When the plot twist becomes the new plan

 
Jan. 20, 2014 at 1AM: taken immediately after I found out I had only cut 1500 words from my entire 2nd draft.
Jan. 20, 2014 at 1AM: taken immediately after I found out I had only cut 1500 words from my entire 2nd draft.
 
 

*the title of this post is not a metaphor for anything. i'm literally going to talk about plot twists.

During the past few months, something drastic happened in my revision process.

I said yes to adding a brand new plot twist. In my fourth draft.

Before I even started this draft, I knew I was going to have to do something different. My first two attempts at revision ended in what I considered to be a pretty sickening failure. In my third draft stage, I was hoping to end up somehow cutting at least 10,000 words. By the time I got about halfway through, I figured 10,000 was an overly ambitious goal, so I settled for 5,000.

I cut 1,572 words.

I finished Draft 3 of my manuscript at 1 A.M. on a school night. And when I was done crunching the numbers and saw the final result... I couldn't even work up the energy to be disappointed. I just sat there at my desk, in the middle of the night, my head in my hands, my elbows planted on either side of my keyboard, and stared blankly at the screen.

And I remember thinking to myself, "Okay. Am I doing this wrong?"

I've never revised anything to this extent before. Much like every other fiction writer out there, nobody ever taught me how to revise a novel—I had to learn on my own. So naturally, the thought that followed that first one was the thought that probably required the least amount of work: "Maybe this book just isn't meant to be short. Maybe it's meant to be two books."

I tried many times over to find the place to split it down the middle. I found that no such place existed. Then, in the middle of my despairing period between Drafts 3 and 4, I remembered something: I am mother-freaking queen of the spur-of-the-moment plot twist.

I had an idea. And it was a crazy, weird, wild idea. It was an idea that would require me to do some heavy lifting where rewrites were concerned—and it would possibly change the plot. I wrote about this idea in a previous blog post, back before it was fully developed, but basically it came down to making an illusive character more complex.

Nothing wrong with that, right? Easy breezy beautiful, right?

 
 
THANKS ELLEN
 
 

I began to outline again (because this is apparently what I do to keep myself from freaking the crap out). I went back to the drawing board and did a chapter-by-chapter overview of what would change and would stay the same.

I worked out that in order to make this plot twist work, I'd be rewriting about a third of the book.

I considered this.

Then I panicked.

"I don't really NEED to write a fourth draft, right? I mean, I was doing okay with my old revision method. Three drafts is good enough. I don't actually have to rewrite 30% of my book."

^^ Lies I told myself in February, as I procrastinated tackling Draft 4.

But the longer I put it off, the more Draft 4 started to look like the sky before a tornado—murky and ominous and like it's about to throw up on you. I felt like that, like Draft 4 was looming and lording over my head, just waiting to freaking upchuck all over my soul.

I let it intimidate me for a whole month. Because I was afraid of doing the work.

Then something clicked in March. As I was gearing up to graduate, figuring out what to do with my life, and sorting through old dreams and new ones, I realized that I could either a.) try this crazy rewrite and maybe pull all my hair out and maybe throw a lot of fragile things at walls and maybe fail hardcore, or b.) give up. Worst case scenario, I told myself, I would throw the whole thing out and go right back to Draft 3.

And maybe, just maybe, it would work.

I was facing a very slim chance that this plot twist could actually make the book better. But if I didn't take the risk and do the work, I would never ever know. The document would just sit on my desktop and no one would read it but me and my awesome, supah-troopah beta readers from Figment (who read the first draft back when it was 135K words of chaos and confusion).

That is the pain and the beauty of not being published. You are accountable only to yourself.

So now, here I am. At the end of Draft 4, taking the risk I didn't initially want to take, and doing the work I didn't particularly want to do—and so far, this new draft is 5,874 words shorter (and that is including the dozens of new/altered scenes I wrote). A number that is still changing.

But no matter what the wordcount ends up being, I will be glad I took this risk. I will be glad I decided to delve more deeply into this secondary character. I now understand her and the story in a way I never did before.

Rewriting is not just about making things pretty. Sometimes it's about making things even messier than they were before, if only to figure out what's at the heart of the story. I was afraid to make the mess the first couple of times, but it's not failure if you learn something. And I did.

Sometimes, you have to kill your darlings. Other times, you have to remake them.

Have you ever had a mid-revision epiphany that changed something in your story? What did you do?