Sometimes, when my plot has become snarled in a traffic jam, I think of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men with its straight-forward, train-wreck focus, where we start steadily down a track and accelerate fast toward a visible and unavoidable disaster. Lennie kills a mouse, then kills a puppy, then crushes a man’s hand, then kills a woman, and each time we try to forgive him and search for someone else to blame because we believe he is an innocent at heart.
I look at this plot, this driving plot that builds on injury and dreams, and the way its simplicity releases all these complex moral problems, and then I look at my own draft. It is nowhere close to where it needs to be. I’m not Steinbeck, but that doesn’t excuse me from trying to learn from him.
So, these days, I’m looking at a 75-page section of my current novel, a piece between two major points of action, and I’m stepping back to ask how the scenes in this section create or don’t create a progression. I’m finding some scenes are only a few pages long. The more satisfying scenes are 8+ pages long but feel like they fly. This reminds me I’m better off stringing together a few significant scenes than many brief ones. I need to mindfully pick the scenes that matter, order them to build, flesh them out, cut the others or fold their dialogue into the preserved scenes, and see what else might still need to be added.
This is my sixth draft. On one hand, I feel like ought to know what I’m doing with my novel by now. My mess seems like evidence that I’m no good at this. On the other hand, I am determined. I will invent the process I need to judge this section and revise it. Then I’ll move on to the next.