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Writer, resuscitate your manuscript!

“It’s time to get tough on yourself and put your plot through its paces.”

I’VE often been approached by writers struggling to keep a writing project moving, full of angst and desperate for a solution. Incredible as it might seem, this is invariably the point writers decide to show their work to a publisher, hoping that some clue will be found in the manuscript that will render it instantly better. All writers reach a point when negative thoughts come pouring in, telling us we must have been crazy embarking on writing something nobody wants to read. Often we feel the opposite, determined that our work is perfectly formed and needs no adjustment. When either of these extremes happens to you, it’s not time to submit your work or give up… it’s time to diagnose your manuscript.

Who is the hero?

Every effective story (fiction and non-fiction) needs a protagonist, someone to lead the action, to barrack for and relate to. This might sound blatantly obvious, but one of the main blocks to manuscript health is lack of a hero. Heroes don’t need to be ‘good’ (they can be anti-heroes) and they don’t need to be particularly heroic, they only need to be obvious. What would Gone With the Wind be without Scarlett O’Hara? Imagine any of Bill Bryson’s travel tomes without the author himself in the driving seat! Identifying your story’s hero is the most important first step in getting a manuscript match fit.

Heroes with a twist

Sometimes, stories have multiple heroes, such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid which, like all ‘buddy films’, has a pair of protagonists driving the action.

Plots with more than one protagonist often have one hero take an outer (physical) journey, while one takes an inner (emotional) journey.

WHERE TO FROM HERE? One of the finest movie examples of a surprise ending.
TWO HEROES Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise.

A great example of this is Thelma and Louise in which Thelma (played by Susan Sarandon) physically drives the car and has strongly-plotted reasons for taking the route she decides on; whereas Louise (Geena Davis) is driven to an emotional transition in the passenger seat.

Protagonist teams (such as that in The Big Chill) ideally need to face the same conflicts (not strictly at the same time or in the same manner) in order to keep readers focussed on the plot.

Writers creating multiple-personality protagonists should consider either letting the audience in on the secret (as in Superman) or work the duality into an unfolding or complete surprise (as in The Talented Mr Ripley).

Protagonists in different time zones (like Julie and Julia) can intersect, but giving them complete story arcs of their own will create a more satisfactory experience for audiences.

Who is the villain?

All stories also need antagonists, those characters who get in the protagonist’s way, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking every villain must be ‘bad’. Two of literature’s greatest antagonists are Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, who qualify as antagonists because they obstruct protagonists (Christie’s murderers) through expert sleuthing. Take Christie’s detectives out of her novels and her protagonists would get away with murder, which is what happens in Patricia Highsmith’s series of Tom Ripley novels, with plots tempered by Ripley’s inner battle with himself as protagonist and antagonist. In fiction and non-fiction work, readers will smell a rat if the hero in pitted against a one-dimensional villain. A great test for a well-rounded antagonist is to ask yourself if your villain sees themselves as the hero of your story. Antagonists are simply protagonists on the opposing team. Both need to be equally three-dimensional.

“If you have opposing forces in play, your plot will have natural conflict.”

Is there a battle?

Once you’ve identified your heroes and villains, you need to put them in the same arena and let them at one another relatively early in your manuscript. If you have opposing forces in play, your plot will have natural conflict, whereas if you keep them apart, readers will quickly lose interest. Many first drafts take too long to get to the point of battle. Even non-fiction works need to reach a point of conflict to engage the reader. Check if your manuscript has a turning point around one-fifth into the word length, strong enough to create an ongoing battle between protagonist and antagonist.

Is there a winner?

You’ve spent months writing your manuscript, and you’ve taken the conflict to a certain point, but you can’t seem to land your story. This is an extremely common plotting debacle, borne of not knowing if you’re writing a tragedy or a comedy. Have no fear, there’s a really easy fix: you only need to decide who wins, and it can only be hero or villain who claims the victory. Classic plot structure dictates that if the hero is better off at the end of the story than they were at the beginning, you’ve written a comedy. If the villain wins, it’s a tragedy.

BLACK COMEDY Jeanie Drynan as Betty Heslop in Muriel's Wedding.
BLACK COMEDY Jeanie Drynan as Betty Heslop in Muriel’s Wedding.

Ever since William Shakespeare invented the black comedy by combining the opposing forces of Greek tragedy and comedy, there has been humour in the saddest tales (think the gravedigger scene in Hamlet), and tears in the joy (think Muriel’s Wedding in which Muriel’s mother kills herself).  Readers are waiting, just pick a winner! Your hard-won resolution will flow as soon as you do.

So your manuscript has legs?

If you have a hero, a villain, you’ve pitted them against one another and decided who wins, good news: your fiction or non-fiction manuscript will live. Before sending it to a publisher, there are a few more elements to look at.

Who is speaking?

First draft manuscripts often suffer from multiple viewpoints and perspectives, or ‘voices’. Check that you’ve been consistent in your narration – there are several options for this which can be used exclusively or in combination. Narrative needs to be consistent in order to make an engaging experience for readers/viewers.

Where are we in time?

A very common confusing element for readers is time. If stories swing between time periods, or have subplots that take us away from the main action, writers easily let readers/viewers down by not giving clear reminders about where we are and who is who. Sometimes all it takes is a short recap of characters and storylines to keep readers in the loop of our unfolding stories, especially after you’ve taken your audience to another place for a chapter or two.

Equality calling

While re-plotting a manuscript, it’s wise to run a few tried and true plot tests. One of the best is the Bechdel Test, which will show you instantly if there is gender bias in your writing, and should make all writers aware of the need to create three-dimensional female characters. The ‘Smurfette Principle’ serves a similar purpose, and the ‘Russo Test’ is a watchdog for written representations of LGBTI.

Engagement

Plenty of never-seen, unrealised, un-engaging writing languishes when writers seek to avoid connecting with audiences. Some of us do this out of a desire to be ‘literary’ instead of ‘popular’, but I suggest writers come to terms with entertainment taking many forms, everything from distraction to enlightenment. At this stage of your writing, be as objective as you can and analyse your manuscript for sheer entertainment value. Will people want to keep reading? I believe your gut will tell you where your work is getting slow and boring.

The memoir muddle

Many emergent writers begin with a memoir project, often at the behest of friends who have encouraged us that ‘there’s a book in you!’. It’s great to be supported by friends and family, who are our first audience, but when the hero of our work is us and the plot is the story of our lives, an extraordinary amount of objectivity is required. The temptation is to write a completely heroic version of ourselves and a totally villainous version of people we perceive have wronged us. An inability to see and record our own negative actions, and the positive actions of others, has brought many a memoir manuscript to a complete halt. If you think this might be the issue you’re having with your memoir, have the guts to record yourself as a ‘warts and all’ hero, and seek the reasons antagonists got in your way. It will give you more material and make for a better read.

Recap

WRITE REGARDLESSYou’ve read your manuscript. Congratulations. Now it’s time to get tough on yourself and put your plot through its paces. Get over all fears that plotting is a formulaic, restrictive process, and check your work has the ingredients of archetypal storytelling, the kind that successful authors have been engaging for centuries.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Writer, read your own work!

“The only way to achieve objectivity about a piece of work is to leave it alone for a while.”

A FEW years ago I asked my social media followers if anyone had complete or partial manuscripts sitting around, perhaps something potentially ’embarrassing’. This question yielded some interesting answers, and many fantastic potential books. One of the reasons I started Write, Regardless! was to assist stymied writers to dust these works off and breathe new life into them. The next step is one of the hardest for independent writers – successfully rewriting your first draft.

Don’t send in your first draft… just DON’T!

The best thing writers can do with our newly-completed manuscripts is put them away. Ensure you have saved your work, backed it up to a memory stick, or at least printed it out, then bury it somewhere. Unfortunately, the negative reputation of the independent publishing industry is formed on the back of writers who complete a first draft of their books one day, then hit the publish button the next. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. The only way to achieve objectivity about a piece of our work is to leave it alone for a while; I’d recommend a few months. Use that time to keep your social media platform buoyant… you’re going to need readers and followers, so start attracting them! Of course if you have a long-buried manuscript already, it’s time to rewrite it.

Do the work!

It sounds far too simple, but the best way to rewrite great second and subsequent drafts is to learn the discipline of reading our own writingThis is harder than it sounds, but it’s become an essential tool for all writers in an age when editing and proofreading have lost currency. Even if you are gifted with the perfect writer’s pathway – your manuscript gets picked-up by a mainstream publisher, and you are assigned an editor who lovingly massages your talent – you are going to be better prepared for this luxury if you know your own work better than anyone else. The only way to achieve that is to read your manuscript. Do the work.

“Publishers are not looking for problem writers.”

Manuscripts must be fit!

Even if you are planning to approach traditional publishers with your manuscript, you’ll need to complete several drafts of it before submitting. I cannot say it enough: publishers are not looking for problem writers. They don’t have the time, money, or inclination to find a ‘genius’ and shape their work. Sending a manuscript to a publisher or literary agent is just the same as job interviewing and auditioning – you and your work must be on top form from the very first moment you have the ear of industry professionals. Do the work.

Don’t overdo every rewrite

For me, rewriting is about seeking entertainment and distraction within my own work. I figure that if I cannot move myself through my writing, then I am not offering anything to a reader. When we embark on a first read, many hours of work on our manuscripts lie ahead of us, so it’s best to avoid getting stuck in too much detail. We need to see the big picture of our story arcs, not worry about spelling and grammar at this stage. Insert notes so you remember things that spring to mind, but move swiftly through your read, trusting that next time you’ll make it even better.

Be hard on your plot!

By now you should have a good grasp on what makes a good dramatic story arc. Detailed reads of our work are our chance to see where our plotting is weak. Revisit my article on plotting many times as you reshape yours. My advice would be to correct plot failings as soon as you discover them, because there is no use trying to gloss over a story with, say, no antagonist; or a novel in which there is no conflict; or a work of non-fiction that does not have an effective resolution. Be prepared to admit your first draft is not yet complete, and go back to the drawing board. That level of honesty with your writing will pay dividends down the track.

HARD READ The Reader by Ferdinand Hodler (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid)
HARD READ The Reader by Ferdinand Hodler (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid)

Writer angst

I have written plenty in Write, Regardless! about practical approaches to writing. It’s time to focus a little on the emotion. If you find yourself distracted, head in the clouds, missing appointments or late for work, chances are most of your mind is happily engaged on your plot. Don’t panic! Your family and friends will notice a change, very often they’ll interpret your daydreaming as a form of selfishness. Confessing to being a writer can trigger familial panic (we’re loose cannons in all rigid economies, we creatives). Reading, rewriting and plotting takes time, quietude and headspace, and when we don’t get these things, if we are doing the work, our brain does something clever… it takes over and does it whenever it gets a chance, such as when we wake, or as we are drifting off to sleep, or doing the dishes, or driving. Surrender to this process. In order to achieve your writing, you’ll need to do plenty of artful dodging with loved ones. Expect the odd angry outburst to surface if you are a writer doing the work. What you’re probably having trouble expressing is your need for headspace.

Rewriting short stories

The art of writing entertaining short stories is something most writers attempt at some stage in our careers. It’s a unique form of expression that relies on being even more adept at plotting, not less. Don’t confuse ‘shorter’ with ‘easier’. Check out my notes on rewriting short stories.

Read the warning signs

The independent publishing marketplace is full of advice and tips on how to achieve success. I’ve been gleaning great ideas within it for years, but one thing I have learned to watch for are signs of back-pedalling. While the rush to the Publish Button has become a tempting shortcut, I have read plenty about self-published writers who design their book covers before embarking on the writing process; who set-up marketing campaigns before fleshing-out their novel’s plot; and quite high-profile self published authors pulling their books off the virtual shelves to rework them. They do everything, it seems, apart from sitting still and actually reading their own work.

Recap

WRITE REGARDLESSThere are many exclamation marks in this article! That means there is an important message you need to listen to: you are the first audience of your output. If you want to be an effective writer, you need to practice the art of reading your own work. All the secrets to improving your manuscript are on the page already, even by their absence. Read, read, and read your own manuscripts. Do the work.

An extract from Write, regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Writer, don’t lose the plot!

“The essential foundation of all good storytelling.”

THE first six sessions of Write, Regardless! are about establishing an online social media platform, something all writers need to be doing for ourselves long before we start the process of publishing our books. Think of it this way… once you’ve got the regular selling process in place, it leaves you more time and energy to focus on regularly creating. To that end, we’ll start looking in more detail at the writing process, beginning with what I believe to be the essential foundation of all good storytelling: effective plotting.

Dig away at your plot

Every writer plots differently, but plotting a story is never executed just once or in isolation, it tends to evolve throughout the process of putting a title together. This article is something you’ll probably need to dip into across the writing of your work in order to stay on course with your plot.

Plotting a first draft

I am often asked if it’s possible to plot well in a first draft, and whether writers can keep track of where we are in our unfolding plots. The short answer is that I am a great advocate for belting out a first draft without focussing too much on plot. See where the inspiration takes you. There is a payoff for this rule-free ‘luxury’, however, which is that eventually we have to get tough on our plots in order to shape subsequent drafts. Having said that, the more we write, the more we become capable of shaping a plot in a first draft.

“This is your chance to make your work engaging and entertaining.”

Second draft and beyond

There’s no excuse for neglecting a tough plot analysis while executing your second and subsequent drafts. This is your chance to make your work engaging and entertaining. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that some literary fairy godmother is going to magically appear and make your first draft perfect. Submitting an incomplete, unworked manuscript is the height of writerly laziness and nobody in the publishing trade is paid to make your raw draft into a workable book. That’s your job. Luckily, there are tools to help.

Bite-sized plot structure

Depending on what genre and format you’re writing, there is more than one way to plot a story. The archetypal five-act plot is the classic structure for novels and can be applied to long-form non-fiction. The archetypal three-act plot is commonly applied to screenplays and plays, although it’s really a truncated form of the five-act plot. Remember, these are a plot’s starting points. The rules are not there to break (if you want to entertain readers/viewers) but rather to bend. Your ability to be flexible with the rules is what will make your writing original.

Perfect plot points

Drilling deeper into plot structure will expose more detail on precise moments that heighten the experience for readers/viewers, such as the narrative hook, the call to action, and the point of no return. Don’t complete a second or subsequent draft of your books/scripts without them.

Fighting the ‘formula’

I’ve had many animated discussions with writers who don’t believe in structured plots. I am not here to convince anyone of the need to plot their stories, but I do know that a joke has a formulaic structure (set-up, punchline) and a ghost story by a campfire has one too. Try telling such stories without sticking to tried and true plot structure will leave the teller looking as though they have no sense of humour. We all anticipate a punchline in a joke, and we know a ghost story has a chilling moment ahead, yet we submit to the formula without question. Plotting a novel or screenplay is no different, in fact these writing formats require more conscious plotting, since they are longer and fall further from the formula, especially if we seek to be original.

ALAS, POOR HAMLET Often used as an excuse for missing plots. Laurence Olivier as the Prince of Denmark in the 1948 film.
ALAS, POOR HAMLET Often used as an excuse for missing plots. Laurence Olivier as the Prince of Denmark in the 1948 film.

The Hamlet argument

Many plotting naysayers pull the Hamlet card, suggesting the Prince of Denmark’s “To be, or not to be” speech by William Shakespeare is literature’s greatest example of a character in some fascinating kind of stasis that gives all writers an excuse to avoid plotting better stories. While it’s true Hamlet works himself into a state of not knowing what to do, his famous monologue is actually almost halfway through Shakespeare’s plot. The play opens with the unlikeliest of events – the purported appearance of a ghost on the ramparts of Elsinore, and on the basis of what may be an hallucination, the hero drives the action through several major plot points before he pauses, thinks, and wonders if it might be better to die than go on. Sorry, plotting naysayers, Hamlet is not your trump card, nor is Waiting for Godot. Great stories have plots.

Create battles

When I get into a plot funk, I use a handy device to cut the crap and uncover what needs fixing by finding the ‘battle’ in my story. All journeys of protagonists (‘heroes’) and antagonists (‘villains’) involve conflict between the two. They get in each other’s way. I believe writers’ reticence to structure these conflicts is the greatest obstacle to good plotting. Name your hero and villain, and let them do battle. If you miss this fundamental core, you’ll have no plot.

When plotting and marketing combine

Rare is the writer who has not fantasised about our work in its finished form, imagining our books on shop shelves, complete with our ideas for titles and covers. This daydreaming can be an absolute writing killer, but there is a way to spin it into plotting gold… although my advice would be to try this process only when your first draft is done.

Try it on for size

If you can’t tell someone what your story is about, it’s probably not well plotted. When you have a first draft, try writing a blurb of your work. If this is hard work, it will show you where your plot is weak. If you don’t know who to focus the blurb on, it’s likely you don’t yet know who your protagonist is. Not being able to create an interesting blurb for a manuscript is a sure sign it is not well-plotted.

Synopsis vs blurb

When you’re approaching the point of submitting a manuscript to a publisher or a literary agent, or you’re preparing to independently publish your work, you will need to create either a synopsis or a blurb of your title. A common trap for writers at this stage is to conflate a synopsis (an abridged version of a title allowing a quick analysis of its entire contents, including all plot points) and a blurb (a promotional ‘taster’ of the work which holds plot points back to generate interest). Writers need to reveal all plot points in a synopsis sent to prospective publishers and agents – let them in on your story’s mysteries. Independent publishers need to entice readers by holding back some plot points (particularly our story’s outcomes) when creating blurbs.

Case studies

During my research on the plotting process, I put a few well-known plots through their paces. Because the stories were not mine, the once-removed quality of the analysis made it easier, and I advise all writers to analyse the plots of their favourite books and scripts. Here are my plot examinations of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Sum of Us, both works of fiction, and A Cry in Dark, a non-fiction screenplay. Try your own plot analysis as a way to grow familiar with the way stories are structured.

WRITE REGARDLESSRecap

Structuring an engaging story by building a great plot is not something that magically happens in the editing process. It takes an understanding of storytelling that should be second nature to good writers. But have no fear, good plotting can be learned if you’re prepared to be tough on yourself.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.