Saving Annabelle has now been put through four drafts. Most of the chapters have been through way more than four drafts, but the book as a whole has been through four drafts. Yesterday I turned in that fourth draft manuscript to my thesis advisor, and let me tell you, I am close. I am ready to begin the agent search.

How do I know? I mean, how do I know this isn’t just hubris or writer’s fatigue talking the big talk?

I feel it.

Yes, it’s that simple, intangible, and unscientific. I’ve been living with this story and these characters for over a decade and this, draft four, feels like fruition. It’s a beautiful feeling.

Also, with this draft I engaged a different level of revision, one that confirms my suspicions. I’ll tell you about it.

Revision is about the global level concerns: is plot moving forward, are characters behaving themselves, checking the emotional, thematic, or dramatic weight, etc. Editing is about the line-by-line business of writing. Got it? In all of my revisions—that is, any writing I did to something that wasn’t first draft raw—I had both revision and editing in mind. I knew when to trash a scene and when to tweak it. I did the work that needed doing, page after page, draft after draft.

This time was different.

Draft three was close, but I knew I had spent all that time working on the trees, and it was time to work on the forest.

I went to Michael’s and bought a set of colored pencils and a roll of paper for a kid’s easel. I read my book with the colored pencils and I marked everything important in different colors. Here is my key:

Tropes: red

Characters: rust

Family History: purple

Dates & Ages: navy

Seasons & Weather: turquoise

Historical Facts: brown

Landscape & Geography: green

Fashion: fuchsia

Money: orange

Furnishings & Food: yellow

Because Saving Annabelle is historical, I was concerned with period details like clothing, furniture, and the cost of things. Because this book spans over a decade, I had to watch my timeline. As I marked the tropes, I listed them. It was good to see those things appear and reappear, spanning an entire book. Hands. Hands are a big one. Portraits mean something, but I’m not sure what.

Also, as I read, I made a list of named characters as they are introduced, the page where they first appear, and a colored dot to code which tier they belong to. I wound up with four tiers that match movie designations. I have: four tier one characters, the main characters, the stars; seven tier two characters, the supporting cast; eleven tier three characters, minor speaking roles; and thirteen tier four characters, the walk-ons.

Then I took that big old roll of paper and spread it out on the dining room table. I made a timeline that begins way before the book does. Edgar is born. Edgar leaves Norway. Maude is born. Maude lives with cousins in Chicago and gets her heart broken. These things aren’t in the book, but they have everything to do with it. These characters and this story would not exist without those events, the precursors to everything I wrote. And because this is fiction but not fantasy, I included important historical events: Minnesota’s statehood, the Civil War, the Fifteenth Amendment. The book opens. I have the years, the girls’ ages, the chapters, the months, and the settings listed above the line. Below, each chapter and its major events.

Sound like a plot outline? It is. But a plot outline is just more words on the page. This is a visual representation of everything that happens, when, where, and to whom. I saw my book. I saw how often and how close together major events occurred. I realized things I didn’t when reading draft three, like chapter nineteen ends and chapter twenty opens with scenes that are too similar. Something about taking the story off the pages and spreading it out like a life made a big difference. It allowed me to step back from the trees I’d been so carefully crafting and look over the forest.

One of the reasons I began this project was because I was afraid of stupid mistakes. You know, Annabelle is nine in this chapter and eight in the next. What I got out of it was the bird’s eye view, if you will, of how my book functions as a whole.

You may never bother with a pack of colored pencils and scroll of art paper, but I’m glad I did. This exercise was both review and discovery, even if the main thing I figured out was that, yes, I am very close.


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