Getting unstuck in a revision

Manuscript update: I didn’t get too much done in my revision yesterday. Still on chapter one today.

A reader left a comment on yesterday’s post about being stuck during a revision. I’ve been there — I’m sure we all have — and it can be so frustrating. You want to write, you want to fix the problem, but nothing seems to work.

As I told Islesam yesterday, I fell into this predicament when I was revising my first novel. The middle was way more than saggy — it had huge gaping holes. I tried loads of different ways of writing the scenes, but nothing worked, nothing felt right, and my characters didn’t help. I’d ask them what they’d do next and they’d just look back at me and shrug.

Like Islesam, I tried taking a break and started to write my current novel, but after a while, I went back to the first manuscript and was still no closer to a solution. I realized that, although taking a break from a manuscript can be good at times, like in between revisions, when you’ve got a problem, the only way to fix it is to hunker down, roll up your sleeves and sweat your way through it.

What finally worked for me was realizing why I was stuck. I couldn’t fix the middle because, even though I knew what the end of the story was, I couldn’t picture them both as a whole story. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

To help give myself a better view of the bigger picture — the whole story — and how each of the scenes in the book fit in, I made a timetable. I drafted out a calendar of sorts with just Sunday through Saturday and week 1, 2, etc. Then I put the chapter number(s) for scenes in the days when they occured. When I was done, I could more easily see what was missing and where my characters were going at each part.

Here are some other tricks for getting unstuck in a revision:

  • New POV: Whether you’re writing in first person or third, the chapter you’re working on is most likely in the view point of one character. Try writing the chapter you’re stuck on in the point of view of anything character in the scene. Looking through someone else’s eyes might give you some ideas.
  • New document: When you save your manuscript in a new document and then revise, you’re just reworking your old version and are influenced by the words in front of you. Try starting a blank document and writing the scene, chapter or even the whole book from scratch. Author Lisa Graff does this in her revisions. For her third book, Umbrella Summer, she wrote 18 full drafts in this way. Sometimes she will copy and paste older versions of paragraphs or scenes into the new document, but for the most part, she rewrites as if the story is new. Starting from the beginning again, whether for just a scene or for the whole book, but this time with the knowledge of the whole story in your head, can open you up to new details and allow your characters to show you new directions. This tool helps you be a writer again rather than an editor, as if you’re writing the first draft for the first time and allowing new ideas to flow.

How do you get unstuck in revisions?

Write On!

4 Responses

  1. Great post. Revision can be so tricky. Sometimes I’ve found that if I’m stuck rewriting a chapter and it’s just not working the problem is actually somewhere earlier in the novel. By going back a couple of chapters, I can see where I made the wrong turn, and then get back onto track.

  2. Great advice, Beverley. Thanks!

  3. Iapetus999 says:

    I can’t imagine re-writing a whole novel 18 times. I believe the first draft should be thrown out and rewritten from scratch, but after than it should be a matter of sharpening rather than wholesale revision.
    I think the rest of it is trying to find ways to make the conflict stronger. This doesn’t mean giving the characters bigger guns, but finding ways to make the events more important,

  4. I think you’re right, Iapetus999, but it’s whatever works for the writer. In those 18 drafts Lisa did, she said she changed the ending eight times. So, maybe it took those 18 drafts to get to the perfect ending. Our first ideas are never the most original ones. The more we dig into our ideas for a scene, the more original and fresh it becomes. And sometimes it’s those first few ideas that lead to that perfect one.

What do you think?