Friday, July 17, 2009

How to Repair a Manuscript

by Jean Henry Mead

Something’s not quite right with your manuscript but how do you solve the problem? There’s so much to consider: characterization, pacing, theme, plot, rhythm, style and more. Early drafts only sketch in the story while final drafts define your characters and fine tune the plot.

First of all, you need to compartmentalize your approach, according to editor Raymond Obstfeld. His plan is to revise one step at a time by ignoring other aspects of the story while focusing on characters or plot. He also advices revising in short contained sections such as scenes or chapters. The sense is that while revising, you’re rethinking what you’ve written and who your characters really are. By beginning the scene anew, you can rethink the process and eliminate any unnecessary asides or uncharacteristic dialogue. Take your time to figure out what in the storyline is bothering you.

Develop a clear and engaging storyline. Then look for passive, talking-head characters. Also look for a lack of plot build-up and anti-climatic action. If your characters are just sitting around talking with a lack of tension or conflict in a scene, stir some up. Place your characters in traffic and have them arguing. Maybe the wife is tired of her husband’s careless driving or she’s dragging him to a dinner with people he doesn’t like.

Each scene should be a mini-story with a beginning, middle and end. A scene should be like a boxing match, with plenty of conflict and a winner or "knockout" at the end of each one. Obstfeld says that every scene should have a “hot spot,” a “point in which the action and/or emotions reach an apex. When revising for structure, make sure you locate the hot spot—and that it generates enough heat to justify the scene.”

Once the entire story is complete, you need to revise the structure of the entire manuscript. Before playing musical chairs with your scenes, make note cards of each one, noting which characters are in the scene or chapter and briefly summarize the action. This can be done on the computer by filing each scene separately. You may find that you've strung too many passive scenes together and need to insert some tension and conflict.

Mystery writer Marlys Millhiser once showed me her charts for each scene. Using colored pencils, she drew a graft of different aspects of the plot in various colors to prevent melodrama as well as passivity. Other writers have different techniques to hold a reader’s interest.

Some novelists use a lot of description, others very little. There’s no rule of thumb unless description gets in the way of action and the plot moving forward. I write little description, leaving it up to the reader’s imagination. Of course, too little description can leave the reader feeling left out of the scene entirely. It’s a careful balancing act at best.

Too much technical information can frustrate the reader and information dump can accomplish the same result. Don’t try to use all your research in one manuscript. Save most of it for future projects.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great reminders here. I particularly appreciate the reminder to add tension and conflict to each scene. Thanks.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Chester Campbell said...

I'm with you on the description part, Jean. I try to make it short and vivid. Keeps the pace up and the reader moving ahead.

Mystery Mania

Anonymous said...

Good point, treating portions of the manuscript as short stories to make it easier to revise and make necessary adjustments. It also helps to disenagage from the larger scope so you can really focus on the immediate task at hand.

Stephen Tremp

Jaden Terrell said...

Very timely post, Jean, as I'm in the process of repairing the second Jared book.

Many thanks.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thanks, everyone, for your good comments. I think sometimes we lose sight of the boring mechanics of writing.

Mark W. Danielson said...

I use the snooze approach. This entails reading every word in the manuscript out loud, and if I find I'm dozing, it's an area that needs revision. Reading aloud also catches more typos than any other method.

Anonymous said...

Some great advice to be considered.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I like your snooze approach, Mark. It also points out problems with sentence rhythm.