Monday, September 19, 2022

5 Ways to Revive a Manuscript That Doesn't Work

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Difficult manuscripts often need tough love and hard choices to make them work.

Last year, I had three manuscripts for novels that didn't work. They were all stories and concepts I loved, but the drafts got less-than-stellar feedback. But I wasn't willing to give up on those stories, because I believed in them, even while they tried to kill me and my muse.

Some of them have been waiting years for me to figure out how to fix them. It took me a while, but I have a good feeling about all three of them now.

Idea #1 I threw out and started over from scratch. I even changed my POV from first to third person. The story stayed the same, but I re-addressed how I told that story.

I completed it a few months ago, and it just needs one last final critique pass. I'm delighted to report that the feedback from my beta readers is now stellar. The last time I had such overwhelmingly positive comments was when my betas were reading my debut novel, The Shifter. I'm taking this as a very good sign.

Ideas #2 needed major revision to fix a few issues. It’s the first in a series, so finding the right way to set everything up (including the series antagonist) was tricky.

It’s being revised and rewritten now, and I hope to have it done by the end of the year. I’ve gotten feedback on the first five chapters so far, and it’s all good. I’ve overcome many of the issues that had plagued this novel, and I have a much clearer sense of how to tell this story now.

Idea #3 is still in the development stage. I reworked the outline and approach for the idea, based on some feedback from my agent. This one started as a first-person YA fantasy, but it really needs to be a third person adult fantasy.

The story evolved too much as I wrote the earlier drafts, and I kept trying to shove it back into the YA box it no longer fit. It needs more development and a complete rewrite, but I’ll go back to it eventually. (For long-time readers, yes, this is the spy fantasy that I’ve been fighting with for close to a decade now. I WILL get this story right one day).

Despite the rough patches, I feel optimistic about their chances at finally becoming the stories I knew they could be (and even eventually selling them).

(Here’s more with The Difference Between Editing and Revising a Novel)

Sometimes, the best thing you can do for a novel is to strip it bare and start over.

In most cases, it’s the idea that matters, and the trouble comes from the incorrect execution of that idea. I stepped back, ignored what I'd written, and focused on the story I'd fallen in love with in the first place. Then I evaluated what I had, and I brainstormed what to do with it.

I used a three-step process for this.

Step One: Remember Why You Love the Idea

If you can't shake an idea, there's a reason. Strip away what you wrote or thought and all the baggage you brought to the story and think about WHY you love this idea.
  • Why does it resonate with you?
  • Why does it make you want to write it?
  • Why does the heart of it matter so much to you?
Basically, what about the core of this story intrigues you so much you can’t give up on it? Because that’s the element that will lead you to figuring out how to write this novel. That’s the part that truly captivates you, and all the other details are just “stuff” you tried that didn’t work.

A great idea stays with you even when it makes you want to bash your head against the keyboard, which is why it’s so frustrating.

(Here’s more with 3 Ways to Tell if a Manuscript Is Worth Going Back to)

Step Two: Strip Away Everything That Doesn't Support That Idea

I see some of you cringe just thinking about this. It's disheartening to toss out tens of thousands of words, especially if you struggled with them over a long period of time (like years). But remember—these are the unsuccessful attempts, and you don’t need them. If they worked, the novel would work.

It’s time to be objective and ask…
  • Does every scene serve the story you want to tell?
  • Does every character fit the story?
  • Is the plot leading the story where it needs to go?
  • Did you get sidetracked by too many subplots?
It’s so easy to get scope-locked on what you think the novel should be, that you lose sight of what it actually is. This is even worse if what you’re stripping away is actually good. You can cut bad writing or crummy scenes with no problem, but good scenes? Scenes you like, maybe even love? That’s way harder. But it’s sometimes necessary.

(Here’s more with Don't Let Your Plot Hijack Your Story)

Step Three: Figure Out Why It’s Giving You Trouble

This is by far the hardest part of a “not working yet” draft, because if you knew what was wrong, you’d have fixed it already, right? But that’s why you go through the soul-searching in Step One, and the paring down in Step Two. You needed to separate the beloved idea from the unsuccessful drafts so you can look at the manuscript objectively.

Maybe it's not ready to be written yet because…
  • You haven't found a key piece of the puzzle
  • You lack a skill needed to make it what you know it needs to be
  • It needs a completely different approach
You might need to reevaluate the concept from the ground up (as I did with Idea #3), or maybe you know what the problem is, but just not how to fix it. Once you understand where the trouble lies, you’ll be able to focus on that area and find a solution.

(Here’s more with How to Be Your Own Book Doctor)

Which brings us to…

5 Ways to Brainstorm a New Direction for Your Manuscript

This exercise is both super easy and terribly difficult. It’s easy if you turn your creativity loose and don’t say no to any idea. It’s super hard if you try to force your brainstorming to fit what you already tried (especially if that already failed).

Go wild. Go crazy. Nothing is off limits or off the table. You never know where a crazy idea might lead.

1. What if You Changed the Core Conflict?

It’s possible the story’s problem isn’t right for the story. Maybe it’s not a problem the protagonist truly needs to solve, or it’s not big enough to drive an entire novel. It might not be personal enough, so there’s no reason for the protagonist to even try to fix it.
  • What other conflicts could happen in this story?
  • What other reasons could cause the existing conflict?
  • How might you make the conflict more personal or relevant to the protagonist?
  • Is there a smaller problem that’s actually the real problem in the story?
If the conflict is solid, and you know this is what needs to happen, then ask…

(Here’s more with Where Does Your Novel's Conflict Come From?)

2. What if You Changed the Character Arc?

External plots lead to internal growth, so it’s possible the story’s internal arcs don’t reflect the right lesson this conflict is trying to teach. For example, if you want your protagonist to learn wrong, how to stand up for themselves, but the core conflict is all about rescuing someone from a horrible fate, there aren’t a lot of ways for that problem to help that character growth in that way. Maybe this book isn’t about that type growth.
  • Does the character have a character arc?
  • Should they have a character arc?
  • What’s the lesson they need to learn?
  • How does the novel’s problem teach them that?
  • What lesson (and thus growth arc) might better fit the novel’s conflict?
It’s also possible you have a book that doesn’t need a character arc, and trying to shove one in there is killing the novel. Or, you don’t have an arc at all, so the external plot feels flat and weak without that personal connection to add emotional depth.

(Here’s more with Grow Up Already: Creating Character Arcs)

3. What if You Changed the Point of View Style?

This made a huge difference for me with my MG fantasy. My first-person voice is older, and my protagonist kept sounding like a teen, not the twelve-year-old girl she was supposed to be. Switching to third person forced me to create a different voice, and I was able to keep her sounding like the kid she was.

For my adult fantasy, changing to third person let me explore the idea from more points of view, which gave the morally tangled story a badly needed perspective. It needed that extra step away in the narrative distance, and first person was just too close.
  • What would change if you told this story from a different POV style?
  • Does this story need more points of view? Fewer points of view?
  • How would changing the narrative distance affect it? Would closer be better? More distant?
  • Would changing the POV style change the voice or the narrative style? Is that better or worse?
Some stories are too big for one character, or too small for five. Changing up how many POVs you have, and what style the story is told in, might be the shakeup you need.

(Here’s more with First vs. Third Person: Choosing the Right Point of View for Your Novel)

4. What if You Changed the Setting?

This might seem like a simple fix, but there’s a ton of inherent conflict in a setting, and that adds a lot to a story. It might be that the story just doesn’t have the right location to layer on thematic elements to make the other aspects of the idea pop. It’s too peaceful, when the story needs to feel tense. It’s too tense if the story needs quiet reflection. It might even be a story that needs a different time to really shine, such as a modern setting versus a historical one, or one from even a few decades ago.
  • What if you set this in the opposite of where it is now? (Rural vs urban, past vs present)
  • What if you expanded the setting?
  • What if you narrowed the setting?
  • What if you made the setting harder to live in? Easier?
  • How can you make the setting affect the plot? The character arc? The core conflict?
Settings add a lot to a story, but it’s easy to ignore them and use them as nothing more than backdrops. Take advantage of your setting and let it enhance your story.

(Here’s more with 10 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Setting)

5. What if You Changed the Point of View Character/Protagonist?

This is the biggie. When all else fails, maybe it’s time to consider if you have the wrong protagonist. Maybe the best friend is a better option for the story, or it’s really all about the antagonist. Maybe you need to tell the story from another character’s POV, because the hero of the story would give too much away.
  • Is the current protagonist the best option for this story?
  • What would happen if you made someone else the protagonist?
  • What if you added a POV character (or more)?
  • What if you removed a POV character (or more)?
The story might be too big (or too small) for what you currently have, and a different protagonist or point of view character(s) would change how the conflict is resolved and how the story unfolds. Changing your story’s perspective can make a huge difference.

(Here’s more with What to Do if You Think You Have the Wrong Protagonist)

If a manuscript doesn’t work, but the idea is good, don’t be afraid to go back to the idea’s roots and start over.

Every idea can be told in different ways, and if one way isn’t working, try another. Sometimes, an unexpected change is exactly what you need to get a manuscript back on track.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take some time and work through these exercises on your “doesn’t work” manuscript (or even idea). And if you’re looking to spice up a manuscript that’s good, but not great, these questions can also help add a bit of oomph to an existing scene or story.

Do you have a well-loved idea languishing in a drawer? Could any of these changes fix it?

Need help revising? Get all three Fixing Your Revision Problems books in one omnibus!

This book contains Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View ProblemsFixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems, and Fixing Your Setting & Description Problems--PLUS a BONUS workshop: How to Salvage Half-Finished Manuscripts.

A strong story has many parts, and when one breaks down, the whole book can fail. Make sure your story is the best it can be to keep your readers hooked.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft Omnibus offers eleven self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Determine the right way to include information without infodumping
  • Fix awkward stage direction and unclear character actions
Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft Omnibus starts every workshop with an analysis and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. This easy-to-follow guide will help you revise your manuscript and craft a strong finished draft that will keep readers hooked. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Thanks for this—a very useful set of strategies! I’m sure I’ll be returning to this post again!

    1. You're most welcome. Glad you found it helpful.

  2. When are you going to check real thing?

    1. I don't understand the question. Could you please explain?

    2. The Real Life Diagnostics.

    3. I'm not sure. I won't be doing them again for a while, but hope to start again with the new site. That might be in early 2023, though I'm trying to get it done before the end of the year.

  3. Real Life Diagnostics

  4. How do get the book Revising the novel

    1. You can get it on Amazon or most online retailers. This page has links to the various places you can buy it.

  5. I really liked this article and believe that you are right. Yet there is a fourth option. "Wait". Many years ago, I authored a short novel, that I loved but no one else seemed to like. I thought of rewriting the story as I had already bought into the idea and ethos of the tale but as I read it again, I still loved it, I did not wish to change a thing (apart from an annoying spelling mistake). As luck would have things, busy working on a new novel, I never got the chance.
    Checking sales figures for my novels, over a year later, for some reason (unknown to me) I saw the novel had started to sell, and those sales grew. A year later it had become one of my bestsellers (the first time my sales had reached thousands- lol- normally I measure them in tens, hundreds if I am lucky). I have tried to find the reason for the change from a trickle to a stream of sales, but I have still no idea why this should be so. Perhaps, a tale just has its time?
    No Idea. Lol I wish it would happen to them all.

    1. Thanks! Waiting is indeed an option. Sometimes, we're just not ready to write a novel and things need to percolate in our brains.

      This article was aimed more at drafts, not published novels, though. But it's a good reminder that sometimes it does take a while for a novel to find its audience. :)

      Glad your novel found its readers and is doing so well! I wish it was easy to know/find out why :) It must have gotten mentioned or linked somewhere or by someone with a wide audience and word of mouth spread. That's usually how it goes.

  6. I expect so but have no idea.