Friday, September 18

The Frankendraft: Putting Life Back Into Overly Revised Novels

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

My first real novel (one I wrote with the intent to try and sell) was a mess of characters and subplots. I had eight or nine POVs, a main character that didn't have a POV, but was a person everyone was connected to in some way so I was trying to show "her story" through their eyes, and was about 140,000 words long. Very few  of them were good words.

I knew it was too much, so I did what any brand-new novelist would do. Decided to make it a trilogy! (does any of this sound familiar? Yep. Thought so)

I hacked it up, added a few more POV characters and a few more subplots, because after all, I had to make it fill three books now, right?

During that revision year, I had taken a few writing classes and figured out enough to understand I had a disaster on my hands. I finally decided that I really only had one book, and hacked it to bits to find (say it with me...) "the real heart of the story."

When I found that heart (or thought I had) I put the whole book together again. It didn't flow well, and there were some holes, so I wrote a few new scenes and tried to fix it. And that made it long again, so I cut back, hacking out more stuff.

Before long I had series of scenes and plot lines that made little sense, because each scene had been reduced to the surface level for plot reasons. And oh yeah--there was no character depth or character arcs at all.

I had created a Frankendraft.

A Frankendraft differs from a mostly written book you know needs heavy revision. A Frankendraft has been cut and stitched so many times that the scenes don't work together anymore, and the story is either so deeply buried or so watered down that the book doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

There's not much you can do with a Frankendraft. Objectivity is lost. So much of it is in your head that you no longer notice it's not on the page. It's so terribly flawed that it's best to be merciful and pull the plug. But all hope is not lost, and there are some steps you can do to bring this monster back to life.

1. Say Goodbye

Accept that the Frankendraft is dead and put the manuscript in a drawer. You got into this mess by revising it over and over, and it's time to start fresh. Forget the text and focus on the story. Rewrite it from scratch in a clear file. No more editing. No more trying to make this manuscript work. Treat it as if it were a brand-new idea and run from there.

It's usually worth taking some time at this stage to brainstorm as if the novel you wrote never existed. Look at your idea fresh, maybe run through some fun exercises to inspire the muse and get a different perspective. (I happen to have a book on that topic if you need a little help -grin-)

(Here's more on brainstorming your idea)

2. Trim the Fat

Figure out what's needed in the story and what's not. What is the single most important goal in the plot? This is your core conflict. We're looking for an achievable goal here, not a premise. Something tangible, not "the romance between so and so" unless it is a romance, then look for what the protagonists want like "Bob wants to win Jane's heart." What events are critical to resolving that goal? And I mean critical. If they weren't there, there would be no story. Write down those events, but no more than ten. Now revise with your core conflict and those plot points and get rid of everything else.

I strongly suggest doing an outline here, even if you're not an outliner by nature. It's a great way to see if your plot is working and if you have all the right pieces to write a solid novel without having to write the actual novel. If there are glaring holes or problems, they'll show up here.

(Here's more on some common plot structures to try)

3. Kill Some Characters

Hard as this will be, eliminating characters will go a long way toward stripping out what's unnecessary. Who is the single most important character in the story (that's your protagonist)? Who is their antagonist? Who is the second-most important character? Now get rid of everyone else (don't panic, you'll add some back!). Make a list of every other character. Go through the list and ask if the three critical characters I just mentioned absolutely totally need that person to solve the story goal. It's okay to have a "maybe" list here, as you'll need some minor characters down the road.

A red flag for "zombie" characters who might turn this draft back into a Frankendraft--anyone who brings a serious subplot with them. If their story risks overshadowing or hijacking the core conflict, they do not need to be there.  Save them for their own novel, or cut that subplot out. (Though you're probably better off cutting the character, as you'll be tempted to return to that subplot).

(Here's more on deciding to keep or kill a character)

4. Go Five for Five

Now take your goal list and your character list. What are the five critical events that have to happen to resolve the core conflict? What are the five critical characters necessary to achieve those goals? Your top two or three characters should be on this list. If they're not, you probably still have a problem. The story is too broad and unfocused, and you're likely still looking at premise, not goals.

If you're not sure what to do (and those who have trouble plotting might get snagged here), try a shift toward the characters and write out their front story.  What is their role in the novel? What do they do? How do they help? Follow their character journey as if it were their story and see what happens. After, look back and see where this journey overlaps the core conflict and where the plot points might occur.

(Here's more on writing the front story of your characters)

5. Spread it Out

Take those five plot events and spread them out over the course of the novel. Which one is the best starting place? (Because one of the critical events in your story will be the inciting event. If it's not, go back to step 4 and try again). Which one is the ending? (this you should have figured out from step 2). Now, of the remaining three, which one is the best mid-point reversal event? It should be large enough to sustain your middle, and interesting enough to keep readers guessing. Last, take one of each of the two left and put them on either side of the mid-point. These might make good first and second act endings.

You might say, "But I can't do that because the chronology is off now!" but don't worry about that. Just organize and look at those turning points. Is there a way to rework the chronology so that these events fall out in that order? Forget what you already wrote. Don't try to slip in stuff you remember that you liked. Look at the first event and figure out a way to get to the second. Then to the third, and so on. Brainstorm. Think outside the box and imagine what your characters would do. These notes can be rough, general, and very sketchy--just try to get an idea of how this book can play out.

(Here's more on giving characters goals)

Odds are, you'll have a much tighter story and a clearer look at how that story might unfold. You can always add in more scenes or turning points to flesh it out, but be wary of sewing dead pieces back on and creating another Frankendraft. The goal here is to start fresh and breathe new life into the story, not fix the old manuscript.

Most times you have to bury a Frankendraft to keep it away from the villagers, but once in a while, you can save it and turn it into something wonderful.

Have you ever written a Frankendraft? What happened to it?

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. Frankendraft! I love it. LOL Some great advice here to salvage such a mess, tho thankfully I don't have one of these Frankendrafts, whew. (I have novels with other probs tho.)

  2. I have a few manuscripts that I'm still checking for vital signs. Thanks for the advice. :)

  3. Yes, I have a Frankendraft--I plan on outlining a proper plot for the cahracters and doing a rewrite.

    Nice post--there's some great timps in here!

  4. Hello, my name is Kandie, and I'm Frankendraft Creator. I know these 12 steps, well actually [5 steps] to recovery will get me to a final draft one day. Thanks Janice. I don't know about other novelists but sometimes you get so attached to a story that it's hard to trash it or let go of characters. ;-) GREAT push in the 'write' direction!

  5. I bet just about every writer has one of these somewhere :) I know I do! One day, maybe I'll even be able to say "It's alive!"

  6. Frankendraft is perfect! I've been calling my mess the Monstrosity. It's nice to know that even you could create one - makes me feel much, much better. And your wonderful book has been helping me try to fix it, er, them, so thank you, thank you thank you! If I ever can declare "It's alive," you will be the fairy midwife who helped birth it in a coherent form.

    1. Monstrosity works too :) We all create them at some point I think. I"m so glad the book's been helping, thanks for letting me know.

  7. My first novel is a Frankendraft. I made the mistake of taking nearly every comment in public, online critiques to heart. SMH. It's in the virtual drawer. I still love it and beta readers thought it great. In a year or so I'll revisit and see how I can use your tips above. In the meantime, I have two books coming out on 2016. Thanks so much for this post, Janice!

    1. Ooo, that would certainly cause one. I hope you can revive it one day. And grats on your books, that's awesome.

  8. Frankendraft. So THAT's what's wrong with it. My problem was that I kept adding to it to make it better. 300 pages later, I decided to put it aside as backstory & tried again.
    The next draft was still not functioning right. So many subplots & interesting characters with their own thing, my main character wasn't even in some chapters. Then weighing in at over 620 pages (yes pages), it & my story ideas went into a coma. I hacked it & as of today, it's now down to about 550 pages but still...
    I'm setting that morbidly obese thing aside, will cry a little, then try your advice. Pray for me & my book.

    1. Hugs. I'd suggest starting over with the core idea that first excited you and treating it like a brand new book. Start over and leave everything else behind. A clean break will make it a lot easier for you to focus on what you love about this story and not get bogged down in all the other oaths you took exploring it.

  9. I've written a couple of these. One was handwritten all through highschool. I still have it, and I'll do something with it one of these days, but I believe I'll start over from scratch. The other two I wrote have become viable plots, but are waiting to be edited. I'm glad to see others have had my struggles with reviving old work that went off the rails :)

    1. We all go through it :) I don't think I know a single writer who hasn't hit this at some point. Sometimes we just need to look at these drafts like giant brainstorming exercises.

  10. Maybe not exactly a Frankendraft (or in danger of becoming one). Or maybe this would be a future blog post, if it doesn't exist already...

    I have a small back list, and my two oldest novels compared to my newest show (thankfully) just how much my writing has improved, not only the plot/characters I write but also word choice.

    I plan to re-release these two books after I do a fresh edit on them, which may be a much larger task than I estimate. One book has a couple of plot elements that an older me finds distasteful and, to be honest, insensitive. So I'll need to cut a few scenes altogether and write new ones that I'll then have to "raise up" the rest of the book to match.

    Anyway, I'll try to follow the above guidelines to avoid mangling the story beyond repair. Wish me luck!

    1. Good luck! Yep, those don't sound Frankendraftish, but you're right, it would make a good post (thanks!). Most published authors have old novels they'd love to revise and sell now that they've figured things out.

  11. Bwa-ha-ha! This is so timely as I've resurrected a Frankendraft that I started back in 1999! But I also just discovered John Truby's Blockbuster software and I'm navigating through the plot and have found some intriguing tweeks that are helping me bring this sucker to life! Thanks for the tips Janice.

    1. So glad you found something to help you! Best of luck with your draft :)

  12. Nice. I've had to do this to a few novels, and may have to do it on a few more!

    1. Same here :) I have one just waiting for me now.

  13. It's nice to have a name to go with my first manuscript. I thought I was the only person who'd created this monster. Each time I revised it, it got worse. Then I added scenes and subplots and my word count grew to a number I knew no one would publish - not for a first time novelist. You've really nailed it. Everything you said describes what I've done. I've cut and chopped and pasted and started over and added and stripped it down until it didn't resemble the story in my head. I've been struggling with the decision of what to do next? Toss it and forget it forever, but it does have some characters and plot lines that I love. I think I will try your other option, when I get time, outline the story as if it's a completely new story and start with just the three essential characters. Thanks for sharing this. It's helps knowing that I'm not the only person who has created a Frankendraft. Love the name.

    1. You're not alone, we all go through this :) Writing might be a solo activity, but pretty much everyone has a similar journey and faces similar problems.