Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Does your manuscript need book surgery?

by Stephanie Morrill

"I don't like your main character. At all. I found her really annoying, actually. Sorry."

That's how the agent's rejection email for Me, Just Different read. And it wasn't too much of a surprise because my manuscript had just bombed a contest for the same reason - Skylar was unlikable. Not the type of character you wanted to spend a ton of time with.

For a few weeks, I indulged in inner protests that Skylar was supposed to be unlikable, that if the story was going to be about her reinventing herself, she had to start as someone who needed reinvention. But the evidence had piled up against me - three judges in ACFW's Genesis contest and a literary agent were all in agreement. She was a pain in the butt.

I shelved the manuscript, figuring I'd cut my losses and move on with other easier-to-like main characters.

But Skylar wouldn't quite let go of me. Despite her pain in the butt qualities (or maybe because of them) I missed her. I needed a way to drum up some sympathy for her. After some brainstorming, I decided Skylar needed a reason that she didn't want to be around boys and a reason to start dating her boyfriend. What I landed on was a near date rape, from which she was rescued by the guy who becomes her boyfriend.

I figured I'd open the story with that (or the morning after, to be more specific) and then I could proceed with the story as planned. It seems incredibly obvious to me now that an author can't casually toss in a main-character-barely-escaping-date-rape plot, but it wasn't obvious at the time.

I rewrote my opening scene, slapped it in the front of the manuscript ... and realized (or admitted to myself) that this wasn't as simple as adding a scene, that book surgery was required.

I've had to do book surgery a few times now, and here are somethings I've learned:

Every original scene must be examined

Book surgery means you are doing something major to your manuscript. Not just beefing up a plot line or fleshing out sensory details, but stuff that affects the story as a whole. To seamlessly weave in the new stuff, you'll have to look at every scene and reconsider it. Factoring in the new plot, would this still happen? Would the character still feel this way?

I've found the easiest way for me to do this is to write out all the current scenes in the book on one color of index card, and then the scenes that I know are going to be added on another. The result is something like this:

Purple was for current scenes and green was for additions. Also I flagged some of the purple scenes were I could tell major revisions would be needed. Not sure one that lone yellow one is. Alternate idea, maybe?
You could do the same thing in a spreadsheet, but I like the visual overview that the colored index cards give.
Examine the story calendar

For all my stories, I keep a calendar that looks like this:

The reason I do that is because my book surgery for Me, Just Different resulted in chapter three taking place in October and chapter four taking place in September. And it was my sweet editor at Revell who pointed it out to me.

So I learned that after the surgery is complete, double checking the calendar will save my editor some work.

Things you love will die

I have two big book surgeries under my belt now, and with both manuscripts I had to cut scenes and plot lines that I loved to make room for the new, better material. With the most recent one (something still unpublished) I was really struggling with the ending. In the original manuscript, the book ended with my main character moving to Kansas. In the revised version, the book also ended with my main character learning her book was going to be published. I was really struggling to make everything fit, when it dawned on me that I had warring endings. It made no sense to keep them both!

It was such a relief to discover why the book wasn't working, that I felt happy to ax my character being Kansas-bound. Though doing so also meant axing the 25,000 words I'd written of book two. Sigh.

But how do you know when book surgery is worth it or when you should scrap a project? There's no firm answer on this, sadly, but I think putting something away for a period of time is a decent test. I have a couple completed manuscripts that I put away when I realized they needed serious surgery. I've never felt much of a longing to pull them back out. Yet with Skylar, it had been in my "Retired Manuscripts" folder for about a month, but I was still thinking about her. I knew then that the extra work was worth it.

Other posts you might find helpful:


  1. Wow, this was exactly what I needed. My sometimes, partial, editor/teacher/mentor Ms. Whately was telling me about how my MC was in the dangerzone reguarding annoying-ness. I had to put her away for a few months, but you're right- she was always nagging the back of my mind, asking to be let back out. I guess now this means she's a keeper. I couldn't be more happy about that, either. She might be annoying, but I still love her, and I want to make everyone else love her too.

    Thank you for the incredibly insightful and much-needed post!

  2. awesome Stephanie! I'll definitely have to try the post it notes! I'm guessing my book will need book surgery ;) I guess I will find out soon. Thanks for the post!

  3. *sigh* Book surgery is hard. I don't think I have one scene from the first draft in the final product. I think it's good, though. :) I think the story is better, and I'm more attached to my characters, now, even if my MC, Ryan, is a PITB (Pain In The Butt), too. :D

  4. I've been giving my characters backstory sugery! The result is what will be a much stronger story. :D

  5. Was Genesis scary? I've been thinking about it for next year.

    I'm totally feeling overwhelmed right now. I did my first read through & thought "this isn't as bad as I was expecting". Now I have to beef it up because it's only 30k. I followed this method

    I haven't known what to do since? Yesterday was a meltdown day. Then I decided I go to the begining of your "writing a novel" & see if I have all the first draft pieces there and if not I'll figure out how to add them and then I'll move on to the editing part.
    Sorry for babbly, but I think it is going to need surgery,

    1. At the time, entering Genesis seemed a bit scary ... but to be honest, I'm really not sure why I was nervous about it. I've been a judge a couple times now, so maybe that's why my perspective has changed. Even if you bomb it, it's a private bombing because your name is concealed from the judges. I'm sure there's an exception to this, but the judges are honest but kind. They're writers too. They have no motivation for humiliating you. When I can tell an entry I'm judging isn't going to final, I try to provide several concrete things they can work on to improve their writing so I can make their entry fee worth it.

      I skimmed the article you mentioned and put it in my, "Read later" file. Looks like a good one! It's easy to get overwhelmed with editing - remember to start with the big stuff. You don't have to fix it all at once, just one bit at a time.

  6. I'm giving my story surgery right now. So far it hasn't been too bad, but I know there are a couple spots coming up that are going to need a major work-over.

  7. I think my biggest surgery to date (other than totally rewriting for a new setting), was thanks to my editor at Summerside. She first wanted me to change the circumstances in which she fled her home, which obviously required changing every reference to said circumstance. Then she asked me to beef up a secondary character I'd only mentioned once--resulting in her taking on such major roles that I couldn't think why in the world I didn't give her a bigger part to begin with, LOL. But yes, I needed to examine every scene to make sure the threads were pulled tight all the way through. And boy was it fun. =)

  8. I think I'm going to give mine up, at least for now. I've only had the first draft completed for a few weeks, though. I'll see. This was perfect timing, though.

  9. Oh, this was so good. At first I read that opening sentence and went, "No way, how could anyone ever say that." Then I realized it was pre-surgery, soooo. :) {Also, I thought at first that this was about hiring a book doctor.}

    So now that I know just what this is about, oh, it brings back memories! My first novel was actually a revision of a short story, so I can relate to all the stuff being added, etc. Although it took me months to wade through all that needed to be done...because I didn't go about it as organized as you did. :)

  10. I totally know that feeling. For me, it's usually determined by how far into a new book I am. I'm cautious when it comes to characters, because I myself hate reading about snarky, sarcastic girls (first-world problems?), so it doesn't happen often. But when it does, it's terrible--I'm a slow writer, and having to perform book surgery after a decent word count makes me queasy.

  11. I think the hard part of book surgery is having the courage to throw out parts of your story. No-one likes taking out that 'killer' word, paragraph or scene. That's pretty TOUGH stuff and I paricularly struggle with that. I'm too obsessed with my words and changing huge bits like that scares me - A LOT! :)
    Even the editing process makes me nauseous and I'm too afraid to cut out parts of my story - and it doesn't help that I'm really slow at writing! Your post has some great tips, Stephanie!

    Anyways, thank you for the fresh post! :)

  12. Thank you for the post. I like your stick notes wall. I have a similair collage in my room but it is for chemistry, not writing. Saddness. :(