Deconstructing a Novel


Pictured above: a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of everything that happens in a novel. Alas, it is not my novel.

This chapter breakdown is for Summerlost by Ally Condie, an excellent middle grade novel I read last Friday evening to Saturday morning. Summerlost  deals with coming-of-age and life after tragedy, hope, Shakespeare, big dreams, cheesy soap operas–even turkey vultures. It is graceful and wrenching and funny and sweet. It’s everything good middle grade should be, and I devoured it in practically one big gulp.

But here’s the thing: as a writer myself who hopes to one day see her words in actual print, I know that there is a man behind the curtain. The chapters I breezed through so quickly were maybe just a teeny bit excruciating to write. What to put in, what to leave out, what to save for later–style, polish, voice, tone, pacing–a million decisions were made before Summerlost found its way into my hands, and as a writer it’s my job to pay attention to the nitty gritty because:


What do you do when you’re stuck?

Because I am.

I’m stuck on what to do with the novel I wrote in 2015, my third manuscript. I think I’m going to completely re-write it. As in, COMPLETELY; new premise, new tense, new characters. Maybe I’ll keep the main character’s name . . . but I may not even do that.

(At what point is something considered a re-write vs. just a whole new effing book?)

I’ve got ideas swirling around in my head which I’ve been putting down in my notebook for the last couple months or so. (Sidebar: Anyone use a fabulous writing software that you consider indispensable and that makes organization happen for you? Tell me ’bout it. I’m not exactly killing it over here with my Mead notebooks and web charts.) But for now they’re just ideasI’ve got a general notion of what I’d like to say but no real plan. Plus, I’m pretty sure the novel taking shape in my head is one that would be impossible to actually write. Trying would be pointless. And even if I did write the book, no agent would ever look at it, no publisher would buy it, and the kids whom I want to one day be my readers would pass right by my baby for something truly worthwhile by JK Rowling or Ally Condie or Kate DiCamillo. Or they’d just play video games.

Oh, the little pep talks writers give themselves before starting new projects!

So until I get to that happy beginning–be it outline or first draft, first scene, whatever–I’m taking apart works I admire, chapter by chapter. Maybe I can be like the mechanic who dismantles the whole car and then intuitively knows what to do whenever faced with a set of squeaky brakes or a sputtering engine. I’m hoping osmosis will work on me so that WHEN (not if) I set about on my next draft or re-write or brand spankin’ new book, I’ll have a better idea of how the whole shebang holds together. Maybe in deconstructing someone else’s novel, I’ll figure out more of what I want to say and HOW I want to say it. Because the HOW is everything.

It’s not quite a start. It’s more of pre-start . . . a few decimal points behind the real thing. But it’s something.

And now if you’ll excuse me–gotta get back to my latest dismantling, of Landline by Rainbow Rowell.

(Oh God please oh please ohpleaseohplease let this mean that I’ll now be able to write like Rainbow Rowell.)

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