By Heather Bell Adams
After working for months, maybe years, on a novel-length project, many writers—myself included—face a moment of truth. Despite all the work we’ve devoted to it, the manuscript might not be quite where it needs to be or, for one reason or another, our interest in the story is waning. When this happens, we might be tempted to scrap the project. And sometimes letting go is the best answer. But, ever the optimist, I’m always hoping to find a potential path forward. So let’s explore some ideas that might help bring a project back to life.
- Give it some time
First, set the manuscript aside before trying to diagnose what’s wrong. Even though my instinct is to keep moving forward and crossing things off the to-do list, it’s best to put the project away for at least several days, if not a week or more. Considering the amount of work you’ve put in and how close you are to the project, you can’t evaluate it in a truly objective way. With some distance you can at least approach it from a reasonable place. You can begin to see the project with new eyes. When I did this with Maranatha Road, I discovered that some nuances of the story didn’t actually appear on the page yet; they were still tucked away in my mind. I also found a timeline issue that I needed to fix, which I’d glossed over until I gained some distance from the work.
When you’ve set aside the manuscript, it’s a good time to have someone else read it. In my view, it’s not necessary that the readers be writers themselves. I’ve often gotten valuable feedback from friends who like to read. They know a good story when they see one and can generally tell what’s not working. In addition to their general reactions, ask the readers for whatever would be most helpful. For example, if you sense that the plot is dragging, your readers can note the sections they skimmed or found boring. If you’re wondering if a character is sympathetic enough, ask about that.
Once you hear back from the readers, let their feedback marinate for a bit so you don’t have a knee-jerk defensive reaction. Then, assuming the suggestions resonate with you and make sense with the manuscript as a whole, you can get back to work.
Relationship experts recommend thinking back to those heady days when you and your partner were first smitten with each other. This is good advice for novel writing, too. When a project stalls, cast your mind back to your initial idea. Why did you decide to write this particular novel in the first place? What made you excited to put pen to paper? Maybe you were struck by an intriguing main character or wanted to explore a meaningful theme. Especially with a novel-length project, it can be easy to lose our way. Take a moment to ask whether your manuscript in its current form still does justice to the original spark. Perhaps there’s a way to strengthen the theme or add interesting complexities to your main character. Whatever initially captured your interest might be the key to unlocking the book’s full potential.
Consider lengthening or shortening the project. Maybe this story is too involved or complex to fit comfortably into one novel. If your manuscript feels unwieldy, it could be the start of a series, or one of the storylines might be saved for another project.
On the other hand—and this is where I’ve found myself—maybe what you’ve drafted seems sparse. If you reach a point where you’re padding the word count to reach novel length, there’s no shame in concluding that what you really have is a short story.
Interestingly enough, occasionally when you expand or contract the manuscript you re-discover its heart, which illuminates how to make it work as a novel after all.
- Do more research
One of the storylines in my current manuscript is set in World War II in the South Pacific. This means I’ve done a fair amount of research. Just when I thought I was finished combing through sources, an editor asked me to expand the historical chapters. Once I checked out some additional books from the library and dug back in, that storyline became even more alive for me. Much to my surprise, I realized I had more to say.
Even if your project doesn’t require historical research, you could take a trip to its setting to experience the sights and smells firsthand. You might find articles or videos describing a character’s occupation or hobby, or better yet, interview someone with personal knowledge. The details you uncover through your research will render the story richer and more authentic.
- Mix it up
If you normally write on the computer, try longhand. Consider reading your work aloud or flipping through the pages backwards—anything that might re-start your brain.
Or approach the story from another direction. One of my favorite exercises is having a character write a letter to another character, usually the one with whom they have the most conflict. Although the letter doesn’t make its way into the manuscript, at least not in a literal sense, it nonetheless informs the story.
Working in another medium can also feel like a fun break. You could create a collage or sketch inspired by your manuscript or explore the connection of music to the story. These “sideways” approaches often enable you to see your work in a new light.
- Dig deeper
As my agent reminded me with my current project, raising the stakes is a surefire way to hook readers. Ask yourself if it matters whether your main character fails. How could it matter even more?
Similarly, on a scene-by-scene basis, consider how the situation could be worse. I have a tendency to go easy on my characters. But being too nice deflates the story. To make a manuscript more powerful, look for ways to add conflict and tension. Dialogue is a good spot to do this; if you find instances of pleasant, easygoing conversations between your characters, introduce an element of discord or hint at something unsettling under the surface.
Similarly, reconsider point of view. If a scene checks all the boxes but it’s not compelling enough, make sure it’s written from the point of view of the character with the most at stake.
Finally, take a hard look at your main character’s “dark night of the soul” or “all is lost” moment. Since the reader should feel as though they’re walking in the main character’s shoes, every ounce of emotion you inject into this scene draws the reader further in.
- Sift through craft advice
Although writing guidance helps at all stages of a project, it’s especially useful when trying to salvage a manuscript. Donald Maass, K.M. Weiland, and Lisa Cron are some of my favorite craft writers. Of course, in addition to craft books, you can find excellent advice on blogs and podcasts.
I hope these exercises will help you make the hard decisions about your project’s future. For every novel manuscript that falters, perhaps another will find new life.
This essay was originally posted on January 22, 2019.
Heather Bell Adams is the author of the novels The Good Luck Stone (Haywire Books, 2020) and Maranatha Road (Vandalia Press, 2017), which won the gold medal for the Southeast region in the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Her stories have appeared in The Thomas Wolfe Review, Clapboard House, Pembroke Magazine, Pisgah Review, The Petigru Review, Deep South Magazine, Gravel, and other journals.