3 Signs You’re Renovating a Condemned Novel

by Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Door to condemned house

I’ve always loved looking at real estate. There’s just something about picturing yourself in different homes that opens your mind to the many different possibilities your future could hold.

A few days ago, I was looking at a local house advertised on the internet. The photos were inside shots only, of what appeared to be a completely renovated character home. The hardwood floors had been sanded and refinished, the walls had been painted a warm taupe, and the kitchen and bathroom cupboards were brand new. Seemed like a decent place.

Then I looked up the address using good-ol’-Google Maps, so I could see what this home looked like from the outside.

I was shocked. I double checked the address to be sure I hadn’t made a mistake.

From the exterior, the house looked like it could be pushed over with one finger. The front steps were crooked, the paint was peeling, the roof and windows needed to be replaced, the yard was in disarray, and the street was in a busy, undesirable location.

I realized then that the owners of the house had just slapped on some paint and some new cupboards for a quick sale. Even though the picture shown on Google Maps was probably older, and the exterior may also have been renovated before sale, I couldn’t help thinking that underneath the facade, the foundation was likely crumbling.

Fixer-Upper or Condemned Manuscript?

The desire to finish a novel is huge. That’s why a lot of us end up trying to micro-edit too soon—that is, before taking care of all the macro-editing.

The problem is, I have a tendency to move on to the next stage too soon when I subconsciously know there’s something fundamentally wrong with my story. It’s as if I can push those thoughts out of my head, as long as I feel like I’m still progressing in some way.

Hey, maybe your novel is just a fixer-upper.

Years ago, when my Dad was looking for a new home, I went along with him. We toured some places that really gave me the creeps, and some that just weren’t suited. Eventually, we found the perfect one: a solid little house with floral wallpaper, green linoleum floors, and the distinct odour of old lady.

There’s a chance your novel isn’t ready to be condemned. Maybe it’s just the kind of place that’s fundamentally solid, but needs a good coat of paint and some new fixtures.

Then again, maybe there are more serious problems with your work-in-progress.

Are you busy smoothing your prose or line editing your manuscript, but all the while you still suspect one of the following:

  1. Your story structure is flawed. You know your story structure is off, but you can’t figure out how to fix it without going back and changing the plot, to the point of rewriting most of the manuscript.
  2. Your premise is flawed. You had a premise that seemed great when you started writing, but somewhere along the line you realized your premise cannot, for whatever reason, work. Maybe it’s an error in logic as the result of not planning your story ahead of time.
  3. Your novel will never be what you want it to be. No matter what you do to it, deep down, you know this novel can never be what you envisioned when you started writing it. A big part of you is ready to give up on the project, especially if you have an idea for what you perceive to be a better novel.

If you suspect your novel is truly condemned to an eternity in a drawer, there’s still one strategy left to try:

Stop ignoring the problem.

Figure out what the problem is, then rebuild your manuscript from the bottom up.

Diagnosing the Problem with Your Novel

It would be great if we’d wake up in the morning one day and just know what’s wrong with our works-in-progress. Rather than sitting around for that unlikely event, why not try the following strategies?

  • Shrunken Manuscript Technique. A technique that advises you to shrink your manuscript into a very small font, and eliminate white space, so you can see your story as a whole (now around 30 pages in length).
  • The Single Most Powerful Writing Tool You’ll Ever See That Fits On One Page. A printable list of questions to help you focus your story structure and characterization. If you can’t answer one of these questions, you’ll immediately know that’s one of the problems.
  • Read Your Story Aloud. Use your computer to record yourself reading your biggest problem spots aloud, then transfer to your mp3 player. You’ll be amazed what you find when it sounds like someone else is reading you the story.
  • Working Backward to Flesh Out Your Plot. Three questions to help you work from the mid-point of your story backward, so you can increase the tension and flesh out the characters.
  • Transfer It to Scrivener. Plug your manuscript into a dedicated writing program like Scrivener, where you can break down your story into chapters or scenes, easily shuffle things around, and create outlines of your story. Like Shrunken Manuscript Technique, it’s a great way to visualize your story as a whole, and get organized.

I also highly recommend Larry Brooks’s Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing. It’s really helped me better understand story structure and the three dimensions of character. Nail Your Novel by Roz Morris is also an invaluable guide for getting your story right without a fight.

[You can find more great advice from both Larry Brooks and Roz Morris at their blogs, Storyfix and Nail Your Novel, respectively.]

First drafts are meant to be sloppy, but cosmetic problems are easily fixed. It’s the foundations of your story that need to be solid before you move on to making your novel a thing of beauty.

How often during the writing process do you feel your novel should be tossed? How many ‘drawer novels’ have you written?

What other signs do you think make a novel ‘condemned’ to failure? What strategies have helped you diagnose and fix the problems with your work in the past?

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