The Book Stewards is about helping writers. We want to hear about your writing problems so that we can offer a helping hand by sharing some of our hard-won wisdom. After our latest newsletter dropped into the inbox of one of our excellent subscribers, she got in contact with us and shared her writing issue:
“I’d say my biggest headache is editing/revising/redrafting. Although I plan out my novels, once I’ve written one, left it and gone back to it, I find huge plot holes, genre issues etc and feel I need to rewrite extensively, leaving me lots of adjusting of the plot and details. It feels like I will never get a manuscript ready. I’ve been in this loop for about ten years now.”
Now, this is a toughie – we feel your frustration! – and an issue that, no doubt, many writers will be familiar with. Tom and I are going to break down our response into two posts, because the issue is twofold. First, there is the writing craft aspect of the problem to explore. Then, there is the psychological angle to consider. I’ll be tackling the writing craft issue first.
I’m going to start with the point about planning since this, I believe, is key to efficiently writing a successful novel. No two writers will plan a novel in exactly the same fashion. Broadly speaking, there are the Plotters, who meticulously plot out their entire novel before writing a single word (they like to writhe around naked in a bath of coloured index cards in their free time), and the Pantsters, who, as the name suggests, are flying by the seat of their pants, and so they simply open up a Word document and start typing. However, a goodly number of writers will fall somewhere between these two extremities (or use both approaches in different measures in an individual project, or flip between the two for different kinds of writing projects).
Although it’s far more likely that thoughtful pre-planning will ensure a manuscript is free of plot holes, those pesky little blighters do have a habit of popping up regardless of the approach an author takes to writing their manuscript. Mainly because of those wonderful things called characters, which, if you’re writing them well, suddenly become living, breathing beings who simply have to act in a particular fashion and take the story off in a new direction. A lack of research (thorough research being particularly important in historical fiction, crime and science fiction) can lead to plot issues too.
The good news, though, is that as long as a writer is aware of the plot holes, they can be fixed. Characters can be brought into line with a bit of a sharp talking to (i.e. rewriting/editing). Sometimes, though, they can’t, and the story may have to be plotted along new lines (cue frantic sketching of a new story…). Plot holes based on a lack of information can be fixed by doing the necessary research; with a bit of luck you may be able to find neat ways for the story to mould itself around the new, correct, information.
However, fixing the plot holes may bring about unintended consequences, which may then need to be fixed… For instance, if it appears that a plot hole can only be fixed by making a certain event happen, but the lead character then needs to act out of character to take part in that event, the author’s going to have to either change the character or ditch the event and find another way to fix the plot hole. It can be very, very easy to get bogged down in this fixing process, particularly when it seems that every fix leads to another glaring problem that then needs to subsequently be fixed. Going through this process over and over can feel really disheartening, particularly as it can be very hard to tell if you’re only one more fix away from The End, or perhaps another nine or ten. That’s the time to take a break, get away from the novel, and let your subconscious find some elegant solutions to the problems. Having a moan with the members of your supportive crit group can help, as can listening to La Macarena on loop. But then again, reading up on novel planning or applying the Story Grid to your book may, ultimately, be more useful in the long-term and help you to steer clear of plot holes in future books. (I have writer friends who swear by The Story Grid.)
For those who want to learn more about Plotters and Pantsters, here is Zadie Smith’s fascinating take on it.
Readers who are fans of thrillers or hard science fiction or fantasy or romance, or whatever, will know how books in their genre “work”. They will expect the book that they’re reading to start, progress and end in a particular manner. When fans of rom-com go to the cinema to see their favourite stars meet, fall in love, then have their relationship hit a hurdle, they know how it’ll end. Does it stop them from going to see the film? Of course not. But what would be a disappointment is if the story doesn’t progress or end as they’d expect it to. Indeed, outraged fans of Peter Kay’s Car Share were so disappointed by the ending of the latest series that they drew up a petition to have Kay give them the ending they wanted. (Kay had unintentionally written a romantic comedy; the fans understood this and knew how it should end. It took Kay a while to cotton on though…)
Likewise, with the novel writer. Whatever genre you’re writing in, you have to be steeped in it (as a reader as well as a writer), so that you can best ensure that your plot, characters and milieu and the themes within your book are spot-on for that genre. It’ll make your planning that much more straightforward and ensure that the conventions and must-have scenes of the genre are all there.
So, the good news for our writer friend is that she’s aware that her book has genre issues – it means that she’s steeped enough in her genre to know that it’s lacking in certain areas. However, it very much depends on the extent of the issues as to whether these issues can be easily addressed. It can be quite straightforward to insert the odd must-have scene, or say, make sure that the milieu in a fantasy novel is appropriately fantastical, but when more of these issues keep cropping up then it can be tempting to despair (and seriously consider starting afresh).
Sometimes the issue may be that an author’s writing style doesn’t quite match the genre that they’re writing in. An author used to writing, say, short literary fiction, may struggle in a genre such as YA science fiction, where the majority of fans won’t be impressed by the author’s baroque word choice, purple prose, or overly long sentences. They’re wanting plot and action and a corresponding mode of storytelling that delivers those things. So it’s worth considering if you’re battling against your own natural “voice”. If you think you may be, carefully consider if the battle’s worth it. It’s much easier to write in a genre that you’re a fan of AND which your writing style fits into.
To revise or start afresh: that is the question
A real skill for any writer to get to grips with is the weighing up of a “muddled manuscript”. Is it better to start afresh and to rewrite the entire novel from scratch having spent a goodly amount of time on careful planning so that the final text is free of errors, or is it better to revise, restructure and edit the manuscript and fix all the previous issues?
Well, our writer friend has been rewriting and editing extensively, and yet that doesn’t seem to have *quite* done the trick.
As I wrote in an earlier post, having a professional look over the manuscript with an objective eye, can really help. Their feedback can help tip the balance either way, and in the process they’ll no doubt highlight the many good things about the manuscript. But, if a writer doesn’t have the money to pay for professional feedback then a crit group or some trusted beta-readers can give them some useful (and hopefully, encouraging) pointers in the right direction. Ultimately, though, it’s up to the author to reflect on all the feedback and make the decision as to whether they start afresh completely or keep rewriting or (whisper it) abandon the entire project and start on something new.
Now, this conclusion may either be disheartening, or liberating, depending on where you are right now, psychologically speaking, in your personal and writing life. If the thought of making a firm decision either way – starting afresh or rewriting – feels doable, empowering even, then that’s great. But if the choice seems impossible, and embarking on either route disheartening, depressing even, then it’s all the more important to consider the psychological aspect of being stuck in a muddled manuscript loop. Over to Tom.