You’re a pantser, not a plotter–you like to wing it when you write, just let the ideas flow freely. This can be liberating, but sometimes in the course of writing the first draft, we realize our manuscript has gone way off track and is no longer fun to write.
At this point, we must go back and find the point where the story stops working. We cut everything back to there and make an outline to build some structure into the manuscript.
Let’s say we are working on a manuscript titled “Dog Days of Summer.” We wrote most of it during November and are sixty thousand words in, but we aren’t even a third of the way to the finish. When we look back, the first twenty thousand words are exactly what we wanted the story to be. But at that point we became a little desperate to get our daily word count, and now we don’t know what to do or how to bring the story to its intended conclusion.
When this happens to me, I stop floundering and (literally) cut my losses. It needs to be cut back to the place where it dissolved into chaos. This is good – it’s called rewriting. Nearly every published novel has entire sections that had to be rewritten at least once before it got to the editing stage.
Much of what you cut out can be recycled, reshaped, and reused, so never just delete weeks of work.
- Save everything you cut to a new document, labeled, and dated: “OutTakes_DDoS_rewrite1_09-19-2018.” (Out Takes, Dog Days of Summer, rewrite 1, 09-19-2018)
Now, you must consider what will be the most logical way to get the plot back on track.
Sit down with a notebook (or in my case a spreadsheet) and make a list of what events must happen between the place where the plot was derailed and the end—a list of chapters with each the keywords for each scene noted:
|15||Aeddie sick – Mendric can’t repair his heart-take him to Hemsteck|
|16||Three days into the journey Elgar and Raj battle Thunder lizard|
|17||Star stone falls outside Waterston|
|18||Aeddie sick, nearly dies, Mendric nearly burns out gift keeping him alive|
|19||South of Kyran, water wraith|
|20||North of Kyran, mob attack|
|21||Nola – inn|
|22||Maldon, highwaymen, and William|
You can go even farther and color code your scenes to show who the POV characters are, as was noted in my previous post, Author Simon Wood on Plotting.
What is the core conflict? Make a large note to remind yourself of what the central conflict is so that you won’t go off track again.
Pay close attention to the story arc. Make a “blueprint” of the intended story arc, an outline.
- Where does the inciting incident occur?
- Where does the first pinch point occur?
- What is happening at the midpoint? Are the events of the middle section fraught with uncertainty but still moving the protagonist toward their goal? If not, cut them and insert events that propel the story forward.
- Where does the third plot point occur?
What does each character desire? List each character and make a note of what they want at the beginning, what stands in their way at the middle, and what they get at the end.
- At the outset, what do the characters want?
- What are they willing to sacrifice to get it?
- How are their attempts to achieve it frustrated?
- Do they get it in the end, or do their desires evolve away from that goal as the story progresses?
Everything you write from the point of the inciting incident to the last page will detail that quest for the unobtainable something. At the outset, your protagonist must desire nothing more than to achieve that objective. Use whatever you can of the material you cut, and write new prose where you must.
By the end of the book, the internal growth of the characters may have caused them to change their personal goals, but something big and important must be achieved in the final chapters.
Where are they going? If they are traveling in a created world, draw a simple map for your own reference. Otherwise, use an atlas or Google Earth to keep your story on track.
Don’t be afraid to rewrite what isn’t working. Save everything you cut, because I guarantee you will want to reuse some of that prose later, at a place where it makes more sense. Not having to reinvent those useful sections will greatly speed things up, which is why I urge you to save them with a file name that clearly labels them.
Finally, don’t feel that, just because you wrote a wonderful section, it has to stay in the manuscript. If the story is stronger without that great scene, cut it. Use it as fodder for a short story or novella set in that world.