ithout reading a single word of your novel, I can tell you some of its strengths and weaknesses by using the “Shrunken Manuscript” technique. The technique was born accidentally several years ago, when a friend asked me to critique her manuscript. We were a bit short on money at the time and I didn’t want to print out a couple hundred pages to read. Instead, I single-spaced the manuscript, reduced the font and then printed it out.
What I saw amazed me. Chapters that covered ten pages were now encapsulated on just three pages. It was easier to see how Act I led into Act II. Instead of flipping through hundreds of pages to check a fact, I had only a couple dozen pages to go through.
I decided to be really radical. I eliminated all white space at the ends of chapters and reduced the font to only 6-point, or even 5-point, until I had an entire 50-60,000 word novel in less than 30 pages.
I’ve heard the complaints: you can’t read a manuscript at that font size. You don’t need to. .
How to Use the Shrunken Manuscript Technique
Here’s how the process works. Identify something you want to visualize about your manuscript. I often ask students to identify their five strongest chapters, with strongest defined in any way they think is helpful for their manuscript. Then, take a bright marker and put an X over the strongest chapters. Yellow markers don’t tend to work as well as blue or pink. Finally, lay the manuscript on the floor in three rows with about ten pages in each row.
Now, step back and observe.
For example, if you have two strong chapters at the beginning and three strong chapters at the end, you have the dreaded sagging middle problem. If you have two strong chapters in the middle and three at the end, then you must question the opening: perhaps you started the story too early. An absence of X-ed chapters toward the end means you need a better climax.
At first, students were skeptical that this Shrunken Manuscript technique worked. But they were working in groups, and within each group, writers had exchanged and read manuscripts. When I identified one story as having a sagging middle, I asked the writer’s group if that was true of the manuscript. They said yes.
So, what are the rules of the Shrunken Manuscript? Actually, everything is arbitrary, based on rules I made up as I worked with the technique.
1. 30 pages. For me, 30 pages are about all I can take in visually at a time. Manuscripts up to 60,000 words can be shrunken to 30 pages; sometimes you need to put the story into two columns, which shrinks it even more. For manuscripts over 60,000 words, divide the manuscript in half and repeat the exercise for each half.
2. Mark 5-6 items. In 30 pages, it works well to mark 5-6 successful chapters. You could do more or less, but then you start to fudge on your criteria for a strong chapter.
3. Make your own key. While I like to mark chapters with a marker, others use stickers, glitter, beads and more.
4. Mark anything you want. The technique is flexible and can be used to consider anything in your story. Here are some suggestions, but feel free to adapt as needed:
- How often do the protagonist and antagonist go head to head? The conflicts should be spread out consistently through the novel and it must definitely happen in the climax scene.
- Where does a certain character appear and how much space is devoted to that character? Here, you wouldn’t mark entire chapters, but scenes in which the character appears. What’s useful here is that you can easily see proportions. If Character A only appears in short scenes, so only 10% of the story (or 3 pages total) features Character A, then A shouldn’t be the main character.
- Dialogue versus prose. Because dialogue is often short, it tends to leave open space on the shrunken manuscript, making it easy to gauge if you are prose heavy or dialogue heavy.
- Does your setting vary across the story? Use different colors to mark the different settings. Often, writers want a setting to recur, with the subsequent events in that setting contrasting or supporting the previous events. This allows you to pinpoint exactly when the settings occur in the story.
In other words, this technique is good at evaluating the big picture of a novel, the overall structure, pacing, interactions. (See complete instructions on Shrunken Manuscripts here.)
I wondered if there were other useful techniques for seeing the big picture, and this is what I found.
Scott Westerfield and Justine Larbalestier use an adaptation of a spreadsheet to track a novel’s plot. Larbalestier says, “A novel is a large document containing a whole world with a population that can range from one (boring navel-gazing novel about a man trapped inside a unicycle) to billions or more (space opera where the Empress of the universe destroys a whole planet and the reader follows the last day of each inhabitant of said planet). Keeping track of all of that is tricky.”
Basically, you can decide to track chapters or scenes. Then for each scene/chapter, you fill in columns that ask Characters Present, Goal of Scene/Chapter, Setting, Timeline, Action v. Sitting Around, Word Count, and virtually anything else you want to chart. Depending on how obsessive you are, you can play with the spreadsheet software and do things such as highlight character names in different colors. Be sure to use consistent terminology, such as always calling a place “the picnic area,” and not changing it to “the park.” If you stay consistent, then you can use the spreadsheets sorting capability, letting you see at a glance how many scenes/chapters take place at the picnic area.
Both the spreadsheet plotting and the Shrunken Manuscript Technique are useful for revising a long novel because you can see different items at a glance. But they aren’t the same.
Shrunken Manuscripts can show you proportions at a glance, for example, how much space is devoted to Character A. You can find out the same information in spreadsheet plotting, but you must add up numbers: it’s not visual. With Shrunken Manuscripts, it’s also easy to mark multiple issues at one time by using different colors or other keys.
Spreadsheet plotting allows you to scan the actual content of chapters just by glancing down a column. If you have one column for the emotional impact of a scene/chapter—perhaps assigning a 1-5 for emotional content—you can easily identify how the emotional arc is progressing. So, either content or progressions (plot, narrative arc, character arc, or emotional arc) are easier with spreadsheets.
From Shrinking to Exploding
On the other hand, when Kirby Larson, winner of the Newberry Honor medal (given to the most distinguished book published in children’s literature that year) for Hattie Big Sky, hit a wall in her writing, she took it to heart.
With the help of her friend and co-author, Mary Nethery, she taped large sheets of paper around the walls of her office. Then around the room, she wrote the major plot lines and started working with them. After two days of working BIG, she had her plot and working outline for revision done.
Working big or small, changing the manuscript’s size helps an author see the story better.
We’ve talked about techniques for seeing the overall shape of a story. What about techniques for seeing different aspects of the story? Here’s one for characters. Everyone knows that characters should run a story and that interesting characters make for interesting stories. But did you put an interesting character in your novel right from the start?
Read the first five pages of your story. Done? Stop!
Turn over page five and write down everything you know about the main character from those first five pages.
Does your list look something like this?
- 20 years old
- likes red nail polish
If that’s all you know after five pages, you’re in trouble! By the end of five pages, readers should know much more about your main character, or they are likely to abandon the story. By page five, I like to be able to list at least a dozen unique characteristics, bits of trivia about the character, likes or dislikes, life issues, fears, etc. Do you give the reader a hint about the character’s inner life, not just a physical description? Do you give the reader a view of the setting through your character’s eyes?
By the end of page five, the reader should be hooked—by your characters.
Suggestion: Repeat the evaluation for a section near the middle of the book. Maybe you need to throw out the first couple chapters because you were learning who your characters are. If the results are just as dry and sterile though, you’ll definitely want to study characterization.
The difficult thing about dialogue is that it simulates speech, it begs for the ear. One way to test your dialogue is to pick a section of your novel with lots of dialogue. Remove the actions, thoughts, and speech tags, rewriting it as a play or script. Then, ask a couple friends to read it aloud. If you have the capability, either audiotape or videotape this reading.
Here’s an example from The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, Chapter 9, with all speech tags and actions removed:
Grace: Oh, there you are. Come, dear, let’s go to your room and I’ll fix your hair.
Grace: Have you eaten?
Turtle: Mrs. Baumbach made me a dinner.
Grace: Your poor father’s probably starving; he’s been so busy on the phone, changing appointments and all.
Turtle: Daddy’s eating in the coffee shop; I just saw him there.
Grace: I think you should wear your party dress tonight; you look so pretty in pink.
Grace: You know, sweetheart, I’m rather hurt that you won’t tell your own mother about your clues.
Turtle: My lips are sealed.
Grace: Just one eensy-beensy clue?
Notice first, that Turtle doesn’t answer each time Grace, her mother, speaks. Dialogue isn’t just about the words used, but about the interchange between characters and that can involve silences.
Listen to the recording and evaluate the dialogue: Are the intonations natural, not forced? We don’t need explicit transitions like repetitions or explanations; instead, the intonation provides the coherence needed. Grace sounds overly cheerful as she tries to placate her daughter and worm the clues to the story’s mystery from her. Turtle sounds straightforward, until she realizes her mother’s intention and then resorts to monosyllables. Grace is characterized as a person who will flatter and be kind to get what she wants. Turtle is characterized as a perceptive person who sees under the surface to her mother’s intent. Short sentences are fine. Though none are used in this selection, even sentence fragments can be used effectively in dialogue, if the intonation patterns are right.
Another quick exercise is to cut-and-paste one character’s dialogue into a separate file. Read through it for consistency, making sure the character sounds like the same character throughout. You can tell this is Character X, not Character A. Or, without identifying the character, ask someone who has read your novel to identify the character who is speaking. If they guess the wrong character, you’ll want to look at that character’s dialogue closely in the next revision.
Finally, a quick check of your scenes is a good place to start evaluating your novel’s strengths and weaknesses. Scenes are contained units of action with a beginning, a middle and end. Sometimes, one scene takes up a chapter and other times, several scenes combine to create a chapter. Scenes open with some sort of conflict, which gives characters a goal for the scene. The middle complications intensify the conflict and the ending usually features a disaster, somehow making the situation worse for the character. Scenes usually include four elements: action, dialogue, narrative and interior thoughts.
Did you write in scenes? To find out take out a chapter of your novel and put a box around the scenes. Yes, take out a bright marker or pen and mark up the chapter, boxing every scene.
For example, in Lizzie Bright and Buckminster’s Boy, by Gary D. Schmidt, Chapter 3 has these scenes:
- Turner’s father, the minister, punishes him for several misdeeds. (2 pages)
- Turner suffers in his room from the summer heat. (Half page)
- Turner survives supper without a misstep. (One page)
- Turner watches the sunset and almost likes Maine. (Half page)
- Turner seeks a place where he “can breathe”; he goes to the seashore. (2 pages)
- Turner meets Lizzie Bright, who teaches him how to bat Maine-style. (6 pages)
- At supper, Turner is lectured by his father, until his mother steps in and stops it. (2 pages)
- Turner heads to the hay meadow to play baseball, but a rainstorm stops the game. (1 page)
Several short scenes build up to the longest scene in which Turner meets Lizzie Bright, a black girl, and they become instant friends, something that will cause trouble throughout the rest of the story. Notice that Turner is at the center of each scene and each scene contains conflict, both big and small. For example, when Turner meets Lizzie Bright, he is throwing stones. She calls to him and in his surprise, his last stone is thrown overhead and comes down and hits his nose. It bleeds and his bloody shirt will get him in more trouble with the minister. In his pain, Turner refuses to answer Lizzie Bright’s questions, so she thinks he is an idiot. Besides the overall problem of not liking Maine and befriending the wrong person, Turner has smaller conflicts within the scene itself.
Could you divide your manuscript into scenes? If not, don’t panic. You’ve just discovered something about your style of writing. Many writers take a more meandering route toward a novel; however, those who write in scenes tend to write stories that are more focused, more tension-filled, more emotional. I’d recommend you at least try writing in scenes and see if it fits your style and your story. A good place to begin is Sandra Scofield’s, The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer.
The point of these exercises is to change the context for the story, from large to small, something that will make you, the author, see the story differently. Writers are too close to their own work to see the shape, to understand when and where to revise. But these methods of looking at your novel’s strengths and weaknesses will give you a starting place for your revisions.
For ten years, writer and writing teacher, Darcy Pattison taught her Novel Revision Retreat across the nation; the result is her revision workbook, Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise. (www.novelmetamorphosis.com) She writes daily about her own writing and writing techniques on her blog, Fiction Notes (www.darcypattison.com). For 30 quick-tips on revising your novel, subscribe to Darcy's FICTION NOTES newsletter and received the free ebook, After the First Draft: 30 Fast, Easy Writing Tips for the Second Draft.