Your Novel in Notecards: A Revision Exercise

Naomi Hawkins-Rowe

It has been over a year since I finished the first draft of my novel and I would really be humbled to say I have a very clean, ready-to-be-sent-draft. I don’t. The reason most likely stems from the fact that I wasn’t really sure where to start with revision. It’s an overwhelming beast, as I am sure you know if you’ve been sadistic enough to do it. Most days my brain hurts just thinking about it. I began the process by doing a complete read through and then going chapter by chapter rewriting and making more notes in the sidebar until my Word doc looked like a flippin’ Norton Anthology.

Let me tell you a secret: I’ve been informed there’s a better way.

On Oct 18th, Along with the above photo,I posted the following to Facebook: My novel in note cards; I’m looking for gaps in the plot and sub-plots. To be honest there are a few black holes 😄. But writing is an adventure I guess and I’ve always wanted to explore deep space. This, however, is cheaper, more eco-friendly, and doesn’t require a suit that would induce my claustrophobia. #amwriting #revisionisnotfortheweak

I recently had the privilege of hearing Bess Cozby and Cheryl Klein (whose book The Magic Words is sublime!) speak on numerous topics at the SCBWI MidSouth conference in  September, but most notably  on REVISION! I left their sessions with a notebook full of advice–all of which I plan to put into practice–but I decided to begin with one of Cozby’s suggestions: After a draft, write out each scene on a note card.  Then take a picture and post it on Facebook, Instagram, etc. Why this never occurred to me, I haven’t the foggiest.

The exercise was a great place to start, because you are not writing out your story as you wish it to be, but as it actually is. The goal being to find inconsistencies in your plot and subplot lines, as well as character development, backstory and world building. Cozby, who is both an editor and a novelist, uses her cards to note a brief description of the scene, the protagonists goals, beats of the scene, resolution and to make notes on subplots and backstory. It’s genius. I took what she included and revised it a little to fit my needs since I am writing a story with four interwoven POVs and for this go around I felt overwhelmed diving into beats of the scene and scene resolution. My color-coded cards included the following:
scene #
additional characters present
a description of the scene
narrator’s goal
antagonist (internal/external)
cultural notes (and backstory)
(Sidenote: If I was unable to fill in one of these categories, such as the narrator’s goal, I left it blank, which showed me I needed to address why I didn’t have an answer and how to remedy it.)

Beginning of the transformation; leaf art by my son.

The note card process showed me exactly what it was intended to do: that there are some massive plot and subplot holes, that I haven’t given two of my narrators a strong enough / fitting goal to the events that happen within their story lines, and that there is an imbalance in the shift between the narrators. I also learned that I have some more research to do to make my novel rich and honoring of the culture I am writing about. Having the cards aligned on my wall, I now see my novel unfurled, which for someone who is highly visual it’s a tremendous help. Since October 18th, I’ve been researching and meditating how to fix what is broken, all while redressing those cards (see the picture above) with a red pen, a hefty stash of Post-Its, and my answers to questions from Chapter 6 of Klein’s book. (Sorry, since I don’t have permission from the author to share them, I feel uncomfortable posting them online. But seriously, go buy her book. I promise you won’t regret it.)

I wish I had a time-turner; I could have saved myself months of wasted time. I urge you to begin your revision process by writing your story out, as-is, on note cards. Find your black holes. Get a little messy.

One of my favorite lines from I Heart Huckabees is Caterine Vauban’s (played by Isabelle Huppert) paradoxical chant: “Creation. Destruction. Creation. Destruction.” I guess that’s how I’ve come to see the business of writing. By pulling apart are stories, we can create something new, something better. So Faulkner-it and “kill your darlings”; destroy to create. Take the nuggets that are left–the good stuff, the stuff that is the core of your story–and reform, rebuild, revise. Your story will thank you for it.

Ok, writer friends, let’s get busy. Clock’s ticking.


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