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.


Joni Rodgers said…
Good advice, Colleen. (As usual.) And this is one of the reasons alternating ghostwriting with fiction works for me. I keep thinking that with my track record, I should be able to pop out a novel every year, and it frustrates me no end to have manuscripts in a holding pattern, but each of the three novels I've had luck with benefited greatly from a year (or more!) of simmer on the back burner. For me, familiarity breeds contempt. After a while, I don't have a good eye for the book anymore. Distance takes patience but with it comes perspective. Now, the tricky part is finding time to revisit, but I invariably find I've learned something essential to the novel while I was off in ghostworld.
Anonymous said…
This hits home for me right now...I labored over book number 1 in rewrites, but if it doesn't get pubbed, I truly don't want to spend the same amount on book number was exhausting and took forever. Plus when I started book number 3 I knew more about writing and it won't need half of what Book 2 needs...I'm in a holding pattern until I hear back from the agent, so I'm working on a historical. LOL.

Thanks, Colleen!!! Great suggestions.
You get better all the time, Joni. I know those novels are going to find a very good home.

And best of luck to you, Anon. Thanks to both for stopping by.
Lark said…
Great advice! Still, I'm thinking Tome #1 is exactly where it belongs...under the bed for all time. God bless my darling sister who actually read the mess and loves me anyhow.
Nancy J. Parra said…
Nice post and good advice. Thanks for sharing!
Anonymous said…
Love the reformatting as a book idea! I can't read my MS without going into editor mode. This might fool my brain. Shhhhh. Don't tell my brain.

Suzan Harden said…
LOL Gotta agree with Lark; the first book remains under the bed.

I didn't have the experience to do my second ms justice, even though it was/still is a fun idea. It took three more mss under my belt before I had the skills to rewrite Book #2 the way it deserved.

All the agonizing in the world will execute a good idea. Probably the best thing I did was put it aside for four years.
Vicky said…
I loved this blog, and it reminded me so much of my much-revised 1st novel. Granted, I did it for an editor/no promise of contract, but I was way too new (only writing for a bit over a year). About 6 months ago, I found the only copy -the paper one the editor sent back. And I could see the problem immediately with the under-developed characterization. Honestly, I think the only thing I could salvage from that book is the character names - LOL.
Thanks for dropping by.

I know few if any authors who don't have a manuscript or two (or more) living among the dust bunnies. Writing a novel's such a complex skill that there's quite the learning curve.

I often wonder if I'll even get to the other side of it!
jenny milchman said…
One thing I keep telling myself is that there are no "shoulds" in the writing world...and I see lots of writers ahead of me in this game who struggle with the book/year schedule. My lay conclusion is that that just doesn't work for every writer.

I think that distance is key for every project, and I have seen mss of mine come t-h-i-s close and get turned down for what turned out to be very good reasons--they really did need revising and the tough publishing world saved me from sending something more flawed than it had to be out into the world.

I don't think a project not working is the only reason things are turned down though, and I think writers also need to develop that sense of "this is really done, and the changes being suggested might make it a different book, but not a better or a worse one".

It's a tough line to walk sometimes.
I loved this statement:

I think that distance is key for every project, and I have seen mss of mine come t-h-i-s close and get turned down for what turned out to be very good reasons--they really did need revising and the tough publishing world saved me from sending something more flawed than it had to be out into the world.

I, too, am glad that some of my near misses didn't end up on the shelves. I saw later that I wasn't ready.

Speaks highly for the role of gatekeepers. Few of us are qualified to view our own work dispassionately enough to serve.

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