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?

{ 23 comments }

Ashley Prince May 30, 2011 at 11:20 pm

I constantly want to toss my novel out. I read it and think the writing is just too basic and not descriptive enough. Or I think it’s too descriptive. 

Unfortunately I have a very bad of habit of throwing “failed” novels away. I won’t even bother saving them. This is something I am no longer doing, thanks to my husband. He is making me save everything I write. 

Personally, signs that my novels are “condemned” are when I can’t figure out my characters. I have a bad habit of knowing who they are in my mind, but not being able to get it out on paper. Also, when the plot just doesn’t “fit”. I don’t really know how to describe what I mean by that, but I promise it makes sense in my head.

Suzannah June 1, 2011 at 8:21 am

I hardly ever throw stuff out anymore, either. Mostly, it’s because I like to go back and see how much I’ve progressed, but a couple of times I’ve actually revived stuff I wrote years earlier. 

Ashley Prince June 1, 2011 at 9:39 pm

That’s one reason I decided to start saving mine again. I love the ideas that I had and I am hoping that I get more writing experience and tips to help me accomplish my ideas.

Dawnelliott10 July 8, 2011 at 3:59 am

I know just how you feel, I now have about fifteen on the go a once. Even the one that looked finished at first glance has had many make overs.

Julie May 31, 2011 at 2:13 pm

This a great article: so much information! Bookmarking it to come back to…

Suzannah June 1, 2011 at 8:21 am

Thanks, Julie!

Eva Porter May 31, 2011 at 3:53 pm

Thanks for the excellent recommendations.  I often feel that my plot is an issue; while I’m usually pretty secure about characterization, I often feel I don’t have anything for them to do but TALK! 

I’m hoping to utilize some of these suggestions to see what I have that can be rehabilitated.

Suzannah June 1, 2011 at 8:22 am

Plot is the hardest part for me, too, Eva. The writing itself is fine, but getting the story just right from beginning to end is tricky.

Gene Lempp May 31, 2011 at 5:17 pm

Great post and I think I’ve seen the house you described, pretty sure there are dozens in every city. Two more great structure sources are “Plot & Structure” by James Scott Bell and “Scene & Structure” by Jack M. Bickham. Combined with Larry Brooks, these three give excellent advice from the highest level of structure down to the smallest.

Suzannah June 1, 2011 at 8:22 am

Thanks for the recommendations, Gene! I’ve heard a lot about “Plot and Structure,” and have been meaning to pick up a copy for ages. 

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Melissa Lemon June 1, 2011 at 2:43 pm

Great concept and analogy!  Rewriting is hard, but necessary.  Throwing something out would be impossible for someone as tenacious as me.  Writing a story is a lot like architecture.  If something doesn’t work in the design process, you fix it until everyone is happy.  It takes feedback and compromise, but most buildings that go through the full design end up getting built.

Neha Garg June 2, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Grand article. I have felt that on occasion too. Glad to know I am not alone :)

In my experience, a novel was a tosser if thinking about the story gave me a headache instead of getting me excited!That said, I still love those old stories and have kept the manuscripts safe but a real story, something you know comes together in a proper plot structure will almost always be something that you want to see through to the end (and it won’t give you a headache every time you think about it). That’s how I began distinguishing between keepers and tossers.In addition, as Ashley says, you just cannot identify the character personalities and develop them.

http://scribbledesk.com/home/

Stephsco June 2, 2011 at 3:34 pm

Ever since I bought a condo almost 6 years ago, I still occasionally peruse the online real estate listings. I love it!
Your article struck a chord. I’m currently trying to identify what the issue is with my novel. I think I know, although I’m not sure how I want to approach fixing it. I’m going to look through those links. Thank you! I keep saying I have a great story to tell, it’s a matter of how to tell it.

PW Creighton June 2, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Why is it I keep envisioning Tom Hanks in ‘The Money Pit?’ There are so many times when you first write something you feel it’s fine until you take a step back and look at it. It may not look like much but the small things start to add up.  Great analogy.

Bewie June 6, 2011 at 5:47 am

Ah, what can I say. You are my savior. if I wasn’t read this article, maybe I had thrown my own story (again)

Tiger Gray June 15, 2011 at 10:20 am

I like to think there is no ms that must remain in the drawer forever. Maybe I am just not ready yet, not ready to tackle and execute my ideas. But there’s always the possibility I will be in the future, and the old ms will come out for a rewrite. 

Lkwatts June 15, 2011 at 12:19 pm

A very useful article to read, especially as I am changing genres now. It’s good to know what I need to consider before I start to plan.
http://lkwattsconfessions.blogspot.com

Brendakezar June 19, 2011 at 12:47 am

I am struggling through the revision of a novel that I am afraid is a “condemned novel.” Something’s just not quite right yet, but I can’t put my finger on what it is. But I’m not ready to give up on it yet (I quite enjoy banging my head against a brick wall, lol).

I’m going to try some of the tips you listed and see if I can get a better “view” of the problem. Thanks!

Anonymous June 19, 2011 at 11:32 am

I think every writer has moments when they look at thier work, look at the bin and see a  perfect match.   I’ve had a novel that has been worked and reworked for over fifteen years. It’s spent a great deal of that time in drawers and boxes, but it never would quit. I think now I have developed enough as a writer to do justice to it and am now writing what looks like the final draft.  Patience, persistence, support from fellow writers, and a complex set of notes and mind maps have kept it going every time. 

I have numerous drawer novels and I won’t go back to them simply because I am not the same woman that began the. I have grown and developed both as a person and as a writer, but they are all valuable experience, if only as an exercise in how not to do something and find I have never written such a turkey that there is not something,
if only one sentance, that can be salvaged and reworked elsewhere or provide the germ of an idea for a new piece of writing. But when it’s dead, it’s dead, whatever spark drew me to these chracters, this story, is burned out and I no longer “feel” the story so I am almost compelled to tell it.  When I feel that, it’s time to quit because all I do is waste time that could be better spent developing something else.

Michelle DennisEvans June 30, 2011 at 9:02 am

Excellent post! Thank you x

AJ Barnett November 16, 2011 at 6:40 pm

Some really useful advice here. I think all writers need an inbuilt shit-detector, and this is a good way of developing on.
Read AJ Barnett´s last article ..Inheritance

Kat February 8, 2012 at 12:08 pm

Number 3 tends to hit me hard sometimes: I’m generally quite confident in my structure and my premise but I just don’t feel like my writing is doing these justice. In fact, I can get downright negative because I’ve set the bar to high.

On that note, however, I do feel the need to add another method of diagnosis: someone else’s perspective. That way you don’t jump the gun and condemn your novel based on your own all-too-biased opinions. (Like I’ve nearly done.)

Thankfully, and I like how you pointed this out, I know deep down that first drafts do suck. So, I try not to condemn it before I’ve given it a good go. If I didn’t know that I probably would have condemned my novel a long time ago. :)

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