Revising the Novel: Thoughts on Agendas

Last week, I had a breakthrough. Not on the page. Not yet…

But in my mind.

It hardly seems worth writing about now, but I’m dedicated to trying to articulate and share my process. It helps me find my way. Writing a novel can feel so disorienting. If we know we’re not alone and that disorientation is normal, that can’t hurt. It might even help.

To that end, I want to briefly discuss “agendas.” We’ve all heard the notion that those early sparks of creative output can’t be personally, egotistically, politically, or harmfully motivated if they’re going to burst into true, literary form at some point down the page. What I mean by that is, we can’t just sit down and say, “Now I want to write something that proves my belief that all people who eat fast food are lazy.” That’s not the stuff of good writing, no matter how many cartwheels your sentences can do.

Even though I believe this, I managed to approach Chapter 4 of my novel, through all 4 revisions, with an agenda. I grew intent on using a scene between the Captain and my protagonist, the Second Lieutenant, to show the reader that something fishy was going on with regard to how U.S. dollar bills were being spent in Afghanistan. This agenda was problematic for two reasons. First, although I have a personal investment in exploring that particular truth (and it is true–U.S. dollars have been funding Taliban efforts against our own troops), I don’t know that exposing it would advance my novel in any way that had significance on my protagonist. Besides, even if I could work it in, would it “matter” in a relatable way to the reader? I don’t know.

The other reason my agenda for Chapter 4 grew problematic has to do with point of view. I’m writing in limited 3rd POV, hugging the shoulders of my protagonist. The conversation between the Captain and my protagonist is revealed as if seen through Nathan’s eyes. Given that limitation, there’s no way I could rightfully get the message across clearly, without violating point of view. I did certainly try, though–I drafted scenes where the Captain drops hints, I drafted scenes where the Captain and Second Lieutenant observe things in their surroundings that are symbolic of the U.S. money situation, and I even tried a story-within-a-story that was allegorical. None of it was hitting. It might have been revised and finessed, it might have had surgery at the line level, and parts of it might even have been well-written. But in the context of the novel as a whole, time and time again, Chapter 4 was not working.

By free-writing about my character Nathan’s desires, I was able to see once and for all that my agenda for Chapter 4 simply did not belong. I was ready to toss the whole idea in the can, when an idea came to me: Who would know about how the American money was moving? Who would have a compelling, character-revealing reason to get involved with such action? What would make the most sense for readers to see in relation to this truth? All answers pointed to the same thing: The Taliban commander in my novel, who appears only as a side character in a few scenes, needs to have his own chapter written in limited 3rd POV. This chapter will reveal what I want to reveal, appeasing my agenda (if you will), but it will do so in a way that matters to the novel, matters to the character, and feels fitting and appropriately-timed to the reader. It will also take the pressure off some of my other characters for a few pages, something that I think can be a very powerful narrative tool–especially when dealing with situations that have mounting tension.

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