by Ruth Harris
OK, admit it. You’re one of them.
You’ve walked the walk of shame.
You threw up your hands, flew the white flag of surrender, and gave up.
That book, the one you started with such high hopes, is dead. It bit the dust mumble-mumble years (decades?) ago.
Now it’s a ghost, a goblin, draped with cobwebs lurking in a spooky cemetery somewhere in the haunted recesses of your hard dive.
Maybe it was gonna be a debut launch that would turn the hottest agents and most powerful editors of Big Six into whimpering beggars, competing for a crumb of your attention.
Or maybe it was intended to be that fabulous breakthrough novel. Ya know. A Reese Witherspoon selection, followed by foreign rights, movie rights, a zillion-dollar streaming deal.
Or a try at a new genre about which, as it turned out, you were clueless, but didn’t know it. Yet.
Whatever we call it, whatever the circumstances, we all have them.
- The trashed.
- The abandoned.
- The discarded.
- The dissed and disrespected.
- The bad breakups that ended with a restraining order.
- The “friendly” breakups that ended when you decided it wasn’t you. It was them.
Even though you can only be a virgin once (supposedly) — cuz there are enterprising plastic surgeons who allege they can fix even that (for a fee) — all of us have manuscripts that have gone way past rigor mortis. They’re dead — but, because cyber is forever — not buried.
Here be dragons.
They’re the unread, unloved and unwanted (even by the author).
- Your crit group runs and hides.
- Beta readers howl.
- Agents shriek and flee.
- Publishers mutter curses.
These manuscripts, some written in an ancient heiroglyph called WordStar for which no Rosetta Stone has yet been found, languish in a shadowy zone between the undead, the half dead, and hospice care.
Others have been Almost Published (in hard cover! Gonna be huge! A definite bestseller!). The would-be agent/editor/publisher loved it, but when the marketing department/buyer/distributor read the manuscript, someone, somewhere did not agree.
- “Not commercial.”
- “Not for the mass market.”
- “Needs a plot.”
- “Too complicated.”
- “The chains won’t go for it.”
- “Not enough action.”
- “Too literary.”
- “Too violent.”
- “Too much sex.”
- “Not enough sex.”
Whatever the “reason,” the deal — that big, huge, life-changing deal didn’t happen.
Some of them were even published.
Looking back, even we wonder, how?
Not even morbid curiosity will impel us to open the one tattered, yellowed remaining paperback. That’s how traumatized we are by the prospect of rereading an early effort, that somehow got published way back when some long-ago now-bankrupt publisher offered a contract, and our delusional selves accepted it, thinking we were hot sh*t.
Which we definitely weren’t.
Trick or tweet.
Those long-neglected never-finished manuscripts are haunting your hard drive — are they the culprit behind those weird glitches and inconvenient crashes?
Do they inhabit your dreams (or nightmares)?
Isn’t Halloween the perfect time to go through the dark portal and open that scary crypt?
Carefully. Don’t forget we’re in trick or treat season.
A blind date from the crypt.
Approach those long-neglected files as you would a blind date. Expect the worst. Lower your expectations. Definitely don’t shop for a ring.
Start with coffee. In a safe, public place.
Or maybe a glass of wine to steady your nerves as you open that file and start to read.
If it’s your early work, maybe it is just as scary as you fear.
But maybe it isn’t.
In fact, the reality is it might not be that terrible. Not at all.
- Maybe it’s not even half-bad.
- Maybe it just needs a fresh eye.
- An editor.
- A plot.
- Fewer characters.
- More relatable characters.
- Serious pruning of info dumps.
- New life for DOA scenes and chapters.
After all, you were an inexperienced writer way back then. You were full of hope and energy but the fact was you didn’t know wtf you were doing much less how to do it.
And you’ve learned.
Embrace your inner Frankenstein.
Salvage, recycle and resurrect
Some of those beginner’s efforts might need to be memorialized with a respectful burial and a dignified headstone. But even those early misfires often contain an original turn of phrase, an intriguing character, or an ingenious plot twist.
There’s gold in them thar hills and some of these “beginner’s boo boos” are worth keeping.
Cut anything with promise however fractured and put it into a special folder to refer to later when you’re stuck for a word, a phrase, an idea or when desperate times call for desperate solutions.
You might even consider calling that file “Desperation” cuz ya never know.
There are other kinds of abandoned attempts that, when considered from the perspective of years or decades later, turn out to be ripe for resurection.
There are various pitfalls — and numerous possibilities.
Where’s the plot?
You have a wannabe book in search of a plot because stuff is supposed to happen in a logical sequence, escalate, resolve, and, finally, add up to a compelling story.
Except that way back when you were a beginner, you didn’t know the difference between an actual plot and pumpkin spice latte.
Now might be the time to write a synopsis or create a reverse outline.
Breaking your story down in a structured, concise way will expose strengths and weaknesses. Once you have the bones assembled into a skeleton (this is Halloween!) you are ready to revise and refine.
Here’s an excellent breakdown of plot, what happens, and what goes where.
Even if your plot is pretty good but still not up to pro standards, here’s my take on how to pave over pot holes and plot holes.
Perhaps that beginner’s attempt at a book lost its way on the search for actual characters. Ones that feel real and that readers (including you) will care about.
But there are — shall we say? — Issues.
- Can’t tell the difference between your heroine and a slice of pumpkin cheesecake?
- Is that the protag or is it unevolved protoplasm searching for life?
- Is that villain wannabe as ominous as a slice of dried-out turkey without gravy?
- Even worse, you can’t tell Steve from Stephanie, Eddie from Edwina.
- Who are they? What were you thinking? Even you can’t remember.
Well, time has passed.
You now understand character and arc, and you know how to write a great one.
Introduce yourself to those poor, listless characters. They are in need of help. Embrace your inner shrink and analyze them. ID their goals, motivations, shortcomings and successes.
Know them, love them (even the villains), go to work on them, and set them free to go to work for you and your story.
Don’t be surprised if Steve or Stephanie, Eddie or Edwina turns out be Mr. or Ms. Right.
If your ms. is suffering from overpopulation, Anne offers solutions.
Dreaded info dumps.
You’ve committed one of a beginning writer’s most common pitfalls, but over the years, you’ve learned how to braid sub plots into your story without stopping it in its tracks.
- You use dialogue and snippets of narrative to establish back story.
- You know how supporting characters can be used to hint at (or reveal) secrets.
- You turn to settings, weather and props to convey mood and theme.
- You wield simile and metaphor to deepen character and enhance motives.
- You employ alternative POVs to twist the plot and crank up the stakes.
You’ve become a pro and you know now what you didn’t know then.
You know the tricks, you know how to use them, and perhaps employing a few will turn the forgotten and abandoned into your next bestseller.
Fight the flab.
- Did your inexperience and insecurity cause you to overwrite and overexplain?
- Was your prose a neon shade of purple?
- Did you subject the reader to dense, impenetrable thickets of verbal underbrush?
- Were you guilty as charged in criminal abuse of adverbs?
- Were adjectives sprayed all over the page like graffiti gone wild?
Now you’ve learned that less can be more and is often exactly enough.
Debbie Burke’s A+ post on how to write tight will point the way.
I’m a fan of the Yankees — and the delete button. Here are the nitty-gritty details about what you can learn from the bestselling masters of the minimal.
Send in the sizzle.
What if that old, abandoned manuscript isn’t that bad? Plot’s good, characters work, setting does the job. But.
- What if it’s meandering and unfocused?
- A yawn inducer?
- A room emptier?
- As inspiring as laundry?
- To put it bluntly, what if it’s b.o.r.i.n.g?
Wait! Don’t despair and give up. Help is on the way.
Is every scene and every chapter pulling its weight?
Have you titled your chapters to intrigue readers?
Does the first and last line of each scene and chapter compel the reader to turn the page?
Sometimes a detail like a chapter title, a provocative first line, and a grabby cliffhanger last line can turn meh into “I couldn’t put it down.”
Tales from the crypt.
As you tip toe through the crypt, don’t forget: Frankenstein was a beginner, too.
And have a Happy Halloween!
BOOK OF THE WEEK
The Big Six-Oh by Ruth Harris
“Loved it! One ex-cop who doesn’t want help solving a murder. One current wife whose help he needs to catch the killer. One couple meant for each other who fall in love all over again after decades of marriage. Funny, exciting and very romantic.” —Reader Review
Blake Weston, is a smart, savvy, no BS former fashion editor. Her handsome, sexy husband, Ralph Marino, is a très James Bond ex-cop and head of security for an international media company.
When Blake buys a faux Chanel bag from a sidewalk vendor, the danger starts—but doesn’t end—with a scary mugging in broad daylight. From there, it escalates to face-to-face encounters with a gun-toting jailbird, a lovelorn Afghan war lord, and a celeb chef in a red balconette bra.
Meanwhile, Ralph is about to hit the Big Six Oh! and he’s not happy about it. Not that Blake is exactly thrilled. Especially now that she suspects Ralph might be cheating on her. Again.
Right when Blake and Ralph are forced to work together by his über-neurotic boss to bring down a deadly global counterfeiting ring—and save Ralph’s job.
“Funny and charming and a delight to read!
Really yummy. It is a rare author who can bring to the page such vivid and believable characters with so much sly wit and style.” —Reader Review
“Perfect for those of us not looking for bubble gum chick lit.
The relationship between savvy Blake Weston and her ex-cop husband Ralph Marino is realistic and down to earth. And yet the extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in kept me flipping the pages well past my allotted reading time. If you’re looking for a wonderfully fast-paced read that will take your mind off whatever you’re stressing about, Harris’s The Big Six-Oh! will fit the bill.” —Reader Review
Find the Big Six-Oh at these retailers