How to write a book

The panic document – when you fear your book has a major flaw, how to diagnose what’s really wrong

I love systems. And here’s one I developed to help with a knotty aspect of revising a novel – the moment when you suddenly fear you’ve missed something big.

This happened to me with Ever Rest, which I recently finished. I was well advanced in revisions when I read an essay that brought me to a screeching halt.

One of the characters dies tragically young, and the story follows the fall-out of this. So when I saw an essay about young grief on Literary Hub I gave it a read.

It was spellbinding, raw. So unexpected. I finished with sickening anxiety. This was what I wanted for my characters, but I feared I hadn’t done it. My confidence was in tatters.

What now?

This is what might have happened: open the manuscript, flail about in a panic, rewriting stuff. Over-reacting etc etc. Making ill-considered changes. Getting in a big heap of mess.

However, I’ve been here before. I know not to revise in a panic.

Don’t panic

In crises like this, we tend to think everything’s wrong. And it might not be.

Sure, you might be right, you might have missed something big.

Or – it’s probably not as dire as it seems, but something needs to be adjusted.

How do you discover the right thing to do? And how do you remain sober and sensible, and not make edits that mess up everything you’ve already got working well?

In my other life, I edit magazines for doctors. (Very useful when writing characters who are medics.) With my book howling in pain, I decided I’d think like a doctor. If a patient comes to the surgery saying they feel dreadful and they hurt all over, what do you do? Take a history. Ask: where does it hurt? And what causes it to hurt?

Stage 1 – start a panic (document)

I copied the LitHub piece into a textfile. We will call this the panic document.

I read the article again. Every time I came to a sentence that bothered me, I highlighted it. (Find the source of pain.)

Already this was more manageable. Large parts of the article didn’t hurt at all. It was toes and fingers, not the whole arm or leg, not the whole body.

This surprised me. See what I mean about panic?

Some parts were very sore, though.

Stage 2 – where does it hurt?

Find where the pain is coming from. These sentences twinged because they suggested issues I hadn’t paid attention to.

Were they major (arm and leg), or were they just a finger or toe?

When I’m unsure about something in a manuscript, I don’t change the manuscript. I use Word’s comments feature. I did this with the panic document. On each highlighted section, I opened a comment box and discussed the issues it raised. This included:

  • Which of my scenes made me wince with this new insight
  • Which of my characters it affected
  • Which of the characters’ actions it might influence
  • What I might add or adjust.

Soon, a few issues emerged. (In medical parlance, targets for treatment.)

I went through the panic document several times, discussing, re-discussing, reminding myself what I intended for the book, considering how significant these issues were in the overall balance.

Stage 3 – venturing into the manuscript

I opened the manuscript. I went to the scenes I’d earmarked as problems. But I did not change a word!

I now knew the scenes where I might tackle the problem, but I still didn’t know if I should.

Once again, I reread my discussions in the panic document. It was now clear that my notes were all the same solution, in several versions. I probably didn’t need them all.  The revision task was not nearly as large as I first thought.

I used comments again, this time in the manuscript. I began by copying the most useful notes from my panic document. Many of them already seemed unnecessary now I’d calmed down and had a grip of the true problem.

Yes, there was indeed a problem. It was just one scene, actually, where the ending was weak. The character needed to go to a deeper level. To fix it, I needed a few other adjustments in earlier scenes too. But the situation now felt good. (Especially after the aforementioned panic.)

Stage 4 – something else

I went out running. Best to edit with a clear eye.


Stage 5 – do what must be done

I opened the manuscript again, looked at the notes. Did I still agree with them? Was this the solution? (Often, a good skip in the outdoors will suggest a different angle.)

It was.

Tis done.

From Stage 1 – panic and disaster – to stage 5 – a detail I was glad to rethink. Phew.

And that, my friends, is the panic document.  I used it to tackle my response to an essay, but it will work for any situation that trashes your confidence in your book. Just write down the problem in detail, cover all the points that triggered your worries, and discuss with yourself what to do about them.

Thanks for the panic and freak out pic, RSNY on Flickr;

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips like this. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores (US only at present) use

Ever Rest is now complete and is seeking its fortune with literary agents. Here’s a preview. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

19 thoughts on “The panic document – when you fear your book has a major flaw, how to diagnose what’s really wrong

  1. Thanks for this! Sometimes I get stuck in one spot or skim over with a ‘this is good enough’ attitude. Highlighting and using comments in Word helps me pinpoint possible issues while still moving forward.

    1. Thanks, Dawn! And that’s a really good point. There are times when we have to skim over problems because we’re not ready to deal with them. Leaving a comment means we can get round to them later, when we have headspace.

  2. I’m glad you worked it out, Roz. I had just such a moment a few years back, but it was my best-ever beta reader who found ‘it’. Luckily the solution was to add a scene rather than change anything substantial, but I still remember that awful feeling in the pit of my stomach when I realised that he was right. How could I have missed it? Gah!!!

    I hope this article means you’re close to publishing?

      1. I’m not sure if this is relevant or not, but I’ve noticed since Covid-19 began that a lot of very popular Indie writers have suddenly become trad. published…along with a hefty rise in the price of their ebooks.

        I believe most publishers are looking to skim the cream of established Indie writers. This could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how those writers are treated once the pandemic is over and ‘normal’ returns. If they become typical mid-list authors then I believe they will have shot themselves in the foot.

        If you do get an offer – please engage a solicitor to negotiate a deal for you that does not include giving up your copyright for life plus 70 years. Give yourself a way out in case you ever find you need one. 😦

        1. I think that must be a coincidence. It takes about 18 months for a trade publisher to release a title, 18 months from the point where publishing was agreed. But you make an excellent point about rights. Authors give far too much away to trade publishers and they don’t have to. And thanks for the reminder to be very careful of them!

          1. Hmm…the books I’m talking about are ebooks that were /already/ self-published as ebooks, often a whole series of them. Nothing has actually changed other than the price. These are Indies with literally hundreds if not a few thousand reviews, so very popular.
            Anyway, apologies for being a Cassandra. Best of luck!

  3. That’s a very good analysis of how to analyse your draft. My major problems are usually at the start… once I get going it tends to work well.Next time I’m considering writing the start last.

    1. Jemima, that’s such a good point about story openings! I always feel you should revise the start once you’ve nailed the rest. It’s like an overture – it has to pack a lot of subtle information in which you might not know until you’ve thoroughly grappled with the rest of the story.

  4. This is such an important technique, and I needed reminding of it. I recently got feedback on my manuscript from an agent I queried, and she made claims about my writing and story that absolutely destroyed my confidence. I was prepared to go through a whole other round of revisions (for the umpteenth time) when I decided to step away from the project for a couple of weeks. When I came back, I went through a process similar to the one you describe here, and isolated the issues. The agent had read only the first 10 pages or so of my novel, so she had extrapolated opinions of my writing from a scene at the very beginning. That scene, I realized, was the real problem. I reminded myself I had gotten much more encouraging feedback from agents who had read much more of my work, and I started to work on that scene. This agent’s feedback went from soul-crushing to really helpful, and my manuscript is in much better shape as a result. In the future, I’ll try your system to short circuit my freak out 😛

  5. This is great advice. Though I understand the panic all too well it’s much better to see what can be learned than to give in to despair – and a good thing you read the essay while you were still able to be your own best doctor. I like to see that working through a problem became part of the puzzle of creation rather than a threat to its existence. Thank you!

  6. ‘Just write down the problem in detail, cover all the points that triggered your worries, and discuss with yourself what to do about them.’ – This is applicable to so many situations in life I should have it pinned on the wall.

Your turn!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.