Ten Tricks To Get Your Book Back On Track When It Falls Apart

Co-authored with Annette Broadrick

Too many workshops give the impression that writing should be a formulaic, paint-by-the number activity. If we were to guess, we would say that most novelists have had at least one book fall apart, or they realize the story they intended to write is taking an entirely new direction.

Just when you think you know your characters, your hero hops in bed with the other woman and shoots the heroine when she catches him. Bang! Slam! Bam! Your perfect romance has come to a screeching halt. What do you, the author, do?

We've come to realize that when a writer pauses in the creative process and decides the story isn't working, her creative muse has come forward to point out that fact. Sue Grafton once said at one of the seminars we've attended that when she sits down in front of her computer, she calls up, "She Who Writes."

Annette finds this imagery quite helpful. She believes that She Who Writes is the one who forces her to stop writing and to look at the story with a new perspective. Should this happen to you, do not throw your manuscript in the trash along with a lighted match. Now, it's okay to visualize throwing all those pages away. But then sit back and mentally start pulling the sections out you love.

Perhaps a character really rings true, or a scene works even more brilliantly than you imagined. Perhaps a plot twist would work if you went back to the beginning and set it up and reshaped your idea.

Annette's plots tend to fall apart after three chapters while Ann's fall apart right before the end.

What do we do?

Go back to the idea or character that sparked the book in the first place and try to figure out why you got off track. Is it the characters or the plot?

Let's start with the characters. Are they sympathetic? Every character is flawed in some way, otherwise he/she would be boring and wouldn't deserve the space of a novel. Review how you've developed your characters. Do you like them? Would you like to get to know them better? Most importantly, are they basically decent human beings under stress, hence we know the behavior that causes the problems is not typical or habitual?

Annette has trouble developing sinister characters because she is not comfortable putting herself in that character's place in order to figure out how he/she thinks. Ann has a head full of demons with bizarre fantasies. She likes to get her revenge by putting them in her books and making sure they get worse than they deserve.

As writers, we must understand each character so well that we could do an in-depth biography on them. Not necessarily their birthdays and the color of their eyes and hair, although that helps the reader visualize them, but we go back to their childhoods.

Where were they born? What birth order were they? What sort of home did they live in growing up--parents who loved them? Or a dysfunctional family? What incidences in their lives helped to shape who they are at the time the book begins.

A lot of times we run into trouble because we don't know the characters well enough, and we don't like one or both of them, or the conflict really isn't believable. It's okay to fire a character or give him/her another novel. It's okay to rename them so you can "see" them differently.

Always, always when a book crashes, check the conflict driving the story before lighting the match to those pages. Conflict has to do with the characters and their goals, of course. The stronger the goals and the more desperately your characters want to achieve them, and the more powerful the obstacles in their path, the stronger your novel. The power of any novel lies in the dark side. You have to have conflict, intriguing conflict.

What do your characters want and what are they willing to do to get it? What or who is determined to stop them? The conflict needs to be large enough to carry an entire book, which often means if your book has stopped on you, you need to up the stakes.

The problem doesn't have to be life threatening, but it does have to be strong enough so that the reader will keep turning the pages to make certain the characters will be together at the end. Ann likes to give her characters a flaw, so that the character has room to grow and learn something vital to his/her soul during the story. Some crisis will force the character to change and see his world, his romantic interest, and himself in a more positive way.

Not only does a story need conflict, the characters need to make choices that box them into this ever-more dramatic situation. The pressure must become unbearable, and it must be impossible for them to flee and avoid resolving the issues at stake.

Ten tricks

  1. First, print the book on hard copy and reread it with a red pen, marking only problems that have to do with character and story. Jot questions you need answers for on index cards.
  2. Go back to the last good sentence in your manuscript. How did you go off track. Examine the characters' conflicts and goals. Play with ideas to strengthen the motivation and goals. Hint: concentrate on internal conflict.
  3. On a single page write a description of your book that includes character, premise, and the dramatic question. This should be short.
  4. What is boxing your characters into this story? Why don't they leave or date somebody else?
  5. Outline your story on a single page. Describe each scene in a single sentence. Put a plus or a minus at the end of it. Does the scene end on a positive or negative note? Does one scene lead to the next? Do you have surprises that spin your story in new and interesting directions? Are you upping the stakes as your story progresses? You can quickly see which scenes need to be in your book. Ask yourself why that scene has to be in the book. And often you can tell what needs to happen next or what would be really fun or exciting if it happened next.
  6. Get silent. Go off alone--no phone, no television. Focus. Pray to She Who Writes and then surrender to the muse. You will amaze yourself.
  7. Rewrite a scene or scenes from another character's viewpoint. Interview some of the characters and ask them questions you don't have answers for.
  8. Make a dream list. List all the things that you want your book to be and contain. Go so far as to imagine your book's cover and your book flying off bookshelves in a bookstore. You may be surprised when your dream pops fully formed into your mind one morning.
  9. Never never give up. Keep writing. Some books come in a flash. Others come sentence by sentence, but as Annie Lamott says, you can make the whole journey that way.
  10. Let others read and critique your book. Maybe a fresh viewpoint is all that's needed to spark the muse into action.

In conclusion remember that no matter how dark and terrifying the storm, eventually the sun comes out and the birds sing again. Always, always the blackest despair precedes brilliant bursts of profound creative enlightenment. The secret is to never give up.