Posts Tagged revising a manuscript

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 Bookshop.org.

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.

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The book versus the film – a tip to help writers fix an incoherent and sprawling plot

The English PatientI’ve had this question from Marco Viviani:

I’m stuck. I outlined a setting, characters and events. But when it comes to put all together, they don’t fit. Every time I try to change something (aspects of the setting, adding or removing characters) things don’t work. I tried killing several darlings (and reviving them),but the plot is still not making sense. I feel like I’m forcing a cat to take a bath. I keep seeing logic holes. I rearrange and new holes appear. I tried a lot of things (including the card game from Nail Your Novel), but I feel there is something I can’t see, which is the piece I’m missing to put in (or take away) to make things work.

Oh my, what a familiar litany. You must have been eavesdropping chez Morris. My desk is currently littered with notes and scribbles about The Mountains Novel.

What stands out for me is this phrase:

‘I feel like there’s something I can’t see, the piece I’m missing to make things work.’

So there are two things you are looking for: coherence and clarity.

(And what’s that got to do with the title of this post? We’ll come to that. But first, let’s tackle coherence.)

sidebarcrop1 Coherence

Every time you try to streamline, your inner editor-fairy is telling you that’s not the way. Sometimes we’re like detectives following a hunch, and the only way is a 7% solution or strangle a violin. Just what is the connection that makes sense of all this sprawl?

Here’s what I do – and it’s not very different from what you’ve described. I muddle about with possibilities, subtract things, double them, make lists of pros and cons of a new idea, viewpoint or angle, let the idea settle and come back to it anew.

It particularly helps to return to your themes. Jot them down and consider how your plot events and character issues align with them. Perhaps your themes have changed and this is why the novel is looking too sprawling. Has it suddenly become a novel about ‘everything’?

Sometimes you get more coherence by diving into the first draft regardless. If you have a scene order that makes rough sense but isn’t perfect, start writing anyway. See what happens once you live as the characters and let them inhabit the book. You might find their experience fills those gaps and confirms your hunch on a level you couldn’t get by analysis. Or you might see modifications you can make – rewrite cards, shuffle them if necessary, adjust your map as you go.

With The Mountains Novel, I have two big ideas I’m putting together that don’t appear to naturally fit. That’s one reason I’m not going to tell you what they are in this post – but in my gut I always knew they belonged together. And the further in I write, the more resonance I see.

Which brings me to my more practical tip.

2 Clarity

I’m currently rereading The English Patient. I love both novel and movie – but they are very different, even though they are made from the same characters, setting and story events. Reading the novel and noticing the differences is suggesting new ways I could use my own ideas – and they’re all the kind of changes we might make when refining a plot –

  • characters in the novel have been spliced together to suit the leaner lines of a film
  • scenes that happened in the back story of peripheral characters have been reworked as bonding moments for the main players
  • the scenes featuring the English patient’s romance are very different and very much condensed, yet true to the spirit of the original novel
  • the novel’s climax is not the same as the movie’s, where far more emphasis is on the English patient’s romance
  • the novel’s events are more fragmented, less chronological

So find a novel that has been extensively reworked to make it into a movie, and notice how the demands of each medium – and audience – has reimagined common material.

 

Time

Marco, you’re doing all the right things. You may feel lost, but sometimes this takes a long time (see this post about how I write and here’s the pics version) It’s often frustrating, and you might feel that all you achieve is a big list of duff stuff. But you might not realise how far you’ve come. Sometimes I look through old notes and smirk at the ideas I was trying to shoehorn in but am now wiser about. (My favourite bookseller, Peter Snell of Barton’s in Leatherhead, points out that I have been mentioning The Mountains Novel in enigmatic hints ever since I first walked into his shop in Christmas 2012 and I’m not nearly done with it yet.) But time and persistence will show you what belongs and what doesn’t.

What would you tell Marco? How have you found clarity in a muddled plot? And can you suggest any movie adaptations that depart interestingly from the original novel?

acxheadedtoretail NEWSFLASH Sandy Spangler and I have finished the files for the audiobook of My Memories of a Future Life (here are the posts about our adventures) and I just noticed today on the ACX dashboard that it’s passed the technical vetting. If you’re signed up to my newsletter I’ll be sending an email as soon as it’s out – and I’ll have a limited number of review copies to offer. If you want the chance to get a free copy of the audiobook, sign up here!

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