan felt shamed by his father when he was scolded for crossing the highway as a boy.” That information comes out in a flashback and it’s pertinent, so I don’t want to cut it, but because I noted it in the margins–and not in the direct list of actions in the scene in real time for the main narrative–I can see how I can move that kernel of PI around to different places in the novel, strategically placing it for the most impact on the reader and Nathan’s character development.

Before all of this learning, I had no idea how to move entire chunks of the novel without separating the scene from the PI. I also wasn’t convinced about the narrator and point of view choices I had made, but I didn’t know what it was I could fix if anything needed fixing. Reverse outlining has also broken down the novel into digestible parts that give me confidence. The idea of dealing with Nathan’s full character arc or the through-line of the novel (What’s that, anyway? I know it when I read and critque it, but I don’t know it when I’ve tried to write it myself.) is daunting to me. I have no idea how to begin. But revising one scene? Cross-checking that with the setting map and the character chart? Then writing my way toward a more vivid, full scene that I can believe in? Sure. I can do that. And I can do it in little chunks here and there–on a flight to Anchorage, between public events in Homer, waiting in line in Chicago, on a red-eye to NC, waiting to be picked up at the airport in South Dakota. If this novel is really what I want, those moments are going to have to go toward it. Thanks to reverse outlining, I now have a direction and goal that are enticing, not intimidating.

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