Project 2012: Dealing with problems. Big problems.

If you’re even a couple of chapters into your revision, it’s likely that you’ve run into some major issues.  And the further in you get, the worse it is.  The issues pile up and pile up and you think “how am I going to fix this?”

If your revision is looking just a little bit overwhelming (or maybe a great big lump overwhelming), then here are some tips, suggestions, advice and encouragements to keep you going.

1. My manuscript is crap

You’re reading through your manuscript.  So far you’ve found a couple of okay scenes, but mostly you’re just cringing.  The story is all over the place.  The characters are cliche.  The plot is like something out of Days of our Lives crossed with Star Trek (the original series) crossed with Two and a Half Men.  You can’t read this any longer.  Your dreams are in tatters.  What made you think you could write?  You are on the verge of an artistic hissy fit, or perhaps the biggest and most awful case of fear-induced writer’s block ever.  This could last you for years.

If this is your first revision, then you might not have come across these feelings before.  Relax.  They are valid feelings.  And your manuscript probably is crap.  Most first drafts are.

Take heart.  A bad first draft is not the end of the world.  And if it makes you feel any better, the thing I am reading at the moment is truly, utterly horrible.  I wrote it 2 years ago, and it is bad.  Bottom-of-the-slush-pile bad.

So what do you do when you think your story is unrecoverable?

1. Read it through with open eyes

Force yourself to read it anyway.  The good thing is, in a critical state of mind, you are more likely to spot the problems.  Spot them all.  Write them down in your spreadsheet.  Make copious notes about what is bad about the story.  Keep reading.

2. Stay positive

First drafts are just that – your first try at the story.  Don’t be down on yourself.  Be brutal with the story, but separate the story from the writer. If you start getting low, remind yourself of all your writing achievements.  If you’re light on for those, look at nice critiques you have received.  If all else fails, call your writing buddy and weep pathetically down the phone.  Then go back and keep reading.

3. Find the original spark

Think back to what made you want to write the story in the first place.  What was the scene or the moment or the idea or the concept that so excited you that you launched into an entire novel?  Find that, write it down, stick it on your monitor.

Then go back and keep reading.

4. Remember your goals

Why are you doing this again?  Oh right.  Whether it’s to finally revise a manuscript, or whether it’s to embark on the long haul of submitting your work, or whether it’s just shaping up a manuscript to self-publish, remind yourself why you decided to do this in the first place.

Then go back and keep reading.

5. Toughen up, princess.

If all else fails, grit your teeth and stick to it.  No-one said this was going to be easy.

6. Actual practical advice

In the end, once you have read through the horror, you will have to make the final decision on whether or not the work is actually worth revising.  And it comes down to this.

Do you love the story/concept/character enough that you are willing to rewrite it?  Even if you need to rewrite ALL of it?

Some people will be lucky enough to get away with rewriting half of it.  Most of us will end up rewriting up to 75% of the original draft, if you do it properly.  And some unlucky few will have to rewrite the entire thing.

That’s me at the moment.  I’m looking at about a 90% cull rate so far.  It’s not looking good.

But I love it enough to keep going.  Do you?

2. My writing is pug-ugly

Is it the grammar?  Have you written EVERY SINGLE SENTENCE with a dangling modifier?  Does your entire manuscript consist of words of 4 letters or less?  Do you have scenes that are pages long but only contain exposition?

I just read a 2000 word scene that looks like I have never heard of the maxim “show, don’t tell”.  Seriously.  Even I was falling asleep reading it, and I wrote it.

But in the sphere of revision, writing problems are EASY. If the worst you are facing is having to rewrite a scene in a different tense, or reformatting all your sentences, or changing from passive to active voice, you have nothing to worry about.  Sure, it might be hard work, but nowhere near as hard as having to rewrite an entire scene from scratch.

So if your manuscript is full of bad writing, don’t stress.  By the time you get around to it (quarter 3, ages away if you are following the 2012 plan) your plot will be so tight, your characters so well-motivated that you’ll just be filling in the holes, putting on a coat of paint and putting up some soft furnishings.

3. Nobody is doing what they’re told

Characters.  The lifeblood of your story, and the most troublesome, annoying, unmanageable entities you will ever encounter.  Which says a lot about writers, when you realise that we’re the ones who dreamed them up in the first place.

1. Cliche

Does your villain have an eye-patch?  Does he actually say “I’ll get you my pretty!”  Does he have a limp, body odour and a tendency towards spandex?

Cliche characters are the death of a story, but they can be fixed. Make a note every time you encounter a character acting like an archetype instead of a person.  Then when you are sorting out your characters, give them depth and heart and motivation and watch the cliches disappear.

If you’re not sure how to do that, we’ll be holding a workshop on Characters in a month or so.  Stay tuned!

2. Overpopulation

Very bad, and easy to do when you write on the fly.  I’m 10 chapters in and I have 27 characters.  Seriously.  Most of them are only cameos, but it’s still too many.

This is where your character list is invaluable.  Make a note of what each character does.  You will find at the end that you can have one character do several “jobs” within the story.  So go through and see where you can turn 3 characters into one.  Also check to see that you really need a name for that character.  If it’s a single encounter, then replace the name with a description.  If your character is buying bread, “the baker” will do instead of “Bob Jones”.  If the reader doesn’t need to know them, don’t give them a name.

3. Goals and motivations

Is your main character floundering about?  It may not be a plot problem, it may be a character problem.  What does the character want?  If he’s trying to rescue his kidnapped sister, but you’ve got him shopping for a new kitchen, it’s going to feel false.  Check that the actions reflect the characters needs, wants and goals.  Once you’ve mapped them all out, it should be easy to pick up where things aren’t right.

4. I don’t have a plot

Sure you do.  It just might not be very good.

Here, again, the spreadsheet is your saviour.  Once you have written down the events in each chapter, you can get a clear overview of the pathway from beginning to end and identify where you need work.  Where the events take a sudden right turn.  Where you lack tension.  Where you don’t have a cause for your effect.  Where you don’t have an effect for your cause.

Plot is also one of the easier things to fix.  Just think cause and effect.  If your antagonist blows up a bridge, it’s going to have flow-on effects.  If the protagonist’s partner was on the bridge at the time, then you have a plot event that impacts on character motivation.  And the next event will flow on neatly from there, depending on who the character is and what they want.

Feeling better?

Manuscript problems aren’t the end of the world, so don’t let them get to you.  They are problems to be faced and corrected.  Nothing you find in your read-through is unfixable.  Some things are just harder to fix than others.

So how are you going?  Have you run into any big problems yet?  Let me know how you have dealt with them, or if you haven’t, now is a good time to cry for help.