Can This Story Be Saved? Perspective 101
Sometimes, a project's just not working. You might come to the conclusion yourself, or it might be painfully visited upon you in the form of rejection (or gigantic revision letters and/or concerned calls from your agent) but failures of perspective strike nearly every writer now and then.
I can't tell you how many times I've been blinded by the white heat of the creative process, an impending deadline, or the need to hook up a new writing contract. But this close, quick work too often takes its toll. Fear, too, muddies the water and at times gives way to desperation. And let me tell you, desperation attaches its reek to the written word and stinks up the whole project.
Often, however, months or even years later, after the emotion's had a chance to dissipate, the writer can reread the work and, Wham, Bam, really see it for the first time. Objectively, with all its strengths and flaws revealed. Suddenly, the solution is obvious, and the story can be rewritten with a singular clarity of purpose.
In many cases, the manuscript can be saved, sometimes succeeding beyond the author's wildest dreams. Think of this: Jane Austen's beloved Pride & Prejudice was written in 1796 and 1797 (when the author was only 21-22 years of age). Afterward, it was quickly rejected, but in 1809, Austen revised and sold the book, which was published following Sense & Sensibility to lasting acclaim.
In this day and age, however, it's tough to imagine building a career waiting around eleven years to gain perspective on a failed piece of work. So what's an author to do to put "wisdom" on the fast track?
1. Putting the troublesome story aside to work on other projects is often helpful. Instead of flogging the dead horse interminably, go and till another field. Try writing something very different: nonfiction instead of fiction, historical rather than contemporary (or any different genre), a short story or article or poem rather than a novel. After accomplishing useful work in another area, come back and check your "horse" for signs of life (or, alternately, the realization that the poor thing should be buried, at least for the time being).
2. Review notes from beta readers, judges, agents, or editors. Often, our emotions (pride and prejudice among them!) prevent us from really comprehending what the reviewer meant. I distinctly recall pulling out months'-old judges' sheets I'd originally thought completely idiotic and suddenly seeing the truth in them. After heeding the suggestions, I revised and quickly sold the manuscript.
3. Try tricking your brain into thinking you're reading someone else's story. Format your manuscript like a real book, using landscape orientation, two columns, narrow margins, a smaller font, and single spacing. Then print it out and pretend you're simply reading it for pleasure. Where did you get bored? Or roll your eyes in disbelief? Oftentimes, the solution will jump out at you.
One last bit of advice: Never throw away a story that's not working. Always keep an archived copy, because you never know when it make tickle your unconscious and motivate you to revise and resurrect the thing.
Does anyone else have a great tip to share for gaining perspective on a project that's not working? I'd love to hear from you.