What To Do When Your Manuscript Is A Big Ol’ Mess

You’ve written a bunch of pages…now what?

The Problem With Mess

One morning recently I was trying to tidy up around the house. I needed to put away a box of items, move a shelf over slightly, and then slide a folding table in between the shelf and wall. So I placed the table near the shelf and I picked up the box and I walked over to the shelf and I realized that I had a problem. I was trying to do everything at once. But there was no way that I could hold the box, adjust the table, and move the shelf at the same time. I am embarrassed to admit just how long I stood there trying to figure out how to do it all at once. But I finally had to accept something: I had to put away the box first, move the shelf second, and then place the table where I wanted it. This seems obvious, but writers get caught in this process all the time. Writing a novel is the ultimate multitasking nightmare. Writers are constantly trying to do at least five things at once: plot their novel, develop characters, describe settings, and develop themes, all while drafting. That’s not possible.

Fundamentally, there are three pillars of any story. The character(s), the structure, and the themes. These three aspects are like the legs on a stool — if any one of them is faulty, the whole thing wobbles. It’s important to give each pillar the individual attention it deserves. That’s why I recommend placing emphasis on one pillar at a time during each individual draft.

Choose Your Own Writing Adventure

Some writers like to start at page one and write a whole draft and go back later. Others prefer to plan their first draft first, and then write according to what they have written. In my experience, the former type tends to be more character-driven and the latter tends to be more plot-driven. I always suggest that writers write to their strengths and revise to their weaknesses. Therefore, if you are a character-driven writer, I recommend making your first draft a character-focused draft. Similarly, if you are plot-driven, consider making your first draft plot-focused. A focus on theme should, however, definitely come last.

Questions to answer when working on your character-focused draft:

Does your main character want something?

What is going to stop them (or try to stop them) from getting it?

What facet of their personality will help them get it?

What facet of their personality will hinder them from getting it?

Questions to answer when working on your plot-focused draft:

What is the main problem?

When did this problem first become obvious?

How did your character try to solve the problem?

For each scene, answer: Did the problem get worse or better (for your character) in this scene? If the answer is that it neither got worse nor better, consider combining the information in this scene into a scene that is more active.

Questions to answer when working on your theme-focused draft:

What’s the big idea behind your story?

In what scenes does this big idea show up?

Is there a symbol or symbols that might represent this idea? Are they present in the manuscript?

Once you’ve gone through each major facet, you can ask for feedback.

Of course, as you write any draft, you’ll have to work on all of the parts of your story. But stepping back and remembering to pay particular attention to one major piece at a time will help you remain objective about your work and give each part the attention it deserves. In the end, you’ll have a sturdy story with a solid foundation.

Lisa Papademetriou is an author, entrepreneur, and business school dropout. She’s the founder of Bookflow, a tool designed to help writers reach their goals by boosting organization and motivation. Connect with her on Facebook and Instagram. Email: lisa.papademetriou@bookflow.pub

I’d love to connect with writers eager to take their work to the next level, to encourage and help guide them using my experience as a writing instructor at the MFA level, editorial experience (at both small and Big Five publishers), and bestselling author.

Novelist. Editor. Entrepreneur. Founded a platform that helps writers motivate and organize. 🖋 Try Bookflow free for 28 days. https://tinyurl.com/tryBookflow