Revisions on the draft of the bisexual road manager of a rock band novel (the working title is Where The Bands Are) are progressing pretty slowly. Partly this is because doing revisions makes me anxious and in the absence of a deadline, I therefore spread out working sessions by several weeks (okay, usually an entire month), and work on it at my monthly three-hour block of time at the quiet room at the library. Having dedicated, bounded time set off for revision work lets me step around the anxiety, and knowing that I don’t have to work on it other at those times helps.
Unfortunately, that’s not very efficient, so I need to figure out a way to work on it more regularly. One step toward doing that was working on a type of revision that wasn’t actual words-on-screen centered: breaking things out on index cards. I call it “carding the story out,” which is obviously a very silly name, but whatever works.
The last working session at the library, I kept going through scenes wondering why the flow felt so off. I couldn’t figure out where to insert some additional elements that I knew needed to be in the story, because it felt misshapen and they didn’t fit anywhere. I needed a higher-level and literally visual way of seeing how the story fit together and the shape of it.
First, I used Word’s features to insert section breaks and look at the story in the navigation pane tab. This helped a little bit, as it forced me to realize just how late in the story the final arc was kicking in—around chapter 18 of 22! My sense of how misshapen the story was had actually been understated.
That’s when I decided I needed to break the story out onto cards. I bought a pack of 3×5 index cards and a Sharpie and settled down in my living room with the draft file open. I went through the document, summarizing each event of each chapter on a card with key words.
Because I was breaking things down by event (a discrete thing that happens in the plot) rather than scene, some cards summarized two to as many as five scenes. So a card might say “Chapter 3, Scene 1 – Conversation In The Bar,” or “Chapter 8, Scene 3-5 – Leaving Chicago.”
Then I took the cards and laid them out by chapter, with extra cards noting overall story arcs. It crossed my entire living room and looked like this (cat included for disapproval):
One look told me exactly what I needed to know: the middle was much too long and meandering! What had hard to figure out when scrolling through a document was so obvious when made physical and visual like this. I then went through the cards and marked particular events to be cut out (including an entire subplot), merged, or moved offscreen.
I then made notes to flesh out that last arc, which is still much too short, as well as the brief beginning of a plan B for if I decide I need to cut the last arc altogether and end the story in a different place.
I wrote the first draft of WTBA in 2008. It sat on an external hard drive and as a backup printed-out copy until 2017, when I finally picked it up again and read it through for revision notes. I foolishly though I would be able to crank out revisions in a month or two. To be both honest and fair to myself, the anxiety getting in the way stalled it for much of 2017, too, so maybe it’s reasonable to say I didn’t really start working on it until January of 2018. It’s May 2018 now and there’s still a long way to go.
But I’m learning so much from working on it, and figuring out a lot of concrete processes that I know will be really useful for future longform projects, too. I don’t regret a bit of the weird path this book is taking, and even if it ends up not ever going out into the world, it’ll still be something I’m very proud of, that I gave a lot of time and effort, and that I didn’t give up on.