Sunday, May 15, 2011

Finish the Darn Book: When a manuscript won't cooperate

Every writer, whether new or experienced, reaches a point where the manuscript she's writing simply will not cooperate. The characters go mute. Or they go off in tangents (not to be confused with characters going in unexpected but welcome directions). The plot get so tangled up you don't know which is up and which is down.

When I was a new writer, long before I sold my first book, my usual reaction to this point in a manuscript's life was to set it aside and start something new. Needless to say, that's how I ended up with several dozen first chapters of books but almost nothing finished.

When you're unpublished, it's okay to set aside a book and start something new. It's part of the process, in some ways. It's a lot easier to start over than to spin your wheels in the muck of your recalcitrant story, getting nowhere but slinging mud everywhere, right?

Well, yeah. Of course it's easier. But is it smarter?

When you sell on proposal (and folks, that ought to be your goal--to get paid BEFORE you write the book), you don't have the option of setting the book aside and starting something new. You have to make this story work, whatever it takes.

That doesn't mean you don't sometimes start a new book. But that new book has to be the same book you've sold. So how do you do it?

1. Change a character

But you sold the book on the basis of the characters in your proposal, right? Well, sure. But your editor wants the book to be good. She wants it to work. So if you recreate a character, or give him new facets that make the book better, your editor will be happy. YOU are the writer. YOU control the story.

Let me add one caveat: if you're writing a series, and you've already introduced the character, you can't change him or her out. But you CAN change his character, even if you've established it in some way in a previous book. For instance, in my first book, the heroine's younger sister, Rose, was a seer gifted with the ability to see what she called "true love veils"--the face of one lover superimposed over the face of the lover's soul mate. She turned this paranormal gift into a matchmaking/wedding planning business. I established this ability in Rose Browning quite strongly in the first book of the series.

So when the second book came along, and I needed to change Rose's gift to something far darker--the ability to see "death veils" predicting a person's impending death, how did I do it? I created a circumstance in which the "true love veils" created a terrible consequence, when soul mates earned not a happy but a tragic ending. This allowed me to change her gift--and in the process, change her entire outlook on life. The Rose Browning of Forbidden Temptation was not the happy girl she was in her sister's story.

Motivate the change in your character and you can make it work.

2. Change the pacing

I wrote 26 pages on my most recent WIP before I realized it was completely wrong. It wasn't as simple a problem as starting in the wrong place in the book. I started at the wrong pace. For 26 pages, there wasn't even a real hint of danger or suspense, and believe me, if you're writing a romantic suspense, those elements should be there almost from page one. Or maybe you're writing a contemporary romance that's full of sexual tension. Have you established some sort of attraction between your main characters from the beginning?

You need to start out with a bang, whether it's a literal bang like a gunshot or a metaphorical one like eyes locking and hearts pounding with unexpected desire. Or maybe, if the book you're writing is slower paced altogether, you need to make sure SOMETHING happens at the start, something that changes the circumstances of your character.

Perhaps your problem comes later in the book. Maybe you've been moving at a breakneck pace and suddenly realize that your characters, the ones who should be falling madly in love, just aren't? Go back and find a place to slow down. Maybe it's as simple as a couple of extra paragraphs when the character reveal something new and intriguing about themselves to each other, something that helps them see each other in new ways. This can often provide the foundation for the romance you're trying to build.

3. Change the setting.

I'm not talking about the setting of the story, necessarily, although sometimes that can work as well. I'm talking about changing where--or how--you write.

We can get in ruts just as easily as our characters do. And sometimes the simplest of changes--writing longhand instead of on the computer, writing without formatting, writing on the laptop outside in the garden instead of on the desktop in your office--can help shift your mind out of the rut that's keeping you from seeing the solutions for the story problems that prevent you from moving forward.

4. Change the rules

I've spoken of this before, but something I've started doing recently has helped me get past my procrastinating ways. It's a simple hashtag on Twitter: #1k1hr. But it's a powerful motivation to sit down for a hour and write with no rules. Production is king. You're going for those 1000 words in an hour. You may think it can't be done. But I promise you, it can. I've written as much as 1700 words in an hour once I'm deep into the story.

It's not that I'm that fast a writer--it's that I commit to write for an hour and I let myself write crap if that what it takes to make that word goal. It's okay to write dreck--dreck can be edited into something readable. Blank pages can't.

We all desire to write the very best story we can. I do. I know you do, too. But sometimes, that desire gets in the way of writing at all. It can paralyze you--it can make your manuscript rebel. Sometimes what we think of as a writing block is really just that self-paralysis that comes from fearing failure. It's okay to fail in the first draft. That's why it's called the FIRST draft.

Don't sweat the spelling. Don't worry about the research. Don't get your knickers in a twist over grammar. Just write the story in your head. You can edit all of it when it's done. Change the rules. Change your ways.

Change is the key to dealing with an uncooperative manuscript. This time, when the story just isn't coming together, instead of setting the story aside and starting something new, change something. Anything.

Move around the obstacle. Then move forward.

So, what about y'all? How do you deal with manuscripts that just aren't playing along?


Sonya Clark said...

I'm currently struggling with a manuscript that I would like to kill with fire so I was very happy to read this post. So far I've started over twice, gotten rid of one character, changed another character, and changed the setting. Changing the setting has made the biggest difference and helped get the story back on track, though it is still not moving along as fast as I would like. I've never tried the #1k1h thing but I think I will. Thanks for the helpful post, I'm bookmarking it.

Carla Swafford said...

Such a timely post for me.

A scene kept nagging at me in my current WIP but the story wasn't ready for it. So I said what the heck and wrote the scene. It was only two pages, but that's two more pages than I would've wrote if I had fought it.

Sometimes you have to think outside the box we place ourselves in.

Paula said...

I just finished the second stab at my first chapter, and it's working so much better than before. I was able to salvage some dialogue from the original chapter (yes, I kept the original in a separate file) but the tension level is exponentially higher now.

It's okay to write the wrong thing, too. Sometimes what you write is usable, either in a later chapter or in a somewhat different format.

Christine said...

I love this post--very timely for me indeed. I am in R&R land with no clear landing in sight. I had to take a break from it--it is done, but needs editing cause the plot is different. Heck the whole story is different! So I decided to flesh out my characters in another book, give myself a bit of a break before diving in to finesse the R&R book. Once I did that, I began generating germs of ideas for how to tweak the other book, too. So it was a change of setting--AFTER I had a decent draft done that I can work with should the editor (please) ask for the REST of the story.

I'm going to do your 1k1hr deal for my first draft of the new book. I love fixing dreck.


Paula said...

I'm so glad this post was as timely for y'all as it was for me. My first two books of this contract seemed to fly along with no problems. This third book is already kicking my backside.

Lexi said...

Spot on for me too, Paula. I'm in the death throes of book two and writing on a deadline. This book has been like pulling teeth with a cat whisker! I have definitely had a bad case of sophomore book syndrome. Arggh!

Louisa Cornell said...

Glad to know I'm not the only one who can get her butt kicked by her own book! Usually the first three to five chapters are a dream for me. And sometimes the last chapters are just as dreamy. It's the middle that becomes Nightmare on Elm Street !! And revisions are the WORST! I finished the book and thought "Wow, I did it!" only to have a two page e-mail from my agent saying "Nope, not quite." AAAARRGGGH !!! The good news is the revisions are taking the book in some really good new directions. The bad news is, it's taking its own sweet time doing it! I'm going to try some of these technique Paula because I absolutely, positively HAVE to finish these revisions ASAP !!

M.V.Freeman said...

Like everyone, this is a VERY timely post.

I have the last five chapters to re-write and I've been dragging feet. I think I am going to take your last suggestion and just charge forward and then clean it up..I've been too worried about writing the perfect chapter, when what the heck, I just need to give my self permission to write anything.

Thank you Paula, this is awesome!

Allen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris Bailey said...

Thank you, Paula! I'll be trying all these tips today. I'm in the last 100 pages of revisions, and I like what's ahead, but find myself on the edge of a cliff right now--gotta write a (logical) bridge between here and the next scene!

Jim said...

Paula - you are such a fantastic resource! Great post!

J D Elliott said...

Thanks, Paula, for the insightful words of wisdom. I so needed to read those right now since I'm struggling with my current manuscript. Frustrated but ready to kick butt and take names while using these helpful tips.

Paula said...

So glad to hear this is helping y'all. I applied the rules to my own manuscript, and in three days I've managed to rewrite the 26 pages I had to discard, and it's a much stronger beginning now.

I also managed to push through into extra pages using #1k1hr, so I actually followed a couple of my suggested steps. :)

Rashda said...

Thanks for another great post Paula! I'm going to try the #1k1h thing :)