In the last step, I talked about creating a post-draft outline. If your novel is 100,000 words, then you might have 50-100 sub-frames — and thus a big stack of paper! I only talked about what each sub-frame sheet should look like and the motivation for doing such a crazy thing. This week, I will talk about the process of filling this sheet in—the process of discovering microstructure.
Don’t you love the intricate workings of a clock? Large gears turn to control the outward display, and as they rotate smaller gears move quicker, controlling them. Spools swivel in time to those smaller gears, and even smaller components turn, some slow, some fast, but all in perfect concert with the overall progression. It’s incredibly complex, and yet, at the same time, simple. It’s unified, with one purpose.
Just like a story.
If I lived two hundred years ago, no doubt I’d be a clock-maker (a day job while I secretly work away at my stories). Instead, I find teaching about and exploring the machinations of math and computer programming just as stimulating—a digital age equivalent of a clock-maker, I suppose. One thing is for certain: it’s taught me to think about stories structurally and abstractly, without getting twisted up by all those complicated gears.
Last week we explored how to divide your story up into small chunks—the only smaller division from here would be the sentences and passages that move each one. (If you are writing a series or a collection of related stories, you might want to consider bigger wheels and what sort of machine they turn in as well. I’ll write about that in the series of extra posts to follow this workshop.)
Now, let’s explore why it’s important to explore micostrcuture.
Pearls before swine
Exploring microstructure means going over your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, pulling out and organizing details, and discovering the emotions and plots that lie in the background to the story. It allows you to discover what is really happening so you can make intelligent structural changes that reflect the overall story. It will take hours—count on 100 hours for 100,000 words of story.
So, is it worth it?
I love the comic “Pearls before swine,” particularly for its title. It resonates on many levels for me, especially with regard to completing a story: if you don’t put your pearls first, you’re going to turn your precious gems into pig food. Ugh!
Many writers turn in work too soon (myself included, which is why those works now rest peacefully in a box). Sometimes the reason is pressure of publishers who offer lucrative contracts if a novel gets handed in by a certain date, though for the most part it’s psychological — you’re tired, and you want to finish and move on. You settle for “good enough” instead of “done”.
This is a mistake. (In my opinion—but this whole series is about what works for me, so I think I’m entitled to that here. ) There’s plenty to be learned by probing your story’s full depth, and its worthwhile to discover how to do this effectively. Discovering microstrucutre will allow you to get the bird-eye view, both from the treetop and from the far-up clouds.
This might seem like building a nuclear bomb for an ant hill, but publishers aren’t looking for tin-can explosives. They’re looking for stories that will explode across reader networks, rise in a mushroom cloud of reviewer buzz, and hover over the market like nuclear winter. And you are going to create it—if you hold onto your pearls until they’re ready.
Go back in time
The goal of this process is for you to go back in time and actually place yourself right in your story, live-time, the same way you were when you wrote it. Using your sub-frame notes allows you a different medium to engage with your story so you aren’t merely looking for sentences to change. Filling in how a sub-frame contributes to the development of the frame it is part of, writing out emotional contrasts, inner and outer turning points, emotions, senses, background story—and so on—allows you to lay out the minutest building blocks of your story. Most importantly, while you go through, sub-frame by sub-frame, you have the opportunity to make changes as your notes call for it.
As an example from my own work, the opening for frame 11 of my WIP niggled me—but when I got to filling in the sub-frame for the opening, I realized I did not give Jak enough emotional presence because I spent some time on background information while establishing the scene in medias res. Fleshing out the components for the sub-frame allowed me to make changes with a proper reference and, after about twenty minutes of playing type-delete-type-delete-type-delete, I sat back and “felt” the scene work (good enough at least for this step in the story-building process).
Using this as your guide, you might decide you need to add a sub-frame or remove one—even add or delete a whole frame!—you might decide to change characters, names of places, or how various plots execute. Discovering microstructure is a great way to see where all the components of a larger plot arc occur so you make adjustments where you need to.
Go through with your own manuscripts and relive each sub-frame. Make sure you also redo your 9-part outline, 3-part outline, and premise, and place these as dividers at the beginning of the frames where they occur. Think about clock-wheels and how each smaller part is part of the whole. Use some alpha or beta reader notes, and your cold-read revision notes (but don’t get too concerned about implementing everything from your checklist—that comes in step 12).
Be creative and introspective. Most importantly, take your time and enjoy the experience of reliving the story your drafting process left behind.
After you have done this, you’re going to feel like you’re close to being done, but there are three final steps. Your manuscript might read as very good, but our goal is to make it more than excellent—so good that there is no word to describe it. (I say goal because, in actuality, it will always be possible to make it better; but you might want to have this in the back of your mind.)
Next week we begin with the first of three steps in the revision stage, using our completed post-draft outline, and I will discuss the final steps to help you discover that quality to your manuscript that is more than excellent—the quality that says “done”.
Graeme Brown has been writing epic fantasy since he was a child and continues to develop his stories every day. Find out more about Graeme and his writing by visiting his website, HERE.
You can follow Graeme on Twitter (@GraemeBrownWpg) or on his blog: