I was in the querying and submission stages of my debut young adult novel, The Accidental Bad Girl, I consistently received two pieces of criticism.
The first was, “I don’t understand the motivations. I don’t understand why [spoiler alert] Gilly would have done that to Kendall. I don’t understand why Kendall wouldn’t just go to the police. I don’t understand why.”
I summarily ignored these comments. Because it takes such a long time to a) write a book, b) find representation for a book, and c) get ready to sell a book, I was able to ignore these comments for literally years.
If I’m being honest with myself, I often ignored these notes (generously and sincerely given by friends and colleagues) because I secretly believed that my readers simply weren’t reading with enough high-level comprehension; no one was understanding the subtlety of my storytelling.
Or, if I didn’t ignore them, I tried to deal with them in as offhand and surgical a way as I could: I added passages literally explaining why my characters were acting the way that they were acting. (This, somehow, did not satisfy my critics.)
I was on the verge of writing off my dear commenting friends, all whom I had admired and respected for years, as just not quite cut out for this kind of work, when my eventual agent gave me the same comment, but worded in a slightly different way.
She said: “I’m just not sure what the stakes are here.”
And it hit me like an anvil. Oh right: stakes. If it doesn’t clearly matter what will happen if a character makes one decision versus the opposite decision, then motivations truly disappear.
I could tell the readers why Kendall, my main character, my baby femme-fatale-in-training, didn’t go to the police at any given point in the story, but with nothing viscerally at stake for her, why in hell should they believe me?
And, and not insignificantly, why is that any fun to read?
The other note I consistently received was concerns about the pacing. I got rejected from more than one literary agency specifically because of exponentially slow pacing. My prose, basically everyone agreed, was good. My narrative voice was engaging. My characters were (despite questions about motivation) vibrant and three-dimensional. My weaving in of thematic elements, like rape culture and slut-shaming, was done effectively and well.
But, after a solid bang of a start to the book, about a third of the way in, the narrative fell into a dead zone – a Bermuda Triangle of plot.
At this point, I was reading the manuscript over and over again, just as a matter of principle, and I couldn’t deny it: The book stopped dead in its tracks at about page 125. I started with a ton of action up front. The plot zoomed forward, but somehow, with each chapter, fewer and fewer events of consequences seemed to occur; my characters were just meandering from room to room, having conversations – and none of these conversations did anything to advance the plot.
And I had no idea how to fix it.
Then, flummoxed and verging on panic, in the middle of read 957, I realized something essential: The problems with the motivations and the problems with the pacing were intrinsically, irredeemably linked.
The difficulty was, as boring as it was to read the dead zone, that section was where I had drafted all of the good stuff when it came to the development of the characters and their relationships with each other. So of course no one was hooking into the emotional stakes for the characters, their emotions – they were bored out of their minds when they were reading what they needed to read in order to hook into them.
And no wonder the external stakes were vanishingly thin – I hadn’t designed the arc of the story in a way that would sustain them…and not just sustain them, but grow them over the course of a full-length novel.
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So how could I fix this? I couldn’t just scrap the boring section wholesale. That boring section contained some of the emotionally resonant parts of the book, especially the development of the central friendship, between Kendall and loner Simone. Simone had been every single reader’s favorite character, bar none, and their friendship formed the emotional core of the story – and, crucially, the actual writing there was working.
Readers still loved Simone even though she was mostly in the part of the book that bored them to tears because nothing was happening. I couldn’t get rid of it.
I realized that was true for a lot of the book. There was a lot of good writing in the manuscript as it was, but none of it was servicing the plot. The best-developed characters in the world are useless to the reader if their development doesn’t matter to the plot – if they never actually do anything, if their evolving motivations don’t affect action.
So I kept most of the writing. And I kept the overall story. But I completely re-plotted it.
My hero’s journey
First, I went back to basics. It’s no longer fashionable to teach the Hero’s Journey, and for good reason. Joseph Campbell was a genius, but dogmatic adherence to the structure of the Hero’s Journey, especially in overly worshipful hands, can lead to stolid, bloodless (metaphorically – literally, it’s often quite bloody) writing, and the storytelling is all too susceptible to reinforcing a patriarchal framework.
I was and am cognizant of all of that. But I used the Hero’s Journey anyway, and I’m here to tell you: This is some of the best plotting advice you can find, and it’s just a Wikipedia post away.
There are lots of variations on Campbell’s systems, including more modern wordings, as well as Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. I read them all and then distilled the systems down to the main data points that seemed to exist across all of them. And because I’m the kind of person who needs to write things down in order to understand them, I drew two columns in my notebook, and wrote the data points on the left side.
- Call to adventure.
- Refusal of the call.
- Crossing the first threshold, or as I called it, the point of no return.
- The road of trials, or, “Fun and Games.” This is the point where the hero follows the quest they have undertaken, meeting friends and foes along the way.
- Midpoint, where everything changes.
- Bad guys close in.
- Dark night of the soul.
- Refusal of return to the quest.
- Return of spirit, embarking on a slightly altered quest.
- Crossing a second point of no return.
- Climactic confrontation with antagonist.
- The road back.
This might seem like an obvious structure, one that your brain should automatically tack on to any story. But, honestly, if someone claimed to think like this without trying, I would assume they were either deluding themselves or that their writing wasn’t very exciting.
People don’t organically experience time, life, adventure, anything, really, as a series of events with a beginning, middle, and end. Fitting our experiences into a narrative is something we do only in retrospect. I am of the fervent belief that this process is the process by which we form our conceptions about our own identity. That kind of storytelling is the most profoundly human thing that we do.
And that’s how I started to see my manuscript for The Accidental Bad Girl. I took all of that material, looked at my list of data points on a narrative trajectory, and asked myself: Out of this mass of material, what moments could fit where? I started filling in the right side of the chart with the plot of my novel.
In order to make something really good, you have to break something decent. There’s no way to outsmart yourself, to make that step unnecessary.
To my great relief (and, to be honest, surprise), I could, with a few exceptions, map out moments I had already written to correspond with “fun and games,” “dark night of the soul,” “midpoint,” and “bad guys closing in.”
The ending…not so much. I literally highlighted the last 30 pages of my manuscript and hit Delete.
But that act of radical excision didn’t worry me too much, because now I had a strategy to fix the problems! There would be nonstop action! There would be a narrative arc with steadily increasing stakes! I had a strategy!
What I lacked were tactics. I played with a few ideas of how to implement this new narrative structure. In college, my process for writing papers had been to first write a “vomit draft” of all my ideas, unencumbered by the need for lucidity or persuasion. Then I would print it out, start with a blank document and actually retype the whole thing, editing and refining as I went. I considered doing that with my manuscript. It would have been tidy – organized. I’m a chronological writer by nature, so it appealed to those instincts.
But practicality raised its polite head – I had already spent so long first finishing the damn thing and then well over a year looking for an agent. If I didn’t want to spend another two years getting it ready to submit to publishers, then there was no time to painstakingly retype 80,000 words.
So I did what I always do, because it is the way I am wired: I went direct and very, very messy.