Transitions

I’m reading through the colonial fantasy (read: pirate) novel that my sister and I drafted last year, in preparation for editing the manuscript. I’m having lots of fun revisiting the characters and world, and it’s always interesting to see how different the beginning of a first draft is from the end. At least for me, I’m often just getting to know the characters and not entirely sure about the shape of the plot when I first start drafting, whereas by the end of the draft I feel much more comfortable and confident as the storyteller.

The thing that’s really stood out to me in the first hundred pages of the manuscript are the transitions—or the lack of transitions. With two authors switching back and forth every chapter or so, we didn’t always leave off where the next person picked up. Or we would rehash too much of the same scene or relational content already worked out in a previous chapter, so there’s repetitive material that will need to be trimmed out. There are also a whole host of things—such as character names, city locations, and even personality traits—that changed over the course of the first draft, so some of our chapters reflect those changes while others don’t.

Transitions in fiction can be hard for me to manage even when I’m writing by myself. I’ve gotten better over the years, but especially in my earlier novels I struggled with authorial FOMO, where I’d write out scenes that might have some potential for character growth or plot advancement, but it wasn’t actually essential to the story that I describe them in full detail. One thing I’ve unconsciously done to help is set my recent novels within tight timeframes. My portal fantasy novel, for instance, takes place in less than a month. My alternate history WWII novel is about six weeks long. When I’m dealing with characters over months and years instead of weeks, I have a harder time deciding which scenes will string together to create a coherent plot and show all the significant moments of character change.

For our pirate novel, rearranging the material we’ve already written will also help with the fluency of the storytelling. For instance, my sister wrote the chapter that introduces Marin, who is one of the three main characters, but chronologically his first scene takes place before some of the action I wrote in the previous chapter. With minor tweaks and deletions, that scene could be dragged and dropped into the chapter I wrote, smoothing out the timeline and requiring fewer mental gymnastics from readers.

Reading through a manuscript for editing kind of feels like reading a syllabus on the first day of class. I get a sense for all the projects and work that will need to be done to get the result I want. It can be intimidating, but it’s also an exciting moment to take it all in and imagine what it will read like once it’s all done.

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