Quick-Tip Tuesday: Fixing a Broken Manuscript

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David B. Coe/ D.B. JacksonConfession time: There are times when I will find myself ignoring advice that I have given here on Magical Words, or in other teaching situations. For whatever reason — convenience, time, laziness, the sense, right or wrong, that I’ve “outgrown” some of the things I believe writers with less experience ought to do — I will cut a corner here or there. I’m not proud of this, but it’s true. For instance, despite what I’ve said here recently about self-editing being most effective when I separate myself from the writing experience in all ways, including reading from a paper copy of my manuscript, I don’t always do this. Paper and ink are expensive. Printing out a book-length manuscript is time consuming. Sometimes — most time, if I’m being honest — I will simply edit on the screen.

But this past week I took my own advice in a couple of ways, and benefitted enormously from doing so.

The book I’ve been working on is actually one I began just over a year ago. I love the idea, the main characters, the magic system, the world. It’s epic fantasy with a YA twist, a time-travel element, and the pacing of a thriller. I worked on it throughout the fall and early winter of 2015, writing nearly 110,000 words in the span of about three months. It started off as the best thing I’d ever done. The writing was crisp and lean, yet evocative of the world I’d created. The narrative promised to be complex and compelling. The development and exploration of my point of view character was powerful and poignant. In short, I was psyched.

And then I wasn’t. Something happened in the course of the writing that steered the project off the rails. The one problem I’d had from the start was with my plotting. I tried to outline the story, but I found I couldn’t work out where I wanted to take it. I had ideas, but no single one asserted itself and said, “This is it: I’m the plot thread you want to pursue.” So, I wrote without an outline, something I don’t usually do. It worked for a little while, but eventually fell apart.

The Outlanders, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)At 110,000 words, I stopped writing. The story wasn’t complete — far from it. But I didn’t know what to do and I had other work that needed my attention. I did some non-fiction work — research and writing — for the university here in town, I wrote several pieces of short fiction, I edited my first series, the LonTobyn Chronicle, for re-release. (By the way, the Author’s Edit of The Outlanders, book II in that debut series, should be available for purchase in the next few weeks. Just sayin’.)

Put another way, I put the book away, as we so often tell you to do. I didn’t look at it for three-quarters of the year. I thought about it. Storylines and editing ideas bounced around in my hind-brain. I spent a productive morning with Faith brainstorming approaches that might solve the manuscript’s problems. But I did all this from memory. I didn’t look at the book or make any attempt to write more. I let it sit.

Until right after DragonCon, when I pulled it out again and read through it, editing as I went, but more to the point, trying to figure out what went wrong. And on my very first read-through, I found it: the spot where I steered the story off the path into a narrative wilderness. It couldn’t have been more clear. For twelve chapters, everything goes really well. And then I make a single plotting choice, and it all goes to hell. The story bogs down, the writing grows more stilted, the characters grow dull and unconvincing. It’s as if my writing held up a sign that read: “Yo, idiot! Here it is! This is where you f@#%ed everything up!”

I know how to fix it. I’m excited to be working on it again. I think it could be truly amazing when done. All it took to find the answers were a pair of solutions we’ve suggested to you before.

So, if you have a manuscript that feels broken, that has lost direction or energy or momentum or purpose, or all of those things, put it away. Work on other stuff. Let it percolate in the dark recesses of your mind for a few months — three, six, nine? Whatever. Then take it out and read through it again. Look for the place where that crackling energy it had in the early pages vanishes. Look for the place where your characters lose their way, and your narrative stalls. Chances are, finding that point will tell you what you need to fix in order to reinvigorate the story.

It worked for me. It might work for you.

Keep writing!

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2 comments to Quick-Tip Tuesday: Fixing a Broken Manuscript

  • Razziecat

    Hmmmm, this might be a good idea for me. I had an idea I really liked and characters I love. It got bogged down about halfway through – even though I know how the story is going to end (or at least the general idea). It kinda got stuck on “Should they do The Thing over here or over there? Or should they do The Other Thing instead?” I haven’t touched it in a long time; developed another story instead, and have been working on short stories in somebody else’s world just to keep my hand in (and have learned sooo much doing it!)

    Now might be a good time to pull it out again and see if it can be finished. I know what most of the problems are, maybe a fresh look would help me to solve them! Thanks for the reminder that time and distance can be helpful, David!

  • My pleasure, Razz. Thanks for the comment and best of luck.