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.

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New Year special – writing sins that scupper a story Part 5: Sherlock Holmes

Over the last few days I’ve railed about weak story links, lazy plotting, wrong point of view, bad characterisation and unsatisfying endings in DVDs I’ve watched over the holidays. Yesterday I had a chewy moan about hasty rewrites that weren’t properly integrated in Did You Hear About The Morgans. Today’s post is not a complaint, but a congratulation. It features a film where I suspect a major change had to be made, but it was done deftly and without upsetting the story. So beware spoilers, and I give you…

 Sherlock Holmes and the mystery of Irene Adler’s trousers

It all started when Irene Adler had to be rescued from the slaughterhouse and was found to be wearing voluminous men’s trousers – which you have to admit is unusual attire for a lady of the Victorian era. Was it a disguise? We were never told.

Writing sin (very venial): A rather too crowded final scene

That wouldn’t have bothered me much, as she’s a racy lady who likes to cut a dash – but for a rather crowded final scene. Right at the end of the movie, Holmes is explaining to Watson and his fiancée how the villain Blackwood faked his death, when some policemen rush in with news that the explosive device defused in the story’s climax has been stolen. This info-dump is quite substantial and completely upsets the rhythm of the dialogue (so that Watson’s fiancée appears to be kneeling on the floor for a very long time). My hypothesis?

The arrival of the police been spliced in to prime the audience for a sequel with Professor Moriarty.

Of course, a hunch like that isn’t enough, and Dave soon provided the next clue. Many moons ago, he saw a trailer for Sherlock Holmes that featured a scene where Irene knees Holmes in a sensitive place. It wasn’t in the final film. And he read on imdb that the release of Sherlock Holmes was delayed because more edits were needed.

Could someone have made a decision at a late stage to lay the groundwork for a sequel with Moriarty?

We looked at the movie again. There were a number of scenes where Irene meets a shadowy figure in a darkened carriage. They could all have been spliced in later, with deft reshoots and editing. And as commercial movies have to keep to a strict length, other story material must have gone. Was the missing fight between Irene and Holmes evidence that something had been removed?

And was Irene’s male attire originally a disguise, from a story thread that hit the cutting room floor?

When revising, we often have to slip in new elements or change an emphasis. This might be because we’ve changed our direction or because of outside feedback. If it’s late on in editing, the amount of unpicking required is enough to make you reach for the violin or the opium pipe.

Maybe my theory is totally wrong. But if you’re trying to knit a new thread into your story, get the DVD of Guy Ritchie’s admirable Sherlock Holmes, imagine it doesn’t have the Moriarty thread – and see how they made it look as though it was always there.

Have you had to splice new threads or ideas into a book? Was it painful and how did you do it?