Monday, April 4, 2011

Writing Tip #1: Using Sentence Summaries to Grapple With Your Large Revision

Winter Skin by Ben Heine
Forest and trees, all mixed up.

When you're revising a long manuscript, it can be hard to see the trees hiding in that bulky forest, or to see the forest with all those trees standing in the way. It's especially difficult to make changes to the overall structure of your plot, or to the pacing — not to mention simply keeping track of people and objects — with all those consarned words confusing you.

For me, writing is sometimes a visual process. There's a pleasing size and shape (of sentences, paragraphs, whole chunks of thought) on the physical page when the text is correctly matched to the voice. So when I need to see the bigger picture while I'm at the computer, I sometimes alter the "view" tab of my Word (2007) file to show multiple pages on the screen (on a PC, I choose view, zoom, and then toggle "many pages," selecting a percentage that allows me to still read the words — at a little over 50% I can see most of six pages on my screen). I can better visualize the ebb and flow of the whole chapter that way.

But what do you do when you need to follow entire threads as they weave through a gigantic, convoluted fantasy manuscript? Showing six pages at a time won't help. And even Darcy Pattison's Shrunken Manuscript technique, in which an entire manuscript is printed in miniature onto thirty pages and laid out on the floor, is of limited use for this purpose: the font is too tiny to pick out threads, the pages too numerous.

A tool that I've developed (and I'm probably not the first) is something I call "Sentence Summaries." It involves describing each chapter in one or two short sentences, and cramming all the sentences onto a single-spaced document. Usually your entire manuscript will fit on the front and back sides of a sheet of paper in this format. You can see the denouement of the plot with a quick skim. You can follow the introduction (and disappearance) of objects and characters. And a side benefit is that when you try to describe each chapter in a single sentence, you'll uncover awkwardness everywhere: chapters that are unimportant, chapters that are too loaded, chapters that are in the wrong place, chapters that can't be wrangled into a one- or two-sentence essence (this is not necessarily bad, but it deserves scrutiny).

My current novel interweaves two time periods, in blatant, swooning homage to Louis Sachar's Holes. As I began writing the manuscript, I realized that I didn't know exactly how much historical back-story was in Sachar's book, anyway. How could I imitate his structure if I couldn't see it? I read and re-read the story, but it flowed so smoothly — the historical bits were so organic — that I still didn't have a visual grasp on how they were peppered in. On the third pass I resorted to the Sentence Summaries technique. After I'd compiled the sentences, I added yellow highlights to mark passages that take place in the historical past, and I added gray highlights when Stanley tells the reader something historical from his family lore. In the end I was surprised to find that there was much less back-story in the book than I thought — most of it is told in, and takes place in, Stanley's contemporary time period. (It wound up being impossible to model my manuscript's mix of historical/contemporary on his, of course, but it was an informative exercise.)

The sentence summaries for Holes reveal another crucial thing: almost every piece of Sachar's story needs to be there. Apparently he knew of Jean Karl's advice to Franny Billingsley (a mantra I've mentioned before), "Take out every word that is not wholly necessary."

Sentences for Louis Sachar's Holes

Part 1: You are Entering Camp Green Lake
Ch. 1 Green Lake is dry. Lizards will kill you.
Ch. 2 (one page) Stanley chose camp over jail. He had never been to camp.
Ch. 3 On the bus, Stanley thinks about his great-great-grandfather, the pig stealer, and his great-grandfather, the stock broker who was robbed by Kissin' Kate.  He sings the family song to himself.
Ch. 4 Introduction to camp, Mr. Sir, and Mom. You can't run away.
Ch. 5 Introduction to other campers.
Ch. 6 How the shoes fell out of the sky and Stanley lost the court case.
Ch. 7 Stanley digging, alternating with Mme. Zeroni's story. (S-MZ-S-MZ-S-MZ-S-MZ-S-MZ-S)
Ch. 8 Spotted lizard lore (how they bite, jump).
Ch. 9 Stanley gets nicknamed Caveman. Zero introduced.
Ch. 10 Stanley finds fossil.
Ch. 11 X-ray requests future finds. Stanley remembers bully at home.
Ch. 12 Counseling session.
Ch. 13 Stanley finds KB lipstick.
Ch. 14 Introduce warden. X-ray gives her the lipstick.
Ch. 15 Stanley realizes they're digging for something.
Ch. 16 Zero finally talks (about Stanley's letter).
Ch. 17 Zigzag hits Stanley with shovel.
Ch. 18 Zero asks Stanley to teach him to read.
Ch. 19 Stolen sunflower seeds.
Ch. 20 Rattlesnake venom on polish. Warden scratches Mr. Sir.
Ch. 21 Stanley thinks about KB abandoning his great-grandfather (Thumb of God introduced); Zero digs Stanley's hole.
Ch. 22 Stanley teaches Zero, realizes KB = Kate Barlow
Ch. 23 (p. 101 of 233) Story of Katherine Barlow, Trout Walker, Peaches, Sam's onions heal.
Ch. 24 Mr. Sir punishes Stanley by withholding water.
Ch. 25 Katherine and Sam fall in love.
Ch. 26 Sam is killed, Katherine becomes Kissin' Kate.
Ch. 27 Stanley teaches hector, Mr. Sir still punishes him with water.
Ch. 28 Trout and Linda demand Kate show them where the loot is. Lizard kills Kate.
Part 2: The Last Hole
Ch. 29 Stanley sees the Thumb of God in a storm.
Ch. 30 Warden finds out Zero's digging Stanley's hole. Zero runs away.
Ch. 31 Stanley debates going after Zero; Warden tells Mom to erase Zero's files.
Ch. 32 Stanley tries to steal the truck, then runs away.
Ch. 33 Walking past hundreds of holes. Looking for Zero in them.
Ch. 34 Finds the overturned boat and Zero hiding under it.
Ch. 35 Zero survives on Sploosh. He refuses to go back.
Ch. 36 Hiking toward mountain.
Ch. 37 Hiking up mountain. Stanley is stronger than when he came to camp.
Ch. 38 Stanley carries Zero. Digs for water. Finds onion.
Ch. 39 Gives Zero onion. Zero confesses re: shoes. Stanley sings him the song.
Ch. 40 Flowers are onions. Interspersed: Sam's onions saved Becca Tennyson.
Ch. 41 Zero improving. Stanley deepens water hole. Clyde's sneakers were stinky.
Ch. 42 Stanley has a euphoric night. Feeling of destiny. Wants to dig for the treasure.
Ch. 43 Zero's mom left him in park. They walk to camp, find hole.
Ch. 44 They dig up treasure. Warden catches them.
Ch. 45 Stanley and Zero are covered in lizards. No one will move against them.
Ch. 46 Stanley is stuck in the hole. Warden plans how to lie about Stanley's death.
Ch. 47 Attny. Gen. shows up to release Stanley. Zero reads on suitcase that it "belongs" to Stanley.
Ch. 48 Stanley won't go without Zero. Zero's records are gone.
Ch. 49 Sam's onions prevent lizard bites. Morengo tells Stanley about his dad's invention.

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