Thursday, January 24, 2013

Reviving the Ailing Manuscript: When Is It Time to Let Go?

All writers have them: manuscripts in various stages of completion that may or may not ever see the light of day. I'm not talking about work that we've abandoned because life got in the way; I'm talking about work that just doesn't feel right.

I have a few of these books and I stare at the files and ask myself, what went wrong? And, can it be fixed?

Recently Marion Dane Bauer spoke to this topic in a series of excellent blog posts addressing her own failed picture book manuscript. She rightly states that picture books are such fragile things that it's nigh on impossible to resuscitate a failed picture book. But, she adds, it might be easier to bring a failed or failing novel back to life.

That notion pushed me to examine some of the reasons my own novels have "failed" or are failing, and whether I might be able to give them a second chance. Here are some of my observations in case they are useful to you:

  • If the reason for failure is due to weak characterization of protagonist or antagonist:

This may be resolvable. A deeper character analysis might reveal a backstory wound. A change in tone might bring a character's voice to light. A shift in point of view - from, say, third to first person - can often shift the character into gear. Taking the character outside her comfort zone - stressing her, putting her in harm's way - can often reveal the underpinnings of response. Forcing the character into doing something "out of character" can elicit deeper revelations and emotional reactions. 

If this is my problem, and I still love the story, I'll give it a second chance.

  • If the reason for failure is due to weaknesses in the plot:

This one is tougher for me and often depends upon where I am in the novel - first draft, second draft, etc. Do I have enough tension? Can I add or subtract scenes to increase the tension or reveal new things about my characters or the situation? Can I spin the plot in a new direction without trashing the story entirely?

But in that last question lies the difficulty. If my premise is weak, I'm in trouble. Or, rather my novel is in trouble. It's hard to shore up a weak premise. Sometimes I can spin the premise, turn it around and look at it from another direction; but sometimes...

And in the case of writing fantasy or science fiction (both of which I'm trying now), the premise is everything, in my view. And if the premise, however good, has been done to death in recent years (vampires, anyone?) then the novel will likely be viewed as derivative at best. Time to abandon. If the premise is unwieldy such that your reader cannot suspend disbelief, time to abandon, or at least set aside.

  • If the reason for failure is due to lack of heart:

Fatal. If I have lost the heart of my story - the love for the story above anything else, a belief in the power of that story, a feeling that it reveals my own heart and the underpinnings of the human experience - I'm done.

Here's what Marion had to say, and she's right: the deepest flaw that can inhabit any piece is a lack of genuine heart. I have to love the story to pieces to be able to write it. And I know that an editor, agent, and my readers will feel my lack of heart and respond with a "meh" if I don't give them my emotional all. (This is why I don't write assignment work, unless the assignment speaks to me.) 

We've all read books by authors we love that seem to be weak, or lost altogether; I imagine it's hard for an editor to put aside the work of a successful author. I would rather be my own arbiter of what I want to send out into the world. I have maybe half a dozen completed but flawed novels that will likely never see the light of day, that I've set aside, even when someone has asked for the work. 

But that's fine. I move on and write the next one, and the next and the next. As Marion says, the very act of writing feeds us...Success is only a happy byproduct, not the reason for our effort. 



Candilynn Fite said...

Excellent points, Janet. Thanks for sharing!

Janet Fox said...

Thanks, Candilynn! Marion is my inspiration - her insights are extraordinary.