Deconstruction … The Ultimate Writers Tool?

Like many of you, I’ve written a novel. Well, several novels, but I have one in an extremely marketable genre with all the bells and whistles. The query letter knocks agents’ socks off and most I query ask for the manuscript … and it hasn’t gone any further than that so far. Sigh …

The problem with the process is that agents simply don’t have the time (or the responsibility) to tell us why our work is rejected, short of the standard comments. “Not right for our agency” or “Not interested at this time” is absolutely no help. Of course, I understand how overworked and pressed these people are to find only the most profitable possibilities where taking on an author is concerned. But all too often the discouragement can be devastating.

Nope, this isn’t a blog about sticking it out and never giving up. It’s an entry about finding a solution.

I watch Top Chef. Being a retired chef, I love the show for a variety of reasons, but oddly enough, last night’s show crossed over into a new and different look at my novel. The contestants were challenged with taking a traditional recipe and deconstructing it. The goal is that the diner tours the various ingredients on the plate and when they’ve eaten it all, they get the flavor and emotion evoked by the original, calssic recipe. That made me wonder; is it time to deconstruct and rebuild my novel? In pondering this concept, I realized that I have already explored several possible tools to do just that, all I need to do is put them to work.

Here’s what I mean …

  1. Get a Mentor. Seriously. If you don’t have a mentor you really are floundering in the dark. Get a mentor but not just any mentor, a great mentor! Someone who knows not only how to write very, very well and sell their work, but also understands your genre. Having a mentor and using that mentor are two different things. Listening means nothing unless you put the advice into action. Yes it takes a little time to trust someone, especially if they tell you something that directly contradicts what you imagine was important and vital to the story. My best advice? Bite the bullet, swallow your ego and try. You always keep your original work, so where’s the harm in testing a suggestion? You’re no worse for the attempt and chances are, your work will be far better for it. Everything I learned from my mentor falls under the category of Deconstruction and Rebuilding.
  2. Back Story. Maybe you have a prolog or perhaps your book starts with something you feel sets the tone or tells a part of the story a reader may not understand. In many cases, opening a novel with back story simply slows it to a crawl. Not a good thing if your goal is to trap a reader in your imaginative lair and hold them there through 300+ pages. Remove the back story and plant it carefully within the text of your story, preferably within action/dialog scenes.
  3. The Dreaded Head Hopping Curse. Good gravy, I learned so much about this in one simple statement from my mentor, it made my own head spin. It’s one thing to have a sharp eye against incorrectly shifting POV, but head hopping is another nasty animal all together. It’s not something a writer should never do, but it is something a writer must do carefully. The key is to be inside the RIGHT head. It’s far simpler than I originally thought and here’s the trick. An event should always come from inside the head of the character who has the most to lose in that scene. Well DUH. If you’re anything like me, you have several scenes that should be rewritten this way to create a far more powerful story, scene by scene.
  4. Twenty-five Reasons, All in a Row. When starting a novel, everyone, even Dan Brown, gets caught up with the exciting energy of writing. Somewhere in the process we all step back and ask, “Where are we going? What was the point again?” Many authors have no issues working blind; they have an inner compass that pulls them from A to Z. Many of us aren’t quite like that. Some of us outline, some mind map, some make charts and graphs. All that is way too time consuming for me. Then someone told me an easy trick to getting started. (After all, getting started is the point, right? Can’t finish without beginning.) Here’s the coolest tool I’ve learned in a long time. Sit down and write twenty-five sentences on separate lines that basically tell your story from beginning to end. It may only take ten, it may take thirty, but get from start to finish in simple statements. There. Now you have a prompt for each and every chapter, in order and clearly guiding you through the conflicts and climax of your novel. Neat, huh?
  5. Co-Stars and Supporting Cast. Do you have a habit of falling in love with your supporting characters too? Sometimes a character is so much fun to write we tend to float that way, making the character more important than s/he needs to be and unfortunately, throwing the story off keel. I have a few I should seriously back off with, but there are also a few who are planned for the next book in the series, so approaching the supporting characters thoughtfully is major. If my reader falls in love with a secondary character because I unintentionally led them that way and that character has no real importance … the story suffers. I think this falls under the category of “kill your babies”. Painful but necessary.
  6. Get Readers and Listen to Them. Again, listening and doing something about what’s being said is two different things. In my mind, if a reader (friend, family member or crit buddy) asks a question about a character or event and I have to give a ten minute explanation … something just isn’t right with the manuscript. I do have a policy though, I wait until the reader has read and made notes on the whole manuscript before I begin addressing those questions. It saves me a little anguish during the process. It helps more to hear “you foreshadowed, “or “this came out of left field” than, “where’s this going?” before they’ve read the next page. Either way, it’s vital to hear what readers find cumbersome or misleading and do something about it.
  7. Set a Timeline. Yes, you need all the input you can get in order to begin a deconstruction and rebuilding process, but set a time limit for gathering that information. Continually thinking that one more reader or one more mentor should be found before you begin the work falls under that bad category of Procrastination. We writers are real good at that. Procrastination evolves into writers block then we’re screwed, big time. So determine a finite deadline for collecting as many well focused comments as you can gather then just do it. Put your head down and fingers to the keyboard, dismantle the entire book and make the changes.
  8. After the Rebuilding? Exactly, what happens next? It seems it will depend on the writer. For me, I’ll go back to my mentor and readers for a review of the changes. If it seems positive, I’ll begin the query process again.  It’ll be finger-crossing and nail-biting time here in my little home office but that’s what it’s all about. And in the process of deconstructing and rebuilding, I will have become a sharper writer. I’m game, D-day for the Deconstruct is tomorrow.
  9. Setting the Goal. One month is my goal. November 1, 2009. The rebuilding will be finished and polished by then and I’ll be moving ahead.

Um … pray for me, everyone. Now, where did I put those work gloves?

About Deborah Riley-Magnus

Deborah Riley-Magnus is an author and an Author Success Coach. She has a twenty-seven year professional background in marketing, advertising, and public relations as a writer for print, television, and radio. She writes fiction and non-fiction. Since 2010, she had two novels released. In 2013 her nonfiction, Finding Author Success (Second Edition), and Cross Marketing Magic for Authors were released. Her newest book, Write Brain/Left Brain, focuses on bridging the gap between the creative writer and the marketing author. Deborah produces several pieces monthly for various websites and online publications. She writes an author industry blog and teaches online and live workshops as The Author Success Coach. She belongs to several writing and professional organizations. Deborah has lived on both the east and west coast of the United States and has traveled the country widely. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and recently returned after living in Los Angeles, California for several years. View all posts by Deborah Riley-Magnus

5 responses to “Deconstruction … The Ultimate Writers Tool?

  • Windy Lynn

    This is terrific advice! Thank you for sharing.

    I’m starting a new novel project this week. Two others, we’ll call them “practice” ones, lie at the bottom of my file cabinet as proof that it takes years to become a great novelist. Good luck to you on the latest draft. I know you are on the right track!!

  • Deborah Riley-Magnus

    Thanks Windy! If only we knew that it took more then telling a great story, huh? But it is exciting to begin to see and understand how the “bones” hold up everything.

  • Moriah Jovan

    I did this, deconstructed it and threw out most of it and rewrote it. It was good. But this was the key: I had to go find my original notes to figure out what I had originally wanted to do. I’d strayed so far from that, added so much junk (TWO incongruent subplots). I had to drill down to its essence and rebuild.

    Now, I’m one of those people who has an inner compass to get me from point A to Z without plotting or mindmapping or whatever, BUT every so often I have to have some guide rails to keep me from going off the path. I write thousands of words of character sketches, I build flow charts, and ask the question, “Why?” a lot. A LOT.

    WHY did my character to do that? WHAT is the logical outcome/consequence of what that character did within the context of these circumstances? WHY would my character react that way and not this way?

    Your analogy:

    The contestants were challenged with taking a traditional recipe and deconstructing it. The goal is that the diner tours the various ingredients on the plate and when they’ve eaten it all, they get the flavor and emotion evoked by the original, classic recipe.

    is incomplete (if I read it right). It seems to me they ONLY deconstructed it, but did NOT rebuild it in a DIFFERENT way to make a new recipe.

    Without reading your novel, I can only speculate, but it seems to me you really may not need a complete deconstruction and rebuild. Your query gets results and you have NO IDEA why they’re passing. Why would you automatically assume it needs a rewrite?

    However, if you think deconstruction would be helpful to you, I would suggest the following: Backward engineer it and see if it all works.

    If you know how to write a screenplay, this should be easy. If not, it’s basically just using a basic elementary-school research-paper process using 3×5 cards to build an outline and remembering this one simple rule: 1 page of script per 1 minute on-screen finished film. Thus, a two-hour movie would have a 120-page script. You have very little room to move.

    First, separate your manuscript into three acts. Label them I, II, III. Do this on your 3×5 cards.

    Next, for act I, find all your scenes and label them A, B, C, etc. On a 3×5 card, write a sentence or two about scene A, scene B on another and so forth. Do this with each act.

    After that, for each scene, identify your moments and label them 1, 2, 3, etc. Follow the same process as above. Identify what makes that moment important.

    Once you’ve got all that done, write the outline of the book and study it as if you had never written the book before.

    That’s how you deconstruct. If you want to rebuild it in a DIFFERENT WAY, you can make some changes in your outline or not (after all, they’re just guideposts, not rules), then rewrite it from scratch. You have the elements in front of you, so…with the same characters and emotion and goal, rewrite the book in a different way.

    I do this all the time, but I also don’t mind writing thousands of words that’ll never see the light of day just to get a feel for my imaginary friends. A lot of writers are horrified by that, as they consider it a waste of time. Well, it’s just the way I work.

    But when I feel like I need to deconstruct and rebuild, I ask myself: How would I script this?

  • Deborah Riley-Magnus

    WOW! Moriah, thank you so much! The acts, the script concept, all of this is helping me see the building (or in this case rebuilding) blocks. You’re the greatest for taking the time to answer my question. Bless you …

  • JimmyBean

    I don’t know If I said it already but …I’m so glad I found this site…Keep up the good work I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say GREAT blog. Thanks, 🙂

    A definite great read..Jim Bean

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