When Stories Go Bad: what to do with a flatlining MS.

In my last blog I mentioned the editorial definition of ‘tweak’.

Tweak: A change to a book. May be the alteration of a comma to a semi-colon. May involve identifying a huge timeline flaw and swapping scenes according, bringing a character back from the dead, and changing the ending.

However, sometimes tweaking isn’t enough.

  • When you decide, after 30,000 words, that you’ve used the wrong main character, and the plot is actually someone else’s story…
  • When your plot for book 3 of a series would, you realise, utterly torpedo everything you’ve achieved in books 1 and 2 and/or banjax any hope of a book 4…
  • When you realise, after 30,000 words, that you have no idea at all where you’re going with this / you dislike your characters intensely / you’ve used POV that now mean you cannot tell a crucial part of the story except in an extended two-chapter flashback narrated by a minor character…
  • When it turns out your carefully worked-out plot that means none of the above will happen is as inert as a fish on a slab…
  • When every writing session is like wading through cold treacle and you have so many other things you want to write instead…

If you’re hoping for advice on what to do in these circumstances, you’ve probably come to the wrong shop, because I have no idea what’s wrong with your MS and I have enough trouble with mine. But here’s a few thoughts.

Is it really that bad? ‘Just get on and write it’ is good advice in some circumstances. Sometimes pages carved out of granite by your teeth will end up reading exactly like the sparkling pages that flow effortlessly from your dancing fingers. But if you have a long-lasting sinking feeling that it’s not working, it probably isn’t, and ‘just write’ may mean ‘just waste more time on this dirge’. So you need a brutally honest beta reader or crit partner that you can trust to say, ‘Mate, this is just not that good.’ That way you can believe them in the unlikely event they tell you it’s great. (They won’t. It sucks. Sorry.) It is very hard to be that beta reader, and if you have one, take them out to dinner or something and assure them you still love them. You should.

Is some of the basic structure salvageable? Can you cut it back to chapter three and start again from there? Kill that subplot that’s slowing it down? Drop the whole plot strand that’s taking your characters to a really stupid place and take the book in a totally different direction, from early on? Is this like a badly pruned tree that needs cutting back to the trunk to make it grow properly, or like a child’s self-inflicted haircut that requires a shaved head?

Can you strip it down for spares? It may be that some of those lovely chunks of dialogue and scenes will fit seamlessly into a revised version. Junking 30K words is less painful if 10K of them can be salvaged. However, the key word is seamlessly, not ‘stitched together like a minor villain from Hellraiser’. Be ready to let go.

Is this coyote ugly? Which is to say, do you need to chew off a limb in order to escape? Do you need to jettison the whole damn thing and start again with new story, characters, setting, genre and possibly author name? If this is or may be the case, do not be tempted to fiddle. Don’t tweak, don’t tinker, don’t twerk; don’t strip it down for spare parts; don’t try retelling it from a different perspective with a completely different ya di ya; absolutely don’t be tempted to think that you have to keep writing this one book because you’ve put so much time into it. That’s a sunk cost. Future time is the only time that counts.

 KJ Charles has junked much and restructured more, but is finally past the 30K word mark and I swear to God it’s working now. Commiserate or argue in the comments!

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17 thoughts on “When Stories Go Bad: what to do with a flatlining MS.

  1. It looks like you professionals are having your chance to commiserate, and I was vastly entertained by this blog. I know how much anxiety and stress goes into making your near-perfect stories. (That is, I read your very late night/early morning howlers.) However, I am a reader, and for the first time in years I’ve found some series books that are making my life happier. You folks are doing god’s work as you strain out book 3, leaving openings for books 4, 5 and on… . It’s so appreciated, so vital. Good stories save lives, never forget.

    Reply
    • It’s so appreciated, so vital. Good stories save lives, never forget.
      YESSSSSSSSSSSS… thanks KJ for your work, your tips to self made writers and for exilarating examples also taken from a mum point of view… oh, so lovely and very true!

      Reply
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  3. This is sooo familiar. A novel I wrote two years ago bogged down completely, and I’ve been mulling it ever since. It turned out to be about the secondary protagonist, and the plot flatlined somewhere along the way. But there’s a huge amount that’s still good and still fits, and the story keeps nagging at me. So a complete rewrite lies ahead.

    Reply
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  5. Yes to all your tags to this post and I’m only writing a standalone. Am almost at the point of giving up and being just a reader instead. But good luck with your WIP. Your books are excellent and I’m very much looking forward to the next one.

    Reply
    • Sorry, but I’m reading On a Lee Shore now, and I’m afraid you aren’t allowed to give up in favour of reading. Head down, inch towards daylight…

      Reply
      • Oh bless you and CC both. Am inching toward daylight – on my belly perhaps but I’m on my way. I’m counting on the fact that first drafts always look as though they’ve been knitted by a kitten on crack. I’ll try and bring some steely eyed rationality to it later.

        BTW I’m so deeply in love with Merrick that it hurts just a little bit, but I have plenty of affection left over for Stephen and Lucien. Inspired creations all three.

        Reply
      • Thanks CC *rubs butt* I needed that. As a result of judicious butt kicking I wrote 700 words yesterday evening and killed an antagonist with a brick. 😀 Always good for the nerves.

        Reply

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