Thursday, May 6, 2010

Simplifying Your Novel - It's a GOOD Thing

What you say???? Simplify? You're mad. Mad, I tell you!

To write a great novel you must include complex and varied numbers of characters, multi-levelled layerings of themes, plot lines, and a world building of huge, momentous proportions. To make a story BIG - and don't we all want our stories to be big? - we need, well … MORE. Right?

Well, um, sometimes … not so much.

I'm living that 'not so much' right now with this revision. When this YA paranormal went out on sub a couple of years ago I got back one particular comment from an editor that really resonated with me - the plot was just too confusing for her. Too much of this and that just left her scratching her head and taking away her enjoyment of the characters and an idea that was pretty cool. Hmm, I thought, was it too much or had I just not executed it clearly enough? But when I dove back into the story again I realized I needed to focus on the strengths of the book - some great characters and the relationship between them and a neat hook that could work quite simply - without a lot of the backstory world-building I thought needed to be thrown in there.

So, instead of three 'organizations' involved in searching for a particular object, I've pared it down to one. I've removed a sub-plot about my main character wanting to attend a girls prep school and made her core desire just to get out of the dead-end town she's stuck in (which, of course, will be thwarted. Mwahahaa) I've pulled up one secondary character up front faster and made her more integral to the plot. I'm deepening the characters and their inter-relationships - my strength as a writer - and paring back the once convoluted plot to, hopefully, one strong main plot line with a couple of secondary plot lines that relate specifically and tie quite directly to the main plot.

Lesson learned? Making a book bigger doesn't mean making it overly complicated. Yes, have a main plot line that has a strong engine driving it forward, yes have those sub-plots be the oil and gas that help feed the engine. But don't make that main plot so convoluted readers will have to flip back and forth among chapters to try and keep what's happening straight in their minds. All that does is just stall the car and the passengers will get out before arriving at the destination.

It's a lesson I need to keep in mind: like in life, simplifying - de-cluttering, if you will - makes everything so much more clearer in the end.


  1. Yes! I have a tendency to try to throw too much conflict into my story. Then a VERY wise critique partner asked me, "Do you remember in Lord of the Rings and how Frodo set off to drop the ring in Mount Doom?"

    "Yes, of course," I replied.

    "No, Frodo didn't set off to drop the ring in Mount Doom. He set off to meet Gandalf at Bree. Then he headed to Rivendell to give it to the elves. You have to tell the story one step at a time."

    Best plotting advice ever! I actually printed that out and have it stuck up over my desk.

  2. Wow. Brings to mind the first editor who ever gave me feedback saying in her revision instructions, "There's just too much going on in 80K words." She was right!

  3. Great advice. Plot is one of my biggest weaknesses, and I too have a tendency to over-complicate my stories. I think I get nervous about plot, so I throw in more characters, more smoking guns, more evil villains, when really I just need to look more in depth at my characters and see what they'll do next. Sounds like you're in the middle of a really in depth revision, but at least you know what you're aiming for. Good luck!

  4. I'm there too, trying to simplify ... which is more complicated than it sounds!

  5. Hi Leah! Oh, wow, I love that Lord of the Rings advice. Sticking it on my computer too!

    Cynthia: You're so right (and so was your editor) - when we write tight (in YA it's anywhere from 50-75,000 words) you have to make sure every word and every plot element is not superfluous. Simple, tight, to the point - with just enough fluidity, depth and lyricism to make us fall in love with the story too! Not too hard, huh?

    Hi Anna: I know - plot is my killer. If I can figure that out the rest is the fun stuff for me. Thanks for the good wishes. The revision is going well so far *fingers crossed*

    Hi Ruth! Simplifying can indeed be complicated - it's a good thing I love revisions! Good luck with your simplification!

  6. It's saying my comment has been saved, but I hadn't written anything yet. Oh well. I'm with you. I always end up having to simplify my plots!

  7. Including too much or too little seems like an easy choice until you have make it. Hope your revision is coming along.

  8. I dislike books that are too busy. It could be a short or long book, but if it's convoluted I can't finish it. I believe in simplification.