Wednesday, October 12, 2011

How to Repair Your Manuscript

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 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.


  1. Good tips here. I find I have to hold back from info-dumping all I know about my characters and their backstory into my MS - it's okay, I can reveal all that wonderfulness in the sequel, or the one after that. Trying to consider it more like vanilla - a dash is good, the whole bottle need not be dumped into a dish. Only as much as the story needs to be understandable, and no more.

  2. Thank you, Beverly. I like your vanilla analogy. :)

  3. Good ideas. I'm trying to revise a manuscript I've been working on for a few years. I haven't figured what's wrong, but here's the funny part: I don't know what's wrong, but I think I've figured out a way to fix it.
    Stephen Brayton

  4. Jean, thanks for sharing this sound advice. I particularly like the point that each scene should be a mini-story with a beginning, middle, and end. If each scene, each chapter, each section of the book has its own narrative arc, the overall arc of the book will have the thrill of a roller-coaster.

  5. Best of luck, Slb00. I've found that if you put the manuscript away for a month, then take it out and read it as though someone else had written it, it's much easier to fill in the literary "pot holes" or you can determine whether your plot needs rerouting in another direction.

  6. Well said, John. I like the roller coaster analogy. And planting that hook at the end of each chapter keeps the reader reading. :)