Backwards design

I’m working backwards these days.

Normally, I figure out what I want to write about, then I jump in and draft a bunch of scenes. This book has been such a long-term project that I’ve produced hundreds of pages and many versions of some scenes. There are whole subplots that I’ve written and abandoned, entire characters who’ve emerged or disappeared in different drafts.

Anyway, now I’m trying a different approach to this whole novel-writing project. I’m making a plan, stripping my story down to its skeleton and checking that the head bone connects to the neck bone, the neck bone connects to the back bone and so on, all the way down to the toes. (And now I’ve got that song in my head. Thanks, brain.)

Backwards design” is an educational term that kind of describes this process. Basically, backwards design means that you first decide what you want students to learn, then you figure out how they will show this learning, and lastly you plan out your lessons.

I feel like I’m doing the same thing with my book; I’m going back to basics, figuring out my characters’ internal and external journeys and making sure there’s a logical progression from beginning to end. My online course is making me create a stripped-down scene-by-scene outline for my novel, so I’ve dug out some index cards and I’m doing some very disciplined analysis of the scenes I need to include.

I’ve just started this process, but already I can see that there will be scenes that I’ve already written that need to be expanded so that they serve more of a purpose in getting characters from one point to the next. On the other hand (gulp), some of the scenes I’ve written have got to go; some of the chapters that I’ve rewritten and revised and polished are not going to make the cut. I’ve got to kill some of my darlings, as Faulkner put it.

Scary stuff! But I should end up with a clear idea of exactly what scenes I need in order to tell my story, and I’ll be able to follow that outline like a roadmap. Here’s hoping, anyway.