How to Survive… Major Plot Changes (Q&A)

Q&A chaired by assistant editor and fantasy writer, Zulekhá Aisha Afzal, as a Bookshelf Blogger

Taking the seed of a story and transforming it into a fully-fledged manuscript takes time and let’s be honest, can seem a little daunting at the beginning when you open a new document and the only words are ‘Chapter One’. For some of us, we start writing with only a vague idea of where our characters are going – hands up if you’re a pantser too – while other writers will plan every chapter before they even begin. Either way, plot changes can crop up, be it a character’s backstory or a saggy middle that just isn’t working because it’s well, you know, saggy.

Now, throughout the MA in Writing for Young People we were often told ‘writing is rewriting’, and man is that true because even the tiniest of edits to a plot can impact a whole story which in turn requires rewrites. So what do you do when you know so much of your manuscript is going to change as a result of that single (or sometimes multiple) plot change?

It’s time to hand over to three students from the MAWYP class of 2018, who’ll tell you how they overcame such obstacles. Meet Eve, Kate, and Callen!

Callen James Martin
Nobody Knows Noah

What made you decide to edit the plot of your manuscript?

Eve: A discussion with Janine Amos, my manuscript tutor, about the way Peregrine ends brought me back to thinking about where (and why) the story starts. This led to major changes to Robin’s backstory, which changed his character, which in turn impacted every single scene in the story.

Callen: I had my protagonist, Noah, and I had the Big Bad I knew he was going to face – being stalked – but my main problem was that although I knew who the stalker was, their motivation was somewhat lacking. I had a reason, a motive that was at face-value good enough to make them the protagonist of their own story, but it was (ultimately) a square peg in a round hole. It wasn’t a snug fit – it wasn’t a strong enough reason to explain why they’d do all this.

How far into your manuscript were you when you decided to make these changes?

Kate: Realm Jumpers is my first attempt at writing a novel, or any major writing project, period. I knew I would experience a learning curve and so I was prepared for a rewrite or two. When my manuscript advisor told me I was “too close” to my story, I didn’t get it at first. When I got 40,000 words into my manuscript and was still “building up,” then I got it.

Callen: I had actually completed my first draft – all 63k words of it. And although I was proud of getting that far, I took a step back and realised that my stalker’s motivation really wasn’t pulling its weight. It was worse than I’d thought. So, I spent some days thinking on it and the other weak spots, scribbling all over my whiteboard and covering my wall in trains of thought until I had it: A backstory. A backstory that would give motivation for the antagonist, further Noah, and really add to the severity of the stalking and the events in the novel.

What impact did the plot changes have on the story overall?

Eve: Changing Robin’s backstory impacted every scene because now his character was different, so he reacted and felt differently about every event. It added conflict to his driving goal through the story and created a much stronger story arc for the whole trilogy.

Callen: From chapter one to chapter forty – everything changed to some degree. Characters got stronger, more detailed, and even started to properly breathe on the page.

The fiddliest part of my backstory edit was how there were now elements or knowledge that Noah could no longer know – he’d only just moved to Eastbourne instead of growing up there as he had done in the original. It meant for a lot of keeping track and fact checking…

Ultimately though, the novel grew as a result and most surprisingly was just how important setting became to the story and to Noah’s way of coping.

Did any of your characters have to change as a result of the plot change/s?

Kate: Absolutely! The very first imagined version of Realm Jumpers was about three siblings. If I barely have wordcount to tell Jo’s story, I do not have time for two more anxious teens. Bye, Felicias.

Jo has changed a great deal too. I’ve always imagined Jo as this badass girl who can take care of herself, but when she poured out onto the page a funny thing happened. She was soft! That’s not my Jo. What happened to you? I learned two things. Characters have minds of their own, sure, but I also needed to clean up my writing. So I learned 1) Jo had a soft side. But 2) I needed to give Jo more fire and fewer filter words.

Callen: A few died and were wiped from existence… But yes, characters changed. Most notably would be Noah and his mum.

I got rid of Noah’s two friends (Laura and Benj), and in doing so, Noah became an isolated New Boy in Town, unsure of how to make new friends and struggling to do so even when he wants to because of rumours circulating about his past and the stalker’s crippling hold on him. Noah also became a lot more complex and a lot more adamant to fix things. To be okay. Normal. It’s a desperation of his – to put his past behind him and to get over the stalker so that he can be like everyone else and not be the dreaded ‘disappointment’.

With regards to Noah’s mum…  She became a lot more real on the page, to the point that it meant I found scenes with her the hardest to write. Especially her emotional interactions with Noah. After the backstory events in London that have brought the Matthews family to Eastbourne, Mum has undergone a huge transformation in her attempt to protect Noah – to make sure that he is safe. But that’s not something she can guarantee, and it crushes her on a daily basis. And seeing that – seeing the way his actions impact his mother – crushes Noah too.

Was it difficult rewriting scenes and/or chapters in line with the new plot, when they already existed in a different form?

Eve: I had written and revised a draft of my manuscript before starting the MA. My writing had already improved so much that, right from the beginning, Janine encouraged me to give myself space and freedom to completely rewrite rather than edit what I had brought to the course.

Because of this, (and having completely rewritten my opening chapters five times) I was already comfortable with rewriting scenes from scratch. I tried to do as David Almond told us in one of his talks: “Allow yourself to forget what you thought the [scene] was going to be.”

This is a technique I use whenever I’m rewriting. I open a new, blank text document in Scrivener and write the scene without referring to the original. Once I’m happy with the new version, I check the original for any “gold dust” (fragments, lines or images that I especially want to keep.) Then I move the original scene to a folder titled, “The cutting room floor.” I don’t ever delete anything, so I’m not making a huge decision here. I’m just moving the original scene to storage, so I’ve always got the safety net of returning to it, should I need to. Interestingly I’ve never needed to because it seems the new beginning, or the new scene, or new chapter, leads on to other new scenes and chapters. The new writing *becomes* the story I’m telling

Kate: Yes. Killing your darlings is one battle. Killing their memories is another entirely.

If the subjectively bad outweighs the subjectively good —  if there’s more editing than tweaking to do — it’s time to open a fresh document. I find that opening a clean, empty document is helpful. Sure, memories of the ghost draft will haunt me and my favourite bits might find their way in, but I won’t remember everything. When I edit inside the old draft, all those awkward sentences, half-baked ideas, moments that make me cringe — they hold me back. I try to work my new ideas around the old ones, and it’s stifling not stimulating.

Zulekhá Aisha Afzal runs the Bookshelf Instagram and writes fantasy novels for Older Readers filled with hope, nature and its enchanting magic, and the power of forgiveness when everything you love is lost.
An extract from her novel,
The Wandering Star: Roots, is published and included within the Bookshelf Anthology.

To read more about Zulekhá and her novel, and to read her extract, click HERE.

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