Sometimes you have to tear down and rebuild

Posting yesterday about a couple of my writing tools got me thinking about how the right tool (in this case, Scrivener) can make the right creative choice easier, and thus increase the likelihood that you’ll make that right choice.

I’m trying to finish a story called “Secret Skin,” which I first drafted around the time I started writing again, almost two years ago. The early drafts were something like 12,000 words long, and the story itself didn’t really justify that kind of length, so I spent a ton of time cutting, re-writing, cutting, re-writing and eventually hacked it down to 5,000 words with all the magic gone. After a while, tired of worrying about this story, I set it aside and worked on other things.

I picked it up again recently, and realized it still needed… something. I was having difficulty seeing what some of the scenes were about, and how to sharpen them, even though the overall arc of the story still made sense to me. I had worked on the story in Scrivener for a long time, and eventually considered it close enough to a final draft that I moved it to a Word .DOC, and I’d been hacking away on that for countless hours. I started to feel discouraged about the story, even though I loved the main character and the dangerous female he encounters, and the strangers who cause them problems. I just couldn’t see clearly what it needed next. Where to cut, what to build up, how to restructure or resequence.

I decided to take a step back, import the story back into Scrivener, break it down into scenes again and do a “reverse outline” (a trick I frequently use, which is instead of making an outline you intend to turn into a story, take an existing story and reduce it down to an after-the-fact outline — a way of zooming out to take a wide view of your story). I realized, when I looked at the story this way, that several of the scenes were kind of muddy, because they were really several scenes run together. Sometimes it just makes more sense when scenes are clearly delineated. I turned a 5-scene story into an 8-scene story just by chopping some of the over-complex scenes into pieces that made better sense.

It wasn’t just a matter of breaking scenes apart, but once they were split into more logical segments, I was able to zero in on each scene and quickly assess what needed to happen, what the reader needed to learn, and what the point of the scene is within the story. In other words, jam two separate scenes together and you end up with this shapeless thing that’s hard to figure out. Break the pieces back apart again and it’s much easier to see how to improve the shape of each.

I might have been able to approximate this using MS Word, but Scrivener is built for this kind of thing. I love using it to evaluate structure, move things around, combine them, break them apart, and figure out what works. It’s harder to cut/copy/paste big blocks of text in Word, or to make multiple printouts and chop them up and edit that way, at least for me.

I give Scrivener a lot of credit for my ability to zero in on what each scene needed, and finally get “Secret Skin” close to ready to submit.

2 thoughts on “Sometimes you have to tear down and rebuild

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience with Scrivener and rewriting. I am attempting a reverse outline on one chapter of a large document (300 pages) that I’ve imported into Scrivener, and am wondering how exactly you used Scrivener to do yours. Please advise, thanks again.

  2. Hello, and thanks for commenting. The “reverse outline” is something I do away from the computer. I try to distill in my mind what needs to happen in the story, and what sequence of events makes sense, and create an outline from that idea of the story. If I look at my story as it exists in Scrivener, already outlined, it’s hard to see how/where to change it.

    If you’re importing a 300 page document into Scrivener and it’s not already broken into chapters or scenes, it will be hard to see the document as a whole in order to know how to break it back up again. Maybe you can use Scrivener to break your large document into chunks — each time you see a place you want to break a scene or chapter, insert the cursor and hit control-K or option-K (depending on whether it’s Windows or Mac) or select “Split at Selection” from the menu. That will move everything after the cursor to a new document, and you can keep moving through your document to the end until it’s split up into more manageable chunks. But that only tells you how to split up your large document, not how to use Scrivener to re-conceptualize the way your story is structured. Good luck!

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