You’re belly button-deep in a manuscript that has taken over your soul and filled you with a writing fervor so intense that you haven’t eaten or gone to the bathroom in 18 hours. Everything is going amazingly well; the characters are organic and their motivations are varied, believable, even human at times. Your narrative arc is building tension exactly like you imagined, and that dramatic climax you’ve got tucked so deftly up your sleeve is about to drop with an impact that could be measured in megatons. You got this writing thing down.
And then you give your manuscript to a friend/editor/someone you’ve strapped to a chair and forced to read your work.
Their feedback isn’t the glowing awesomeness you expected from such a genre-altering, life-changing, world-healing piece of writing. They found plot problems. Big ones. Characters who seemed flat or underdeveloped. They even found some language that just straight up didn’t make sense.
How dare they question your art!? You are the master of this story, a demi-god of the world your brain manifested and turned into many many pages of words. This lowly reviewer just doesn’t get it. You stomp around like a child in snow boots, cursing their name and reminding yourself how awesome you are with impromptu bathroom mirror pep-talks.
After some time away from your story, you sit down and read it yourself. Suddenly all of those mistakes our reviewer pointed out are pretty damn obvious
How do you fix it (and apologize to your editor for your tanturm)?
1. Admit you have some issues
Not personally. I don’t care if you’ve got a coke habit for your coke habit. I’m talking about writing issues here.
Some of your characters may not be working very well. Hell, your main character may not be working very well. Before you can fix anything, you have to accept that your first draft will have flaws. And they may be major. And there may be a lot of them. And it may require a shit load of editing and rewriting to fix.
That’s OK. The first step is acknowledging you have a problem. It can be really hard to separate your emotions from something you have worked so hard on, but 999,999 times out of 1,000,000 you won’t get it perfect the first time around. There is absolutely no shame in revising. There is a lot more work, but no shame.
Even famous authors face these issues. Erik Larson (author of multiple national bestsellers like Isaac’s Storm and Devil in the White City) nearly didn’t use Isaac as the protagonist of his book because he felt he was “uni-dimensional.” This is after (what I assume, citation needed) hundreds upon hundreds of hours of research about Isaac, his life, and the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. Sometimes you have to make hard choices for what is best for your writing, even if it means throwing away countless amounts of hard work.
It’s not fun and it’s not easy, but sometimes, you just gotta take one for the story.
2. Reduce, reuse, recycle
A lot of writing problems come from the desire to be super-duper complex, as if that will somehow make everything instantly more compelling and multidimensional. While, yes, tossing a running chainsaw to a juggler already keeping an angry ocelot and a canister of tear gas in the air would certainly be entertaining, it definitely opens him up to a much bigger margin of error.
Troublesome and unclear plot points can be resolved by removing or reducing the number of conflicts. Sometimes this means removing a character from a scene entirely, or removing a scene that you thought was a moment of pure genius. You may have just made to many allusions to outside works or other parts of your own work that make an entire section lose its edge.
Brevity is the soul of wit, but also makes for crisp, coherent writing.
When you reread one of your major plot-moving scenes, stop yourself anywhere you start thinking about another point in the story or something else entirely. Chances are, if the section can’t hold your attention, it will also send your readers off on a mental tangent, and even possibly cause them to stop reading.
Unless you’ve got a lot of practice under your belt, don’t try to over complicate things. Simple characters with clearly defined motivations in well described, relevant settings will always be more interesting to read than crazy shit that is just in there to crazify other shit.
If your ultimate goal is publicly readability, these are the choices (and possibly sacrifices) you have to make. Remember, just because you remove something, doesn’t mean you can’t add it back in later, or rewrite it and use it somewhere else in the story, or at the very, very least use it in another story.
Writing is awesome like that.
3. Bust out the tools
If you aren’t going to get it right on the first try, you probably also won’t get it right on the second. Or third. Or fifteenth.
OK, you might have it right by then, but revising is definitely not a one-and-done process. It’s a lot more like whittling; you slowly shave away layers and carve out details until the perfect look and design appears where a hunk of plain ‘ole wood sat before.
Spend some time revising character, then move to dialogue. When that seems a little better, move on to scene, setting, and contextual detail. Revise the exposition along with the action. Slowly but surely, the themes of the piece will stick out their little, poignant heads, and your stylistic voice will yell at them to come play in the sun.
But you’ve got to put in the work. If editing something of length seems daunting, try splitting it into chapters, acts, or some other more digestible chunks. Writing programs like Scrivener work really, really well for this, but if technology just ain’t ‘cho thang, printing it out and making little piles works just as well.
If you’ve got a short form piece (let’s say, sub-5000 words) just suck it up and edit the damn thing. It isn’t going to magically get better the longer it sits on your hard drive. The sooner you get your mind-wrench on the literary nuts and bolts of the story, the sooner it will be super-mega-awesome and the sooner random people will want to pay you tens upon tens of dollars for it.
4. Get perspective
Unless you spend some time away from your writing, you’ll never see your own mistakes. Forest for the trees, or whatever.
When you’re at a natural stopping point (read: you’ve exhausted your entire reserve of mental energy and would barf if you tried to drink another cup of coffee) put the piece away for a while. Save it to a folder that’s a couple of folders deep. Print it out and stick it under your couch. Whatever you need to do to get some creative distance from the thing.
I’ve done this countless times for homework assignments, blog posts, personal essays, and yes, even full length novel/novellas. You’ll be amazed what a little bit of down time can do for your worldview on things. Specific things you just couldn’t live without in an earlier draft will suddenly seem trivial. Other weird, half-developed ideas will suddenly become subplots or great cultural commentary that you missed or ignored the first time around.
Step away from the computer. Go do some chores or play some video games or take a trip to the ruins of Pompei. Your writing will thank you (and be better) for it.
Step 5: Rinse, repeat
This isn’t really a step, it’s just a reminder to redo all the other steps once you think you’re done with them. This process may seem tedious at first glance, but as a personal favor to me (and your Right-Brain), try it at least once.
If your writing doesn’t look, sound, and feel better from a round of acceptance, reduction, perspective, and editing, then I’ll buy you a beer.