(Chinese cover of Graceling, published by Yongzheng —>)
Have a manuscript that isn’t working? Might these suggestions help?
1. Divide it into its smallest components.
Print out your manuscript. Sit down with a big pile of paper clips. Then, start pulling the manuscript apart and dividing/clipping it by scene. (Is your beginning more of a mess than your end? If so, maybe start from the back and work to the front.) When I do this, I jot a little explanation in the upper left-hand corner of each scene, so that I can flip through my big pile of clipped pages and get a quick sense of what each section is about. Simultaneously, I work with a pile of index cards, jotting down each scene on an individual index card as well, so that I have an even smaller, more mobile way of flipping through my story. The idea here is to give yourself an easier way to see both the forest and the trees. Forest: if you divide your manuscript into scenes, suddenly it’s easier to examine the structure and see how it’s all fitting together; it’s also easier to experiment with changing the order of things. Trees: when you’ve isolated a scene from the rest of the manuscript, it becomes easier to determine what purpose that scene serves, whether parts of it are unnecessary, whether it’s missing something, whether the scene has any point whatsoever.
2. Play devil’s advocate with your characters and plot.
What are the absolutely most essential characteristics of your characters? What are the critically important aspects of your plot? In other words, what are the things about your story that you have absolutely no intention of changing? Well, take each of those things and ask yourself, What if that weren’t true? What if Charlotte the spider doesn’t know how to read or write — where does this leave Wilbur, and how will it change the reader’s opinion of Charlotte? What if Leia becomes the Jedi instead of Luke — what else in the story will change as a consequence? What if Tim Riggins from Friday Night Lights were ugly, instead of what he is — how would this impact every other part of his life, not to mention the viewer’s connection with him? Or, take Tami Taylor out of the show. What’s left? My point is, don’t just be pushing at the parts of your story you intend to change. Push at the parts it’s never occurred to you to change, too, and push at the parts it would kill you to change. It doesn’t mean you actually have to end up changing them; it’s just an exercise. It will help remind you of the reasons why you’re writing the story in the first place; it will show you your story’s bones; it will challenge you to prove to yourself that the heart and soul of your story rings true.
3. As you begin to rewrite, focus on plot and character and forget about The Greater Meaning.
I’ve been running into some snafus with my current revision, because in addition to trying to sort out the appropriate plot structure and how it affects character development, I’ve been thinking a lot about themes. What are the themes of this book? What does it all mean? This can be a death trap for your manuscript, seriously. It’s possible to get trapped in a vortex of themes, it’s possible for your themes to start being the boss of your revision, and what happens then is that the believability of your characters and the oomph of your plot begin to suffer. Forget about what the book means. Think about plot and character; use your plot to tell a compelling tale; use your plot to reveal your characters; use your plot to change your characters. I promise that if you do this, themes will arise. Might they be messy? Yes, they might, but (I hate to tell you this, but) this will probably not be your final revision. Once your characters and plot are carrying this manuscript, you can go back to poke and prod a little bit at the other stuff, including stuff having to do with themes.
4. Remember that this feeling will pass.
Writing is going to create a lot of uncomfortable feelings for you. In my experience, one of the most uncomfortable feelings is, “I can’t figure out how to fix this.” I think one of the reasons that’s so uncomfortable is that it’s only the tiniest step away from, “I will never figure out how to fix this.” But you will. If you keep facing it, then getting distance, then facing it, then getting distance, then facing it again, you’ll figure it out. This unsettled feeling will not last forever. I promise.