Why your manuscript sucks – (and how to fix it)

A reader reclines, opens your book:

Harry kissed his kids goodbye at the breakfast table and rushed out the door, still pulling his jacket on as he stepped into the brisk morning air of leafy, peaceful Highgate. “See you later darling,” he called to his wife.

Another day to survive this lie.

His guilt tinted the world, made his shame sharper. The cigarette butt he’d discarded – smoking to obfuscate Patricia’s perfume – shone like a beacon in the grass. His car tyres twinkled with the white gravel of her Surrey driveway. Must get it cleaned.

As he unlocked the vehicle, his greatest fear rounded the street and confidently strode towards him: Patricia, out walking her Irish terrier, was in his fucking neighbourhood.

“Harry? But, what are you doing here? I thought you lived in Shoreditch?”

“I do, I was just, I left my car here, my friend, we had a poker game last night, here, I’m just picking up the car… what are you doing here?”

Sally came out of the house with the boys. His throat constricted. He couldn’t breathe. He desperately tugged the knot of his tie and…

Wait wait WAIT WAIT STOP

Hang on. I’m siding with Harry, here – even if he is an adulterous toad. Why is Patricia there? You told me earlier she lives in Surrey, why is she walking her dog in fucking Highgate? She has no right to be there. There is no conceivable reason why she’d take the dog – from SURREY – to Highgate. That’s about 30 miles away as the crow flies – only, this crow doesn’t have wings and has to get in a car and drive around the other side of fucking LONDON to get there.

You’re lying to me. You think I’m an idiot. Your contrivance is insulting. You want conflict – you want this scene – but it would NEVER HAPPEN.

I am putting your book down in disgust.

———————————

In editing your novel, the first things that need to go are the conflict-heavy scenes that you wrote, thinking they’d be great – loads of drama! – but in fact make no sense.

The example above is trite, but the message is important:
You cannot take the piss out of your reader.

My manuscript sucks too

When I started editing the Chaos Draft, I found a scene in which the hero stumbles across the antagonist at the scene of the crime. There’s a struggle, conflict, a revelation; the plot moved on, character had been revealed, action had taken place.

Job done, right?

But it was all a lie – a kind of mundane deus ex machina. That antagonist had no reason to be back at the scene of the crime – she should have been too busy tinkering with her evil scheme elsewhere. She was focused, calculating, methodical, resolute. It would be against her character to be there, even by some ingenious invention.

And it’s not coincidence I’m railing against. Coincidences happen, I get it. I’ve seen Magnolia (it was awful).

The problem is not improbability. It’s informed impossibility.

THERE IS NO WAY.

THIS MAKES NO SENSE.

Editing is about going back and figuring out: where the characters are at any given point; what they know; what they want; and how they’ve decided to get it.

The characters must drive the story, like a crow on the M25.

Now…

There is no better way to achieve this than with a spreadsheet.

There is also no duller way to achieve this than with a spreadsheet.

How to Excel in life
Getting plot, conflict and agency into a spreadsheet
The planning doc for CITADEL

How you go about setting up a useful planner depends on your own story, but I recommend having a column for plot, a column for conflict, and a column for each character’s agency.

What do I mean by agency? I mean: what is each character in the scene actually doing? Why are they there? What do they want?

If your character has no agency, they appear listless and unappealing, a veritable passenger, just along for the ride. That’s not good enough. They must have some wants or desires, even if they’re trivial or bland…

Maybe Barry wants a bagel. Maybe Barry will DO ANYTHING to get that bagel. Or, maybe it would be just kind of nice if he found somewhere that sold bagels, so he could have one. Huh… Yeah, Barry thinks he’ll go out and buy a bagel.

HE WALKS OUTSIDE AND GETS RUN OVER BY A TRUCK.

You see? Effortless drama. Similarly, Barry might just want to stay at home and play computer games. That’s why he’s in his room when his Mum comes home early with her new boyfriend and they engage in a noisy carnal embrace on the couch downstairs.

Oh I’m sorry, did I just DRAMA you again?

The point is: whatever the character’s doing, whatever they’re thinking, make a note of it. If you don’t know why that person is there, they probably shouldn’t be – you’ve just written a shit scene.

Sounds laborious? Well, it is. Sorry.

But it’s also immensely rewarding. You’ll get to know your characters better, new avenues of narrative will emerge, and you’ll figure out what your story is actually about, at its core.

For my book, Citadel, I’ve figured out what was wrong (too many coincidences, too many characters), and what it needed to round it off. In doing that, an interesting new character emerged – a new, better, more interesting antagonist.

At this point, however, she is just called Antag – but I’ll leave that edit for Draft 3.

Already using a spreadsheet for planning? What else do you find useful to include?

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11 thoughts on “Why your manuscript sucks – (and how to fix it)”

    1. Well, to be fair, I didn’t start doing this until I’d written 140,000 words or so. Probably should have started sooner… ha!

      But in that first draft I created characters that I’ve completely cut now, but might look to go back to in the future. They exist because I did the mind dump.

      The next thing I write, I’ll try to do this from the beginning I think (although that’s new territory for me…)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. What do you mean by “pantser”?

        But you’re right, it’s definitely a good way to figure out the harder scenes – it’s also invaluable in planning murder mysteries, or whodunnits (you can add a column for “What does the reader know” at each chapter).

        Liked by 1 person

      2. ‘Pantsers’ usually start out with just a character or a vague idea of what is going to happen in their story/scene/chapter and just roll with it, unlike ‘planners’, who follow some kind of thought-out structure. Both have pros and cons and on paper I would like to say I am a planner – sounds much more efficient to me – but I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am not.. 🙂
        Great idea – I think this column helps not only whodunnits – I constantly forgot what part of character’s personality and backstory I’ve revealed at a certain point.

        Like

  1. That post brought up some interesting points…things I don’t really consider. I usually plan out who’s going to do what based upon not only what seems logical, but also exciting too. Sometimes, maybe the exciting side wins over the logical, and I have characters doing things mainly because I think it’s exciting.
    There’s a problem with that, obviously, but…maybe if it’s not too illogical, nobody will usually argue with excitement…or drama, as you put it.
    Thanks for the read!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re quite right – you shouldn’t avoid exciting things. But I think if you have to force one of your characters to do something out-of-character, you lose the reader’s faith in that character. Remember, faith leads to engagement, which leads to emotional connection – the Holy Grail!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting, I wonder if there’s a way for a computer to retro-actively populate a database/spreadsheet like this with the contents of a book from say, project Gutenburg? You could then codify the plots of any number of stories and reveal, programatically, their underlying structures. Probably.

    Liked by 1 person

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