Thursday, 6 April 2017

My Novel is a Mess (How to survive the chaos point in your novel)

Reprinted for my Sheridan students.  Yes, I work to outline, just like I taught you.  And then this happens.

By Melodie Campbell  (Bad Girl)

Yes, I’m at that point.  Writing to a specific word count, three-quarters written, and my fourteenth novel is an unqualified mess. 

If you are a veteran writer like me, you say it’s not going to happen this time.  But it does. EVERY FREAKING TIME.

Here’s why:

The Linear Approach:

This time, you are going to write linear, by gawd.  One chapter after another, in mathematical order, until you reach the end.  Each chapter will have an outline.

But here’s the problem with that.  You signed a contract that specifies a pretty exact word count.  Is your story going to magically end at the precise word count you need?

Damn straight, it’s not.  It’s going to meander along, minding its own business, taking little side trips, refusing to stay on course.

Because, of course, outlines are just that.  They’re a guide.  You don’t know whether the story is really going to pull together with sufficient motivation and all the goodies until you actually write the thing.  And here’s what happens mid-writing:

You need a new character to make the plot work.  You just thought of a fab new subplot.  Orlando doesn’t work as a side-setting.  You need to move it to Phoenix, and that means a whole lot of changes…

And before you know it, you’re scribbling on the outline, adding this, subtracting that, and then it happens.  Your book is a mess.

Scene plus Scene

I write comedy, and comedy is finicky.  Those good lines come when they come, and you have to get them down fast.  Sometimes they’ll present themselves to me when I’m in a restaurant.   
Sometimes, when I’m already in bed.  (Yes, I keep a pen and paper on my bedside table. Ditto, by the loo.)

I always have an outline.  But when writing a highly comedic book, you have to write those funny scenes when you are inspired.  This means hopping around the timeline, writing the scene that works for you today, thinking of another great line, hopping back to an old scene to insert it, when you should be moving forward. 

Which brings you to this point: the important scenes are written, and they present themselves like completed sections of a jigsaw puzzle.  You need to put them together.  Find the pieces that are missing and write the bits to connect them.

Because Sister, your novel is a mess.

That’s the point I’m at now.  The comedy is there.  The conflicts are in place.  The climax is written.  Now I need to take that kaleidoscope and move those pieces into the pattern that works best.

How to cope?  I think the best thing you can do is accept that this is going to happen.  Unless you are a robotic automaton lacking inspiration, you are going to veer from the plan more than once. 

At some point, every novel you write is going to be a mess. 

My advice: just accept it.  And understand that part of your role as writer is that of clean-up artist. 

That’s where I stand today, staring at a story that looks like a tornado just ran through it.

Time for the cleanup crew. 

Many thanks to Alison Bruce for the cool new graphic, combining many aspects of the Goddaughter novels! 


  1. Well said Melodie! I.i do the create scenes and stick together too, some times not always. And have trouble staying the course on an outline. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Linda, I wonder if our outlines might be worth money some day? grin - Mine looks like a chimp got at it.

  2. Yup. My WIP has hit "mess" state right now, at about 55K words. Ack. Where is that outline..?

    1. Hurry and finish it, Anne! I'm waiting for that book :)