by Kathryn Erskine
Starting a manuscript, and meandering endlessly, is relatively easy. Finishing it, letting go, and finally submitting it, can be a lot harder. Some of that is fear of failure or fear of having to start something new — whatever it is, you’ll feel more satisfied if you can wrap up this manuscript and move on. You have more to create, right? So, let’s go!
Before you revise: Read over the manuscript (or chapter or part of the chapter) the night before. It helps both because it makes the story fresh in your mind and because your wonderful brain will work on it overnight without your having to do a thing except sleep. Now that’s my kind of “revision.”
The next morning, get fueled.
1. Identify the problem(s) in the manuscript. For example, if your question is whether an idea is well integrated into the novel, find some key terms to identify that issue and search the manuscript to see how regularly it crops up. Have 70 pages gone by without a mention? Probably not good. Where in those 70 pages can you find a place to introduce it again? Do you want a minor character to change? Track her progress by searching her name and reading what she says and does in every scene.
2. Work on one problem at a time. If you think about what it takes for the body to come up with an idea, put it into words, type a page, and then get up and make a cup of coffee, it’s a huge number of brain firings and muscle actions. But the body is smart enough to take it step by step, so you don’t have to experience its reaction of, “OMG, you expect me to think and move at the same time??” Break it down and it will be doable. Sometimes the problems will overlap so you’re allowed to work on more than one; often, you’ll find that tweaking one may help resolve the other. Bonus!
3. Keep the end in mind. Are you answering the main question you set out to resolve? In fiction, that means you should ask yourself, “What does my main character want, and why?” This is the holy grail. It’s the purpose of your story and it drives your story. Once you answer it, and show how your character gets what he wants (or doesn’t, but realizes he doesn’t want it or finds a third path), you’ve got your resolution.
4. If you’re feeling confused and overwhelmed by your unwieldy piece of work, make an outline to clarify where you’re going. If you need help with organization generally, try a writing tool like Scrivener or StoryMill. They help by creating timelines for you, allowing you to write random scenes and move them around later, making specific files for character sketches or research — all perfect for the less than organized brain (mine).
5. Plot problems? See above: What does your character want, and why?
6. Character problems? Interview your character. Really. Talk to her, ask her why she’s being so difficult. And listen to what she says. Sometimes we’re too wedded to an idea that we started with but it’s not working. Listen to your characters. They’re trying to help you. Write down everything they say and eventually you’ll have an “Aha!” moment and realize what the snag is. Sometimes it’s small, sometimes it’s as big as your character telling you, “I know you didn’t want to go there, but that’s where you need to go.” At least give your character a chance and try it out. She might be right. She is, after all, you. Because interviewing your character is simply another way of allowing your subconscious brain to circumvent your stubborn brain.
When all else fails, take a break.
Read a book, do a puzzle, take a walk, take a nap–I mean, meditate, but sometimes for me that turns into a nap. Laugh. Run. Jump. Play. You know how sometimes you just need peace and quiet from your kids or whoever so you can have a chance to think? Your creative brain needs the same thing. It really wants you to leave it completely alone for a little while and stop nagging it. Then take a deep breath and sit down with fresh eyes and you’ll be ready to resolve any remaining problems.
Finally, let a trusted reader give you feedback. Listen to that feedback but always remember that it’s your creation. Finish it . . . the rest of us are waiting to read it!
Kathryn Erskine is a local author, instructor, and WriterHouse member. Read more about her work at kathyerskine.com.