Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 5, 2011

The Bones of a Book

I’ve been revising a novel I put away about ten years ago, having been told it was too baggy, full of too much this and that, which can trip up a historical novelist: fascinating, at least to us, tidbits thrown in that send readers scuttling in too many directions. This summer I felt called back by its main character. Without peeking at the old manuscript, I drafted new dialogue and scenes, trying to think of what was most important to the arc of the story. I mused my way deeper into my main character, focusing on what I wanted to show about her life, regardless of historical facts within which she lived. Knowing much of what happened, this time through I tried to feel everything more deeply.

After months spent accumulating a stack of drafted scenes and chapters, I let myself crack open the old manuscript. Plundering good lines or scenes to use, I felt like a happy pirate: my reward for straying away until the new work was done.  But now I’m trying to be careful not to sweep up everything in my path, but to be choosy. To salvage some details and old dialogue, but only when they keep to the track I’ve set.

As I sling scenes or chapters out the window or fit them into new places I’m aware of how bulky a novel can be. Changing one part makes another wiggle: and must be lopped off. Working with a keener sense of where turns are coming, I’m planting signs. When the whole shape or shapelessness of the thing feels too much, I go back to concentrate on one small part. It’s coming along, like a great serpent flopping and squirming with bones so small you wouldn’t guess it had them. But I remind myself that they’re there.



  1. Oh my gosh, Jeannine, what a marvelous treatment of the struggle!

    • Thanks, Sarah, and all best wishes for your struggles.

  2. I like your serpent with bones “so small.” I have been flopping and squirming for long time with my latest revision. Maybe it’s time to look for small bones.

    • Sara, you’ve got the muscles to deal with the flopping. But you also have the eye and delicate touch for the small bones. It’s nice to move from one to the other.

  3. I love your description of the process, especially “SLINGING SCENES OUT THE WINDOW.”

    • Anne, hope your slinging, patching, poking, etc. are all going as smoothly as they possibly can.

  4. You put it so well! I think many of us can learn from what you’ve said about your process. Good luck!

    • Thanks, Linda, and good luck with your process, too!

  5. I will return to this! Thank you, Jeannine, for sharing the ins and outs of this cumbersome endeavor in such an eloquent way.

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