Quick-Tip Tuesday: More Fixes For a Broken Manuscript

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David B. Coe/ D.B. JacksonIn my last Quick-Tip Tuesday post, I wrote about fixing a broken manuscript by setting it aside for a good long time — months — and then reading it through fresh, with an eye toward finding that place where it went off the rails. That was what I did with my work in progress, and it worked amazingly well.

Today I have a couple of additional suggestions for dealing with a broken or recalcitrant manuscript. These grew out of a conversation I had recently with a student I’m mentoring. She is struggling with her manuscript right now, and she’s at that point in the writing process — 60-70% done — that has always given me fits. Seriously, stalling at the 2/3 mark in a book is so much part of my routine that it became a joke of sorts in my household. It has plagued me since my first book and continues to do so to this day.

Why is that mile marker in the writing of a manuscript so problematic? I have a couple of related theories about that. The first is that the 2/3 mark is around the point when we as authors have to pivot from creating problems for our characters to solving those problems. Let me be more specific. We begin a book with set-up: establishing characters and setting, introducing conflict, planting the narrative seeds that will steer our plot. We then dive into our story, which in the first half of the novel usually involves deepening the trials for our protagonist while our antagonist weaves her or his scheme. By the time we hit that 60-70% mark, things look dire for our good guys.

And at that point we often discover that we have no idea how to get from where we are — often a world gone to shit — to the happy ending we’ve intended to write all along. There seems to be this unbridgeable chasm between the story as it exists, and the final product as we’ve envisioned it. Cue panic.

The second reason this stage in the writing process can be so difficult is that we often have scenes in mind for late in a book — sometimes the very scenes we need to make that pivot I was just discussing — but we are conditioned to save them. In other words, I will often have certain moments in a novel that I KNOW I want to get to, key plot points that represent culminations of many of the threads I’ve been developing since page one. The significance of these moments, however, the very fact that they are SO important to the story I want to tell, often keeps me from using them. I’m so afraid of using those key moments up too early in the story, that I wind up waiting too long to weave them into my narrative.

So, my two suggestions for dealing with a stuck manuscript: First, think about those key moments you’ve been planning for since you first conceived of the story you’re writing. Is it time to use some of them? It could be that bringing even one into the story right now will open up new narrative paths and thus carry you to the conclusion you’ve been looking to write all this time. Think about it.

Second, if you still find yourself confronted with that chasm I mentioned before, between where you are now and where you eventually need to be, trying thinking backwards. In other words, begin with your planned culmination for the story, and then move backward through your narrative, figuring out each previous plot point that you need to put in place. Working that way, you essentially lay out a path from your ending back to your present spot. Quite often, a plot thread that we can’t see looking ahead toward the ending, becomes obvious when we reverse our thinking and plot back to where we are currently.

Best of luck, and keep writing.

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3 comments to Quick-Tip Tuesday: More Fixes For a Broken Manuscript

  • I hit a wall in every manuscript, and like clockwork, it’s around 70-74K words. Every. Time.
    I literally wrote my main character into a trap in my first story, and panicked when I didn’t know how to get her out. A combination of letting the ms sit for several months (because I was scared of it), writing the ending, and then connecting the dots finally worked.
    Oddly enough, it was shortly after that potential train wreck that I abandoned pantsing for plotting.

  • Janet, yeah, it really is one of those things. 2/3, 60%, 70% — I’m convinced it’s the same phenomenon. Plotting helps, but only so much. I think it’s just something we deal with. One of my brothers is a visual artist, and he often struggles with pieces that are mostly done but not all the way there. I think it’s part of the creative process. Endings are hard. Sounds like you dealt with it well in the instance you mention here. Thanks for the comment.

  • That is so true, David. I find that’s when I hit the wall. Reverse-outlining has saved me every time.

    “What happens in the end?” [Z].
    “Why?” [Because Y.]
    “Why?” [Because X.]
    And so on.

    Eventually, things pick up speed, and not only have I hurtled the wall, but I’ve made connections that help decimate it. 🙂