What do you do when you’ve written an entire book, years worth of labor, and it doesn't work? What happens when you hand in your manuscript and your editor tells you that it isn't ready, and doesn't even make sense as it is? What do you do then? I wish that I could tell you that there is a magic formula. I wish that all I had to do was give you seven fail proof steps to get your work back on track and print ready. Wouldn't that be great? Wouldn't it make things so much easier if writing were a science and not an art?
Of course it wouldn't. And though I do wish that the devastation of the above scenario could be lessened, I do not wish that all you needed were seven steps to reconcile it. How boring would life and literature be if everyone could make their writing work with the same steps? Pretty boring I think. But, there are some things you can do to help you focus up and make the needed changes.
The first thing you need to do if/when you encounter the above situation is this: breathe. You are not a failure. Yes, you wrote something that an editor has now told you doesn't make sense, but that doesn't mean that it is garbage. It means that it needs work. I know you might hate to admit this, but you are human. And, as much as you might like it to, prose does not just shoot out of you fingertips onto the page straight from the lips of the muse. It is possible for you to think that characters, or storyline, or conclusion, or what have you work well in your story. It is possible for you to think these things and have them be untrue. So, just remember to breathe. Calm down, that pain shooting through your left arm is probably not a heart attack, you have not wasted years of your life, you are still a good writer.
Next, you need to take some time away from your book. If you try to dive right in and fix your manuscript, you will only damage it more. You are too close to the story, which is why it isn't working. You have a very clear vision of the charters and the direction and the arguments, and you are unable to see the holes. Your brain is filling in the places automatically. If you want to fix your book, and make it ready to publish, you are going to have to start with stepping away from it for a few weeks.
Once you’ve had your respite, it’s time to get to work. Read through the whole book again, see that it is wonderful. See that you have a great story to tell. Is it flawed? Yes. Is it beyond repair? No. Now that you have looked at it with fresh eyes what do you see? Are there obvious plot holes? Are there gaps in your arguments? Are your characters flat? Ok, so how can you make them better? Get physical if you have to. Lay pages out on the floor. Map everything out on note cards. Do whatever you have to do in order to visualize your story. Walk through it. If you are a writer worth your salt, and I think you are, you will be able to see where your book needs help.
Will you have to re-work, and re-work your manuscript? Yes. Will it take many more months? Yes. Will you be able to fix it? Yes, with patience and perseverance.
Ok, I kind of gave you a step by step plan. But it is in no way a quick fix, and the process will look different for everyone. The point is that your writing career isn't over when your editor delivers this blow. It will devastate you, but it will not kill you. Not if you don't let it. You just have to keep calm, approach your work with fresh eyes, and most importantly, know where the story is going. Have a plan, and stick to it. And what if after all that work your editor comes back with the same response? Do it all over again.
What do you do when your story just isn’t working? Share with us in the comments section below.