For me there comes a point where I realize my manuscript has gone way off track and is no longer fun to write. This is when I must go back and find the point where the story stopped working.
Perhaps you are working on a manuscript you began writing during last year’s NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Maybe you’re 80,000 words in and need to write the final 20,000 words to finish the book. You have a vague idea of how it ends but can’t figure out how to get there.
This is what I am dealing with in regard to two novels right now. One began as a serial published in 2015 – 2016 on Edgewise Words Inn, which was how I discovered that writing and publishing a chapter a week is not my forte. This book has been on hold for several years because of other writing commitments.
The other unfinished business is book one of a duology. I’ve committed to writing the second book in this set before publishing the first. This will ensure the wait time for the second book’s release will be reasonable. Even though the entire story will span two books, this first half must have a finite ending.
It’s at what would be considered the midpoint of the 2-book story arc. The problem has been deciding where in the overall story arc of the duology the ending of book 1 occurs, and how it leads into the action of the opening chapters in the second half.
I have stopped floundering and (literally) cut my losses with both unfinished books. I trimmed both back to the place where they dissolved into chaos. After a lot of writing and rewriting, I have the first three-quarters of both books in good shape. But now I’m suffering from “pandemic brain.” I don’t know what to do or how to bring either story to its intended conclusion.
This isn’t unusual. Fortunately, my years of doing NaNoWriMo have given me some tools for just such an emergency.
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_Bleakbourne_rewrite1_08-08-2020.” (that stands for Outtakes, Bleakbourne on Heath, rewrite 1, Aug-08-2020)
Now, we must consider what will be the most logical way to end this mess.
What is the core conflict? For me, a good way to pull the ending out of my subconscious is to revisit the outline I made of the story arc. Fortunately, I have been on top of things in both worlds, so deviations from the original plans have been noted. I’m looking at the current blueprint of both works-in-progress to this point.
The problem I am experiencing now is that I didn’t know exactly where either of these books were going to end when I began writing them, so that part never got plotted. Now I can see how the internal growth of the characters has caused two of them to fundamentally change from what was originally planned. Their personal goals have radically deviated from what I had initially thought.
By seeing the whole picture of the story to this point, I usually find the inspiration to put together the final scenes that I know must happen. Something big and important must be achieved in the final chapters, so for me, pausing to do some more plotting and loose outlining is crucial to writing a logical sequence of events.
I sit down with a notebook (or in my case a spreadsheet) and make a list of what events must occur between the place where the plot was derailed and the end. This is just a list of chapters with the keywords for each scene noted.
Once I have refreshed my memory with what has gone before and made a few notes as ideas occur to me, I start a new document and save it with a name that clearly denotes that it’s a worksheet for that novel.
HA_Final_Chpts_Worksheet_08-08-2020 (Heaven’s Altar, final chapters worksheet, and the date)
At first, the page is only a list of headings that detail the events I must write for each chapter. I know what end I have to arrive at, but the chapter headings are pulled out of the ether, accompanied by the howling of demons as I force my plot to take shape:
You’ll note that while the word chapter is there, and a rudimentary title, there are no numbers. I don’t number my chapters until the third draft is complete, although I do head each section with the word “chapter” written out, so it is easy to find with a global search. The titles will disappear, or be changed, depending on which series it is.
This is because in my world, first drafts are not written linearly. For me, things change structurally with each rewrite. It’s less confusing if the numbers are only put in when the manuscript is finalized.
I begin writing details that pertain to the section beneath each chapter heading as they occur to me. Once that list is complete, those sketchy details get expanded on and grow into complete chapters, which I then copy and paste into the manuscript.
When I begin designing the ending, it’s as challenging and yet easy as plotting the opening scenes. I go back to the basics and ask the same questions I asked in the beginning.
It’s a good idea to have a separate worksheet that lists each character and contains notes detailing what they wanted at the beginning. That way you can see how that has changed by the events they have experienced.
- What do the characters want now that they have achieved a significant milestone?
- What will they have to sacrifice next?
- What stands in the way of their achieving the goal?
- Do they get what they wanted in the end, or do their desires evolve away from that goal when new information is presented?
When I’m forced to do a lot of rewriting, I never delete anything. Everything we write should be kept in a file labeled “outtakes.”
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 significantly speed things up, which is why I urge you to save them with a file name that clearly labels them as background or outtakes.
Let’s be honest. No amount of rewriting and adjusting will make a scene or chapter work if it’s no longer needed to advance the story. If the story is stronger without that great episode, cut it.
What you have written but not used in the finished novel is a form of world-building. It contributes to the established canon of that world and makes it more real in your mind.
Use it as fodder for a short story or novella set in that world. This is how prolific authors end up with so many short stories to make into compilations. It’s useful to know that every side-quest not used in the final manuscript can quickly be made into a short story.