Wednesday, March 14

So Where Were We Again? Salvaging Half-Finished Manuscripts

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I have a half-finished manuscript in my files (okay, I have several). Raise your hand if you also have a manuscript you like that's collecting dust because you're not sure what to do with it. You stopped work on it for whatever reason, and now that you're looking at it again, there are, well, issues.

It's not uncommon for our early novels to wind up HFNs (half-finished novels) because we were still learning and figuring this whole writing thing out. It's not even unusual for seasons writers to lose steam halfway through, because you don;t always know where a story will take you. Sometimes it's to a great story place, other times, it's right into a deep dark hole.

If you happen to be in that hole, here are some common issues with HFMs and ways to help you salvage the story you love.

First Look
The first thing to do is read the HFM. It's been a while, and it's important to familiarize yourself with what you wrote. It might even surprise you and not be as bad or as hopeless as you remember. You'll probably feel the urge to tweak as you read, but don't get caught up in any major revisions. You'll want to gain some perspective before you dive back in, otherwise you risk running into the same issues that made you stop in the first place. Make notes about anything that pops up, good and bad. This is all about getting your bearings.

Find the Sticking Point
Once you've read it, pinpoint why you stopped working on it. Was it a story flaw? A lack of conflict or real stakes? You just didn't know what to do next? Maybe the love was gone and it no longer did it for you. Each issue will require different plans of attack.

Fatal Flaws
Some stories are inherently flawed and nothing you do will save it until those flaws are fixed. But odds are you've received feedback on the work and have some clues to help you figure out the problem. If you haven't shown it to anyone yet, your instincts are probably poking at you with similar thoughts. You did set it aside for a reason, remember? What is that reason? Be honest here.

Faulty Premise
Common symptoms: "I just can't believe the protagonist would do this." "I'm having a hard time accepting the story would unfold like this." "No way, I'm, not buying this." "Are readers really going to believe this?"

Look at where folks are saying they have doubts (or where you feel that nagging suspicion). Is a motivation issue? Do you see a lot of "Why are they doing this?" Then it's likely character based and working on your character might solve your problem. Frequently, it's the motivation that causes credibility issues. Is it a situation issue? Do you see a lot of "This would never happen."? Then it's likely breaking rules the reader can't suspend disbelief to accept. Odds are they've told you what rule, so either find a solid way to explain breaking that rule, adjust what you have so it follows the rules and still works for plot, or toss the idea aside and think up something else.

Wrong Protagonist
Common symptoms: "I want to know more about X." "X is way more interesting that Y." "X seems to be the one doing everything, and Y just goes along for the ride." "X is so much more fun to write than Y."

Sometimes we pick the wrong protagonist. We have an idea in our heads and think the story is going to be about one person, but as it unfolds, another is clearly the one driving the story. Cut the character that isn't working, or even combine her with the character that is working.

Wrong Story
Common symptoms: "What about the X plot? Are we ever going to find out how that worked out?" "What happened to Soandso?" "This subplot is much more interesting than the main plot." "I skimmed through here, but it really took off here." "Why are they doing this when that is way cooler?"

Ideas change, and what you thought was going to be one thing can morph into something else. If a subplot takes over and becomes far more interesting than the main plot, you might brainstorm to see if that subplot can carry the entire book. We cut away subplots that aren't working, so don't be afraid to hack off a main plot that has died on the vine.

Wrong POV
Common symptoms: "This would be better in first/third." "If you did first/third you'd be able to explore X better." "Have you thought about doing this in first/third?" "Maybe I should write this in first/third?"

An epic tale that spans continents may be too large to be told by a first person POV, because it might feel too small for such a scale. Like a third person POV might feel too detached for a very personal journey. Look at what scope of tale you want to tell and see if the POV matches. You might be trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

No Conflict
Common symptoms: "Everything's too easy for the protagonist." "There's nothing in the protagonist's way." "Stuff just falls in his lap." "There's nothing going on." "What's this about?"

Conflict is what drives a novel. Interesting people solving interesting problems in interesting ways. Without it, the story can feel like it's not going anywhere or nothing is going on. Everything is too easy and it's just scene after scene of the protagonist winning or doing stuff. Try looking at your overall story goal. What is your protagonist trying to do? What's in the way of her doing it? Why is she doing it? Why is someone trying to stop her? Once you answered those questions, ask one or two more each and go deeper to understand the bigger conflict, especially about the why. If death or bodily harm is the only reason and the only conflict, you might want to find/create a few more reasons to make the conflict more personal and compelling. That'll give you a lot more plot fodder.

Why Should I Care?
Common symptoms: "Does it really matter if he does this?" "What will go wrong if he fails here?" "Why is he going through all this? Can't he just leave?"

Not caring is almost always a personal stakes issue. If there's no risk for the protagonist, why should the reader care about their problem? The fun is in the struggle and the fear that doom is just around the corner. Try looking at the consequences if your protagonist fails. If they won't lose something that matters a lot to them, this could be the problem. And death isn't really a good stake. It feels big, but we all know the hero rarely dies.

She's Just Not That Into You
Common symptoms: "I'm losing sympathy for the protagonist." "I don't really like the protagonist much." "The protagonist seems really mean here." "I've lost all respect for the protagonist." "Watching the protagonist do X makes me really uncomfortable."

If readers don't like the protagonist, they won't read about them. And "like" can mean many things. Something about the protagonist makes the reader curious to know more about them. Dexter is a serial killer, but you like him anyway because he's compelling to watch. Look at where your comments are coming from. The behaviors will highlight what aspects of your protagonist are turning readers off. You might have great reasons for your protagonist to do what they're doing, but something isn't coming through on the page. Look at your motivations and internalization. There's a good chance what the reader needs to understand the protagonist's actions isn't clear. Also check the backstory. You might need to adjust their past to make them more sympathetic.

Don't Go Into the Basement
Common symptoms: "Why would they do this?" "Why didn't they do X instead?" "This seems like a lot of work when they could have done X." "Doesn't this go against what they said before?"

Sometimes characters act in ways that make no sense. Every horror movie fan can tell you this. We all know the killer is waiting in the dark, but the girl goes down to check anyway. Any normal person would be running out the door. Flimsy motivations turn your characters into paper dolls. It's clear they're just acting out plot, and readers are more likely to become annoyed than to care. People usually try the option of least resistance first. If a simple action can solve the problem, they won't come up with a huge elaborate plan. So when you need them to plan, make sure the easy and obvious options aren't available to them.

Hitting a Wall
Common symptoms: "Where is the story going?" "The plot seems to be wandering." "Are we ever going to get to a point?" "I have no idea what happens next."

Hitting a wall is usually a plot issue. You can't move forward because you don't know what happens. That confusion can come from several places.

Lack of protagonist goals:
If you protagonist has no goal, they have nothing to do. Look at your last scene and think about what the protagonist would do to get out of that. If they're not in any trouble, look back at what they've been doing and see where you can muck things up. Every place they succeeded, find a way to make them fail instead.

Lack of protagonist motivation:
If there's no reason for them to act, they won't. Figure out why they're doing this. What's driving them to act? You might need to develop some backstory for them to explain their motivations.

Lack of stakes:
They may have a goal and a reason to act, but if there's nothing to lose, why bother? Stakes are critical as they provide the conflict for the tale. What is your protagonist risking? What will happen if they fail, not only in the one scene, but in the story overall? Is this a problem that needs to be solved? Why? And don't stop with one surface answer. "Because people will die" isn't enough to drive a novel. Ask why they will die? Who benefits from it? And why that will hurt the protagonist.

The Love is Gone
Then there are those HFMs that aren't inherently flawed, but we just don't care that much when we read them. We want to like them, we like the idea, but the pages themselves just aren't cutting it. If you just aren't feeling it anymore, it could indicate you've grown/changed as a writer and that old work doesn't reflect the new you.

Moving Forward
Once you've identified where your issues are, it's time to develop a revision plan. This will differ depending on the type of writer you are, but there will be some common elements.
1. Remove all the stuff that isn't working
2. Make notes on what needs to be done
3. Dive in and do it
Sounds easy, right? The biggest obstacle to a HFM is figuring out why you stopped in the first place. Solve that problem (or problems) and chances are the ideas will start flowing again.

Do you have a HFM? Do you think you'll ever go back to it?


  1. This is fantastic! I'm definitely bookmarking this post for future reference.

  2. These are great tips not only for manuscripts in your drawer but also when you are revising a first draft.

  3. Fantastic tips. I'm just about to attack a HFM myself and this will be a major help. Thanks!

  4. My first HFM is only a chapter or two. Frustration with my creative writing class in college and the need for major world building stalled me. Someday I'll go back it when I get done with my other HFMs that are begging more of my attention.

    Great list of problems and possible solutions. I'll have to keep this in mind.

  5. Very cool tips and tricks for figuring out why your love for your manuscript is dying / dead and also for figuring out what critters mean when they say things.

  6. Right before you posted this, I was rereading the HFM that was a complete rewrite of my first ever completed (and later trunked) novel. I really think the narrator alone makes it work figuring out how to salvage, but it's so teen melodramatic with ginormous logic and plot holes. The HFM actually started from looking at reader feedback on that first novel and figuring out that I had the wrong POV and story focus.

    But at the time, I didn't have the skill to fix the plot. I might have it now, so I'm currently poking at it with a long stick to see if I can figure out some of the plot holes.

  7. I think the key to HFMs is: don't be afraid to gut it until very little is left.

    I'm currently working on an HFM, and as I got into it, I realized only the characters and the setting were salvageable. Actually, strike the characters-- they had to change. Pretty much the setting and very few plot elements remain, but I loved the feel of the setting for the original story and I wanted to go back there.

    I've grown since I wrote the original, and that made a big difference in being able to see what works and what doesn't.

  8. So true, Sierra. That's actually good advice for any manuscript. I've gutted so many books, but they all needed it.

  9. ah thanks for the post stumbled on u from clarisa draper's I have written 4 HFMs this past week and I have hit a stone wall each time. I really needed this thanx

  10. I have MANY HFMs, but they are for picture books. This is the result of my taking part in the 2011 Picture Book Marathon -- 26 MSs in 28 days. Whew! You wind up with a lot of dreck writing that many ideas in that short a time.

    A handful I might revisit. The rest will be -- as I heard a fellow writer quoted as saying -- "compost for other manuscripts to grow."

  11. Nice summary of the major things that could go wrong with a story. I don't have any HFMs yet, but these are good points to keep in mind while working on a new story as well, to keep it from becoming one.

  12. Very well thought out and thorough as usual. My very first book I had trouble moving on from because I loved my main character, but the last time I reread it, the love was gone. I've moved on as an author. My second novel though, was a POV issue and I've been working on switching it over. Sometimes it's hard to give up those HFN.

  13. Today has been a win win as regards the posts I've found in my inbox about writing. Seems like there are messages tailored just for me. this is a fantastic post about writing and fixing a flawed/stalled tale. Sweet!

  14. Wow, this is a keeper! Thanks so much.

  15. Dori, that's a lot of ms. in a short time! But it's a great way to get a feel for what stories might work and what won't. You've just given me a possible idea for a novel version of that! I'll have to think so more about it to see if it's even viable.

    R.E. Hunter, like preventative medicine :)

    Annalisa, it really can be. I have several myself I revisit just to see if I can make them work yet.

    Khaalidah, awesome! The muses are all in your corner.

    Julie, most welcome!

    Traci, thanks!