Saturday, September 1, 2012

Death of a Manuscript

Last fall, I came up with a really cool idea for a post-apocalyptic novel. 

As I've mentioned before, I love that genre, and am fully aware that the market is pretty saturated with stories of zombies, plagues, vampires, Earth-bound asteroids, armies of Sta-Puft Marshmallow Men, and so on and so forth. 

But THIS idea. 

This was a twist on the genre I hadn't seen yet out there. 

I talked to my agent, my first readers, and my wife about it. They all seemed excited by it. I worked on the outline, set out the major plot points. I did have a bit of a hard time deciding on what the main character's ultimate quest would be, but I didn't worry too much about it. The idea was so damn good, I figured it would work itself out (see where this is going?) 

So I got to work on the manuscript in December. And wrote and wrote and wrote. By the end of April, I had myself a complete manuscript, nearly 100,000 words in length. I was pretty proud of myself. 

I took a week or two off from it, did a couple pass-through reads to clean some things up and shipped it off to my readers. 

While  I waited for them to get back to me, something started to nag at me. Something felt wrong. The story didn't pop out at me. I compared it to The Jackpot, which had a very simple, very clearly-defined quest -- Samantha working to return a stolen lottery ticket back to its rightful owner while resisting the temptation to keep it for herself. It's the narrative thread. But what was this book about? Why did it feel so flat? 

The first reader got back to me with his notes: He liked the premise a lot, but, uh, um, what's it ABOUT? 

My second reader came back with his notes: "The writing is really good, but I'm having a hard time rooting for the main character." To me, this is very similar to my first reader's note. Guess what my agent said when she read it? 


I read through it again. They were right. One hundred percent right.  

The book was sick. Very sick. I rushed it into surgery and began looking for where things went off the rails. Early, it turns out. Very early. And the infection spread rapidly throughout the rest of the manuscript. I made the fatal mistake of confusing a good idea with a story. I didn't know what the main character was pursuing, what his ultimate goal was, who he even was, and the novel is fatally flawed because of it.  The main character does pursue something, but he was backed into it by circumstance, not because he  was actively trying to solve a problem that affected him directly. That's not to say that there aren't novels that succeed in this paradigm -- it's just that mine doesn't, because this quest he's on isn't clearly defined. He doesn't even know what it is until the last 20 pages of the book. 


As Gertrude Stein famously said: "There's no there there." 

Fixing the book isn't going to be a simple matter of revising a few sections, adding some character depth or anything like that. It's going to require a complete re-write. I'll have to throw out some 300 pages.

So there it is. I forgot the key storytelling principles. What is the book about? What does the main character want? Why does he want it? And how will your main character's true nature drive his or her approach to pursuing the goal? 

I think about my three favorite books, and how simple the stories are at their core. The Stand is about our heroes' quest to defeat Randall Flagg. Mystic River is about Sean Devine's quest to find Katie Marcus' killer. Lonesome Dove is about Woodrow and Gus leading the cattle drive north from Texas. In all of these books, it's character that drives how each of the quests is pursued. 

So let my tale be a warning to you, fellow writers. Make sure you know these things before you start writing. Don't confuse a good idea with a good story. A good idea is merely a starting point. You have to hammer it down like a blacksmith forging a sword from steel. 

If you don't, you could find yourself in the same pickle as me. And believe me, it ain't a fun place to be. 


  1. I am so sorry this happened to you. I love ideas and have run with them before but luckily I stopped before 300 pages. Please don't let this stop you. Ideas can and do turn into fabulous stories. Good luck!

  2. Thanks, Mrs. G. It's definitely disheartening, but it's been a valuable learning experience. I got so caught up in the idea, I didn't think about the story. Won't make that mistake again..

  3. Excellent post, David. A good reminder for writers in general. I am sure that once you come up with the character's struggle and start again with that in mind that you will have a bestseller. Sorry for your wasted time, but you should be able to use many of the scenes and characters again as you go forward, so it'll go faster next time around.

    Good luck!

  4. I remember when I read in Stephen King's "On Writing" that he doesn't like the stale effect that plotting gives to a story. He likes to put a character on the stage, in a tough situation, and see what he does. Strand a writer with a broken leg in a remote, snow-bound location for example. When I read that, I thought "sounds easy." It also seemed like it would result in a much better narrative, in which the character does things "organically," not as a puppet of the author's. Alas, having sort of run aground myself as you have, I realize it is not so easy as Mr. King makes it look. Darn him. But I do love him anyway. Just find the there that's inevitably there (or put it there) and you will have it.

  5. Melissa and Brian -- thanks for the good thoughts. I'm putting this one aside for now, as I'd like to come at it totally fresh, without the residue of the disaster still in my mind. A valuable experience. Crappy, but valuable.

  6. David my eyes are open now to see what the problem is with my inprogress novel. Your blog shows me what I'm doing wrong. Do you teach writing classes?

    1. Hi Betty - No, I don't teach writing classes, but I am glad that this post helped you. Whenever I learn a lesson, I try to share it, and this was probably the most important lesson I've learned.

      Always be asking yourself what your character wants.