My RX For a Bloated Novel; Posterboard and Sticky Notes

If, like me, you love to listen to yourself write, you’ve probably needed to cut huge swaths of words out of your novels. I’m rewriting my YA urban fantasy St. Vitus Academy Bk. 1; The Lazarus Rock. Word count: I’m afraid to say (shh–it’s 129,000 words looooong.)

A giant poster board
Multi-colored sticky notes of various sizes
A keen sense of ruthlessness

(Alert: Here’s where being a touch OCD comes in handy.  A touch OCD?  Okay, I’ll admit it. Adrian Monk sends me emails saying, “Chill out.”)

(1) I start by labeling the chapters (in orange) and sticking them on the board.
(2) Then, I write each scene out on a slender sticky (in manila) and place them under their chapters. (The green tabs are for the days of the week, for easy reference.)

It looks like this:

Right away, a few problems become clear: There are 30 chapters and over 130 scenes! What do I think I’m writing, The Stand?

(3) The third step is to break it down into three acts, then label where each act ends (red arrows after Ch. 8 and Ch. 20):
This throws into stark contrast another major issue and that’s with pacing.  Look at how many scenes are in the 3rd act.

Act 1: 23 scenes.
Act 2: 53 scenes.
Act 3: 58 scenes.

What’s the 3-act structure and why should a novelist care? Here’s a basic summary from screenwriter Alexandra Sokoloff:

Introduce a main character and a problem, intensify the problem, then solve it.

Another bare-bones structure summation that you hear a lot is: someone wants something very badly and is having trouble getting it (but eventually does.) Again, three parts: a heroine with a desire, opposition to the desire, and eventual triumph (or failure).

(Read the whole blog post here.) It’s not like there’s an exact algorithm, but the 3rd act should probably not be where you want to load a lot of your story.  Best case scenario, you should have most of your storylines except the major conflict all wrapped up by the end of the 2nd act. I’ve received feedback saying that, in the 3rd act, the tension flattens out and the forward momentum feels uneven.  Most of Ch. 23 has always vexed me, and that’s because those scenes are in the wrong place.  They should be in the build-up rather than the winding down as they tie up secondary plotlines and character development.

Now I know that some scenes can be moved around in order to fix some pacing issues.  But should they be?  How do I know which of this multitude of scenes should make the final cut?

Step (4) is what I call the Disney scene test.  Pull out a DVD of a Disney movie, any will do, and study the scene selection section. (Disney has a long history of really solid storytelling and you can see why in how they label their scenes.)

From Mulan: Honor To Us All, The Matchmaker, A Proclamation From the Emperor, Mulan’s Choice.

From The Incredibles:  Golden Age, Weddings and Lawsuits, 15 years and 50 pounds.

See how efficient?  How the titles hint at movement in the story, from the golden age of superheroes to changes in the status quo to middle age malaise? (This malaise will be Bob Parr’s status quo–how does a former superhero play ordinary and not help people? –as the plot catalyst throws the story into action.)


Whereas I have scenes labeled, “Michael asks Reginald questions,” and “Anne meets Noah in Chem class.”

S0 I went through and titled all my scenes as though they were for a DVD. If I couldn’t come up with a good title, I examined the scene for flabbiness or relevance.  I also labeled weak scenes in purple, and weak scene-outs–the end of a scene or the hook.  If I find myself floundering as a scene comes to a close, it usually means I don’t have it yet.  I haven’t shaped this scene with a beginning, a middle and an end, with enough of a reason to exist. (A recent post on the Pikes Peak blog by Robin Widmar with some great scene-writing advice.) Here’s what my giant posterboard of anality looks like now:

Whew!  I have a ton of work to do and I’m not even done with the overlay yet. But it’s all becoming much more clear thanks to the power of multi-colored sticky notes.

Next, I’m trying to address the issue of having a weak antagonist. I keep the real antagonist hidden for more than half of the novel, but his proxy should be more prominent up till then. So for Step (5), I tabbed in blue all the places where the antagonist appears or has an influence on a scene.

I then went through and tried to strengthen and tighten up the scenes to make the antagonist more of an obstacle to the main characters and to up the ante. I marked the plan in the blue squares at the bottom. The purple squares are ideas for jazzing up or combining weak scenes to strengthen the overall story movement.

Step (6). Finally, I started a “pink plan” (in, um, pink) to track the changes that will need to happen as I move scenes around and make major adjustments.

That certainly looks crowded and confusing, but it’s actually made the issues in my novel quite clear and shown me some ideas for fixing them. It’s easy to move the sticky notes around and get an overall sense of how the rewrites will affect the story. Hooray for the giant posterboard of anality! Now to pick up a scalpel and gleefully murder some of these darlings…

Next up on Devlin’s blog: My Origin Story Part 8: The Obligatory Post-Apocalyptic Novel

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11 Responses to My RX For a Bloated Novel; Posterboard and Sticky Notes

  1. Wow, Chris! What an impressive process, I wish I could be so organized. “posterboard of anality” ❤


  2. Chris Devlin says:

    Glad you liked it, Kir! We’ll see if I actually get the work done now that I’m more clear on what needs to be done. I’m still incredibly impressed with the revision job you did on Ice Song.
    Whatever system you used, it must have been amazing. And such discipline… I wish being OCD meant the same thing as having great discipline.
    Great to see you, cheers.


  3. Giles Hash says:

    Holy crap! That is one intense process. I have to plan out my stories, but there is no point in my writing that gets that involved. I wing it sometimes, even though I use a pretty in-depth outline.


  4. Wow, indeed. It’s seems your OCD is of benefit (although I never thought you were OCD or at least I haven’t seen it ;-)).

    I honestly don’t think I could sit down and do something like this. Maybe I’m just too scared to or I’m in denial that my story fits into a traditional three stage process or that it even can or should.

    I’ve never been a planner or a plotter, an outliner or a storyboarder. Often times, I don’t really even know where I’m going. I just sit down and let the magic happen, or at least I hope it does. Inspiration often comes on the spur of the moment. 🙂

    The Disney scene test is a pretty cool idea as well. I already know my story would fail this test, but I think it might be fun to try it anyway (you know, whenever I finish this draft). Can’t wait to see where this posterboard, sticky note, revision process is headed and how it will all end. Keep up the great, inspiring work, my friend.


    • Chris Devlin says:

      Mwah hah hah, I’ve managed to keep my OCD hidden from someone! That’s a win. 😉
      You know, the process of each of my novels has been mostly to just write and then see where it takes me. I’m not sure how much choice we all have in that kind of thing. But I’m definitely interested in shaping my scenes in a way that’s interesting at least to me, and I’ve found that applying these ideas helps with that. I’m also going to use the giant posterboard framework with the second St. Vitus novel ahead of time, and see if that means less rewriting later.

      So far, I’ve sharpened up the antagonist in one of the early chapters but I actually added words rather than cut them. Shrug. We’ll have to see.

      Your writing is so magical–in the stream, such a strong narrative voice. Whatever you do to make that happen, that’s a good thing. You have to feel it in your own way. So, you keep up the great work too, my friend. 😉


  5. I’ve been editing my novel with yWriter5. It’s freeware, and created by author Simon Haynes 😀

    The one thing about yWriter5 I think is “odd” is that your actual text has to be placed into scenes within chapters. Even if your chapter is only one scene, you have to create the one scene inside the chapter before you paste in your text. 😕

    The name index was also a bit of work. The program indexes characters by a short name (ie: “Holden”) and a full name (ie: Holden Morrisey Caulfield). People (of regular castes) born before 1800 generally did not have middle names. Thus, my older vampires should not have (originally had) middle names. And then I had to come up with middle names for the minor character vampires born in the 19th Century or afterward… 😉

    YWriter5 has already inspired me to condense and re-write two chapters into one. The first thirteen chapters seem to flow pretty well, though. 🙂


    • Chris Devlin says:

      I’ve heard there a lot of good scriptware and novel-help programs out there. I’m such a technoboob (just ask Eldridge or Michelle Hoff or, you know, anyone who’s ever tried to help me with techie stuff.) I’m also having back trouble that’s exacerbated by sitting at a computer, so the low-tech system is ideal for me.

      That’s pretty funny that you have to invent middle names for your characters. But I wonder, were any of them Catholic? Because then you could imagine what saint they would pick for their Confirmation name. The saint you pick as a child can say a lot about your character. (Mine was, of course, Joan of Arc.) I love name stuff with characters though, and have been known to spend hours on websites picking a single name.

      Sounds like the rewriting is going well, good luck.


  6. …were any of them Catholic?
    Good call, Devlin!
    L was born in Belfast, Ireland in 1703. 😉
    Considering she’s “lapsed” (self-admitted, in her POV during the 1874 prologue), a Confirmation name may not be appropriate. Her maiden name is now her middle name, and she kept her first husband’s last name as a post-mortem tribute (with D‘s blessing). Details are now in her yWriter5 Bio.


  7. They make software than can handle this stuff. I’ve tried several (back when I was a book distributor, they used to send me free samples), but I never found any that worked much better than plain old pens and paper. So even though this is so much work, I think writing it out is the best way to go. And P.S., the sticky notes are genius. I use index cards and push pins (color-coded by character), which requires cork boards. But sticky notes — very cool.


    • Chris Devlin says:

      Index cards and push pins do the trick–I like the posterboard because it’s nice and light. I’ve had fantasies of inventing a white board that came with its own magnetized mini-pieces for chapters, scenes and notes. That way you could erase each of the pieces when you’re done with one novel and use them for a second. But since I have absolutely no idea how to deal with any of that stuff, I just stick to my humble posterboard. 😉


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