Is your book as endangered as the Siberian Tiger?
by Ruth Harris
You’ve kinda/sorta finished your book/first draft/whachamacallit.
In drastic cases, it could even be an outline that’s gone off the rails and landed in a ditch.
- Your original brilliant idea is drowning in a sea of ugly clutter.
- There are dust bunnies in the corners.
- An overflowing laundry hamper in the hall.
- First chapter is suffering from ring-around-the-collar.
- Inciting incident is ho-hum and forgettable (even by you).
- Plot has more holes than plot.
- Characters have mutated into unrecognizable forms (and you’re not writing sci-fi or alien invasion fiction).
- Verbs are passive, the nouns flabby and adjectives rust in the front yard.
- Ending limps to a conclusion.
You’re asking yourself: Did I write that?
More often than we might wish, the answer is yes. What we’ve written is an endangered book.
So Now What? How do we Fix this Endangered Book?
It’s obvious that double applications of the Quicker-Picker-Upper, Fantastic and Tidy-Bowl aren’t going to get the job done. Your book (or whachamacallit) is in deep doo doo, and, because you’re not in deep denial, you recognize that there is work to be done.
You feel out of control and overwhelmed. Perhaps you’ve been here before and abandoned the poor thing to gather cyber cobwebs in some dank, dark back alley of your computer.
Maybe Marie Kondo could help, but she’s not available. She’s folding t-shirts.
It’s our mess. We made it and, according to the gospel of Moms everywhere, it’s up to us to clean it up.
We’re facing chaos, but, even though it’s our baby, and even though we began with high hopes and the best of intentions, sometimes we get so lost, we don’t even know what the eff we had in mind in the first place.
The situation is dire. You’ve forgotten why you wanted to write the damn thing. You’re completely uninspired, absolutely out of gas and you need to recapture the spark.
You need to rethink and reorganize, but where to start?
What steps do you need to take to get back on track?
Here are a few ideas based on what’s worked for me. (What!? You think you’re the only one who ever faced this?)
1. Write — or Rewrite — your Blurb or Elevator Pitch.
Maybe it’s OK, but maybe it could be better.
What’s the headline? What’s the hook? What about a grabby ending?
Need some help?
Turn to other writers for inspiration.
Read blurbs for top selling books in your genre.
List the phrases and words other writers use to position their book to appeal to the same readers you hope to seduce.
Have you used some of the same words and phrases? Or can you do some creative — uh — “borrowing?”
Four editors dish the details about how to write a selling blurb including standout examples from Lee Child, Diana Gabaldon and Nicholas Sparks.
What about your elevator pitch? Is it pulling its weight? Can it help inspire your blurb?
Remember whether it’s a blurb or an elevator pitch: Sell the sizzle!
To your readers.
And, right now, most of all to yourself!
2. Get out the Pruning Shears (but be sure to Create an OutTakes file.)
Just as skillful pruning will cause a garden to grow back strongers and more beautiful, the delete button, aka Stephen King’s 10% rule, will produce the same results.
Cutting through the tangled undergrowth and overgrown paths will help you find your way back to a cleaner, clearer manuscript.
Meanwhile, to start you off on your clean up, here’s a hit list:
- Info dumps.
- Boring back story.
- Meandering, ho-hum descriptions.
- Lengthy paragraphs detailing a character’s inner thoughts and feelings.
- Go-nowhere, do-nothing dialogue.
- Spongy scenes with no clear reason for existing.
- Wandering POV. Whose book is this? The good guy? The bad girl? A wandering POV will mean wandering attention from your reader.
- Chapters that limp to a wishy-washy ending.
Do not delete your cuttings!
Before you start with the weed whacker, make a file into which you can paste everything you cut. I call mine OutTakes. You do you.
Just be sure to keep what you delete where you can find it easily later on, because what doesn’t work in one place might be perfect somewhere else. Or even give you an idea for another book.
3. Make a Chapter-by-Chapter, Scene-by-Scene Breakdown.
Now that you’ve done some basic clean up, you can go to the next step.
Your book should be like a shark moving relentlessly forward. Use a reverse outline to make a quick list of the progression of events in your book.
If you haven’t already, divide your work into chapters. Even if right now you’re just doing a rough cut, vary chapter length to slow down or speed up the pace.
Post-its or index cards (real or cyber — Scrivener provides an easy-to-use index card feature) will allow you to easily move scenes and chapters around until you get the maximum impact.
Does your inciting incident set off a clear and provocative chain of consequences?
Does the plot move forward logically? Logical lapses must be filled in and accounted for.
Does each scene propel the plot/characters forward? Cut and/or combine the laggards until they pull their weight.
Does each chapter end on a note of irresolution? Are you compelling the reader to turn the page and find out what happens next? Those critical last sentences are called cliffhangers. Learn their 7 rules and how to wield them.
4. Plot, Plan, Toil and Trouble.
Too much plot?
Does it feel confused and cluttered?
Do promising scenes or chapters start with a bang but fade away into oblivion?
Decide which ones are worth keeping and which should be discarded — at least for now. Move the discards to your OutTakes file.
Merge two (or more characters) if there are too many.
Are there scenes that can be combined?
Still too much plot? At this point another round of pruning might be called for.
Too little plot?
As you go through the bullet points on your reverse outline, think about what plot holes need to be filled in — does the main character need a sidekick?
Is the good guy a creep in disguise? Or vice versa?
Be on the lookout for plot threads that fizzle out. Should you expand them?
Do you need to add more twists and turns?
Look for plot holes and missed opportunities. Is there a scene or situation that can be further developed?
Your OutTakes file.
If scenes (or characters) need to be added to spark up the plot check your OutTakes file to see if there’s a deleted character (or scene) that can be recycled.
Is there an info dump lurking in your OutTakes file that can be retrofit into just the missing parts you need?
Lumpy backstory can be rescued from your OutTakes file, divided into bits and pieces and integrated into the plot.
5. The Style Sheet and Other Assorted Allies.
A Style Sheet will Save you Time and Money.
And it will save your sanity because straightening out the basics of names, dates and places will help get you untangled.
Never heard of a style sheet?
In case you haven’t, a style sheet is a list of all the important data — names, addresses, dates, people and places — in your manuscript.
Sounds simple — is simple — and, like a continuity in movie making, will save you from lapses and oopsies.
List every character — Jane Doe not Jayne Dough — with a brief thumbnail description.
List every setting and/or address. Is your geography scrambled? Does your Park Avenue princess grab breakfast in a bagel shop in a scary, crime-ridden slum? Better explain why.
Are your characters wearing puffers and snow boots on that gorgeous Greek island? Better explain this, too.
Have you — accidentally, of course — moved Montana to Mongolia? Trust me, it happens.
A Handful of Colored Pens, Scapple and a Sticky Cork Board.
Color coding can help you keep track of characters as you organize scenes.
Does the thrilling lover/fanged villain introduced in Chapter One, disappear until Chapter Ten? Using a different color for each character will keep you and your characters on track.
Different colored Post-its — green for the good guys, yellow for the bad guys, red for the sexy assassin — can serve the same purpose.
A sticky cork board will let you lay out your plot so you can “see” at a glance what you’ve done, where you might have gone wrong, and where you need to make changes. You can easily move Post-its around on your cork board until you get scenes and chapters organized.
Scapple is a $15 brainstorming app for Mac and PC by the makers of Scrivener. Scapple presents you with a blank canvas where you can gather your scattered thoughts and ideas, edit them, rearrange them, and pull them together into a coherent sequence. Brilliant, indispensible and easy to use, plus a 30 day FREE trial.
Add, Subtract, Revise.
By now you should have a more focused idea of where — and what — you need to add, subtract, revise.
It’s called a Second Draft. 😉
by Ruth Harris (@RuthHarrisBooks) March 29, 2020
What about you, scriveners? Do you have an endangered book? Can you see a path to saving it here? Have you ever tried a reverse outline? What do you do when your WIP gets on the endangered book list?
If you want to know what Anne is up to this week, check out “Ask the Manners Doctor” on her book blog. The Manners Doctor, aka Camilla Randall answers your questions about how to greet one another in a post-handshake world.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
The idea for A Kiss At Kihali came to Ruth from articles she read about the poaching that was/is threatening to make rhinos and elephants extinct. And the issue is still in the news. Ivory & rhino horn are big business, unfortunately.
A Kiss at Kihali : sweet romance set against the backdrop of African animal rescue
A must-read for animal lovers.
Available at all these retailers:
RUBERY BOOK PRIZE ENTRY FEE £37 or $60. No publication date restriction. Accepts fiction and nonfiction. The Rubery Book Prize is an international book award organization offering one grand “Book of the Year” prize, which includes £1,500 as well as publishing consideration from a top London literary agency. Smaller prizes are also awarded for finalists. Deadline March 31st
Wergle Flomp Humorous Poetry Contest. NO FEE. 1st prize is $1000 plus a subscription to Duotrope. 250 lines, max. 10 Honorable mentions get $100 each. Deadline April 1st.
CRAFT Short Fiction prize. Up to 5000 words. All genres. 1st prize $2000 plus publication. 2nd and 3rd prizes $500 and $300. $20 Fee. Deadline April 30th.
AAR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize Unpublished short stories: 2,000–5,000 words. 1st prize $6,000, 2nd $4,000, 3rd, $2,500. $15 fee students, $25 others. Deadline May 1st.
12 PUBLISHERS FOR MEMOIRS! You don’t need an agent. From the good folks at Authors Publish
Uproar Books. New publisher of scifi and epic fantasy is open for submissions.
photo of the endangered Siberian tiger by Dave Pape, public domain.