Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Chaos Method of Book Editing

(First of all, I'd like to thank the talented Karen for being my awesome guest blogger last week She has amazing stories about networking.)

It may sound odd, but I've decided that I ♥ boxes. We moved into our new house last Friday. At first it was as fun as Christmas to tear into the boxes to see what was inside, but now that we're finally unpacking things that aren't absolutely essential to survival, I get a little pang every time I rip open the lid.

 You see, as long as the box is still shut up tightly, the things inside can't escape and make a mess. It's a beautiful thing. When you are writing a rough draft, it's probably a good idea to keep your plot inside some kind of a box. Some things have to be 'unpacked' before others or your story won't make any sense at all.

But your plot wasn't meant to stay neatly compartmentalized. A good plot should be out there where your characters will trip over it, get so frustrated with it that they kick it and break their toes. You know things are working when plot lines start whacking into each other like pool balls.

 J.K. Rowling is an absolute master at this. If you read Harry Potter as intensely as we do in our family, you will start to notice a pattern that looks something like this:

Something exciting happens to Harry
He wants to talk about it with Ron and Hermione
Other people's plots get in the way
Daily life gets in the way
Finally he talks to them and they come up with a plan
Something exciting happens to Harry
He wants to talk about it with Ron and Hermione...

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix, Harry has just finished detention with an evil hag named Delores Umbridge. When she touches the raw skin on the back of his hand, the scar on his forehead sears with pain. He hurries off to tell Ron and Hermione, but when he gets to the Gryffindor common room:

 1--Everyone is celebrating because Ron has just been made Keeper of the Gryffindor Quidditch team. Ron is too happy to discuss evil hags at the moment.

2--To make matters worse, Ron's feelings are hurt when he finds Hermione sound asleep by the fire.

3--Hermione is asleep by the fire because Fred and George have given her a potion to put her to sleep. They are testing magical joke products on first year students, and Hermione would stop them if she was awake.

4--Before Harry can explain this to Ron, Katie Bell calls Ron away to get new Quidditch robes.

5--Angelina pulls Harry aside to tell him that Ron isn't a great keeper, and she'd like Harry to help him practice.

6--Finally he wakes up Hermione, who says she's tired because she's been making hats for the house elves. After ping ponging through all these subplots, Harry finally gets the chance to tell Hermione what happened. Hermione suggests that Harry should talk to Dumbledore, but Harry is too upset at the way Dumbledore has been treating him, so the next morning, he decides to write a letter to Sirius.

7--On his way to the Owlery to mail the letter, he runs into Nearly Headless Nick who warns Harry to take a different corridor because Peeves is playing a trick in the main corridor.

8--Then Mrs. Norris, the cat, brushes past his legs.

9--He gets to the Owlery, mails a letter, sees a thestral, and runs into Cho Chang, the girl he has a crush on. Then Filch accuses Harry of being in the Owlery so he can order dungbombs. Harry wants to talk about these strange events to Ron and Hermione... And the cycle continues.

 Whose story is this, anyway? 

The whole Harry Potter series is filled with that kind of pattern. Harry spends much more time reacting to the other character's plots than he spends on his own. It could be argued that the other character's plots become his plot. Of course, the part I just summarized came from a chapter in the fifth book in the series. J.K. Rowling has had a lot of time to give her characters stories that can trip Harry up. That's the main reason every one of her books gets exponentially larger. It's harder to do in a stand-alone novel, or in the first book of a series, but it's so worth it.

I'm not privy to the inner workings of J.K. Rowling's mind, obviously. But I doubt that things happened in this order in the first draft. I imagine everything was much more compartmentalized in the beginning. One gargantuan box held Harry's story, and stacked on top of that was a box containing Hagrid's story, and another box had Fred and George's joke shop in it.

Eventually though, she was wise enough to unpack all the story ideas and let them play with each other. I imagine her thinking, "Hmm...things are going too smoothly for Harry right now. What can Filch do to mess things up? And it's probably time to move on to the next piece of Fred and George's story. And I know! Peeves is always good for at least half a page of frustration."

Wait a minute, what's a thestral?

In my imaginary first draft of Harry Potter 5, Harry didn't see thestrals while he stood in the owlery. Instead, what happened was that somewhere in the editing process, J.K. Rowling realized that she wanted thestrals to play an important part at the end of the book. So she had to fit them in to the book in several major places. She does that by creating a mystery around the thestrals. Only Harry and Luna can see them, so he fears he is going crazy. Smaller references to thestrals scattered throughout the book serve to keep them fresh in our mind so that we're not thrown off guard when they become important at the end.

 In the first draft of my own novel, Earth's Gate, a dragon and a griffin showed up in the last quarter of the book. Adding major magical elements to the last quarter of a fantasy novel is usually a bad idea, so I had to sift through my novel to find places to reference them. I added a meeting with a captive griffin to the first chapter, and a bear attack in chapter 5 got turned into a dragon attack. Then I started finding ways to add references to the creatures everywhere I turned, and pretty soon I had an unexpected sub-plot. J.K. Rowling's thought process was probably so much more organized than mine that they are barely comparable. Still, I would pay good money to get a sneak peak at her first draft. 

Ring, ring! 

 In television shows, have you ever noticed the way that phone calls come right at the end of important conversations? (This even happens in my beloved Burn Notice.) When I'm editing a story, I like to at least consider having the phone call happen at the least opportune moment. I like to think of it as the Chaos Method of Book Writing. Unpack all your boxes. Shake well. See what happens. But be sure to save your first draft. Just in case.

Check out this amazing blog post, in JK Rowling's own words.

 Do you write your subplots one at a time? Is your mind organized enough to keep them all chugging along at the right pace? If so, how do you do it? I'd love to hear your tips.


  1. Love how you applied writing to your move. Very clever metaphor.

    I love the Harry Potter books. I think JK Rowling is a master plotter. She always is juggling three or four subplots that all brilliantly tie in at the end. Not only that, but she carried some plot points all the way through seven books to the end. Just Brilliant IMO.

    I'm not sure how I plot. Somethings are there in the beginning. Some things are discovered on the way, and I have to go back and work them into the beginning. But I never juggle as many plot threads as JK Rowling's does. Not sure if I could. :)

  2. Love it! This makes me want to write! Keep up the great posts!

  3. I definitely share the chaos method of book writing. My initial brainstorming phase for short stories basically amounts to me writing like a painter might splatter paint on a canvas. I type out ideas randomly and without form, sometimes attempting to organize them in neat files like "characters", "sketches", "outline" and so on.

    It rarely works, but then, it's good for me to go back and look at all the ideas later as I organize them into their appropriate files. Writing them down is important for me - I've learned that my brain can only hold so many plot points at once!*

    (*Probably because it's full of all the theme songs to the cartoons that I watched as a kid. Why can't I manage to forget them???)

  4. Excellent. I usually have the main plot idea, but the subplots don't appear until prewrites when something sparks a side trip.

    I agree with you on JK Rowling. Simply amazing what she did. You've probably seen her outline method (link below). It's a method I use now, too, to keep things straight.

  5. JK Rowling is brilliant. I wonder what she'll come up with next. Anybody have any clue?

  6. Okay. You all are wearing me down. I am going to give Harry Potter another try. I need all the plot help I can get.

    The interruption trope kind of bothers me, especially on television shows, where people are always in the middle of a desperately important conversation that is just about to clear up the great misunderstanding that has torn apart a relationship, when some unlikely emergency interrupts. Drives me nuts when the priorities seem unrealistic. But then I have trouble in my own writing because I get *too* realistic, and in my real life I don't leave conversations unfinished very often. Which doesn't work well for the flow of a book...

    Great post. I like the chaos method. It sounds right up my alley.

  7. Susan, believe it or not, I'd never seen that awesome piece of paper before. I've never written a book with very many subplots before. This is my first attempt, and it's pretty scary. I'm happy to see such a simple way to keep track of all the pieces.

    Sheena, if JK Rowling could come up with another world as rich as Harry's, her position as world's most creative person would be unshakeable. I'm not certain it's possible.

    Sarah, listen to Jim Dale reading it. He's amazing.


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