Skip to main content

How to Resurrect a Stalled Manuscript

Is your manuscript stuck? Take a break from completing your fiction project and diagnose it. Here's how to take your manuscript into its next phase: completion.

Are you working on a nonfiction writing or fiction writing project that needs the mirror test just to see if it’s still breathing? If so, take a break from completing fiction projects. Hit the “Save” button; file it under “manuscript drafts.” Then check out these three prescriptions to help resurrect a stalled project. Which one does your book need? Take the time to diagnose it now, and you’ll be primed to take a healthy manuscript into its next phase: completion.

Do your homework.

Sometimes our narratives flounder under their own ignorance. The writing turns insipid because we simply don’t know enough about our subject. When this happens, be ready to put the writing on temporary bed rest and plan how you will get more information. I’m not talking a quickie Wikipedia search—I’m talking a solid research strategy, complete with a list of sources, including the people you may need to interview.

For example, if your main character is a landscaper, it may be time to consult your Yellow Pages to set up some informational interviews or job-shadowing. Writing a family memoir? Check out the hours at the local museum or the archives at your public library to deepen the historical context of your family story. Ask family members you have already interviewed who else you should talk to: Is there someone in the extended family who can enrich the story?

Ramping up the research can unearth some fascinating details, or it can help you to understand your characters—fictional or real—in a whole new way. (A word of caution about research versus writing, though: As you line up your sources and set your research timeline, also set a date by which you’ll finish researching and return to the actual writing.)

Heighten the conflict.

Fact or fiction, short story or novel, every story is about conflict. The conflict is the fulcrum on which the story tips, rises and finds its balance. Some conflicts are big and loud and bloody (Braveheart). Others are quiet and small and introspective (Mrs. Dalloway).

Large or small, true or made up, your story’s narrative tension derives from the fact that two people, two sets of sensibilities or two life situations are at odds with each other. Have you spent the last six months with a huge, unwieldy draft that’s gotten away from you? To revive your project, play the “What if?” game to heighten the stakes. How can you wiggle those opposing points of conflict just one step further apart? Let’s say the story is about how Mary and John are getting divorced because they’ve fallen out of love. Sad? Yup! Exciting story? Ho-hum. Now, what if their marriage is ending because … wait! … John is actually having an affair with Mary’s sister? OK. Does that unlock your plot a little? How about if John is actually having a secret affair with Mary’s brother? You get the point. By raising the tenor of the conflict, your story can suddenly sing.

Mix up your writing.

I often envy those über-specialized writers who have found and excelled in a single, distinct genre. But the envy only lasts as long as it takes me to get a new idea and start a new gig—often in a completely different genre.

Switching genres and narrative voices—from fiction to nonfiction, from witty to somber, from short stories to novels—gives you more toys in the toy box … enough that you never get bored or cranky.

So, if the end of the year finds your self-esteem flagging on your current project, try something in a whole new genre. Dabbling in another form can jump-start new ways of using language, structuring plots, looking at characters. Think of it as teaching yourself to write with your left hand or taking a different route home. You may eventually go back to your habitual genre, but you’ll go back with a whole new insight or approach. Or, who knows? You may discover that you are bi-textual and enjoy writing in two voices and for separate markets. Regardless, it’ll give you a fresh approach to that project you’re stuck on.

Also, if you find yourself trudging through a long, unwieldy project, taking a little time out to write something short and different can provide you with a short-term reward as well as a much-needed sense of completion.

Get the daily jolt of energy your writing life needs from:


The Writer's Workout

Become a WD VIP and Save 10%:
Get a 1-year pass to, a 1-year subscription to Writer’s Digest magazine and 10% off all orders! Click here to join.

Also check out these items from the Writer’s Digest’s collection:
Writer’s Digest Weekly Planner
Writer’s Digest No More Rejections
Writer’s Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Scene & Structure

Writer’s Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Description
Writer’s Digest Elements Of Writing Fiction: Characters & Viewpoint

Writer’s Digest How to Land a Literary Agent (On-Demand Webinar)
Writer’s Digest Magazine One-Year Subscription
Writer’s Digest 10 Years of Writer’s Digest on CD: 2000-2009

From Script

Adapting True Crime and True Stories for Television (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by Script magazine, exclusive interviews with writers and showrunners Robert Siegel and D.V. DeVincentis (“Pam & Tommy”), Patrick Macmanus and Liz Hannah (“The Girl from Plainville”) who both have taken creative liberties in adapting true stories for a limited series.

Chanel Cleeton: On Reader Enthusiasm Conjuring Novel Ideas

Chanel Cleeton: On Reader Enthusiasm Conjuring Novel Ideas

Author Chanel Cleeton discusses how reader curiosity led her to write her new historical fiction novel, Our Last Days in Barcelona.

Writer's Digest Interview | Marlon James Quote

The Writer's Digest Interview: Marlon James

Booker Prize–winning author Marlon James talks about mythology and world-building in his character-driven epic Moon Witch, Spider King, the second book in his Dark Star Trilogy in this interview from the March/April 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: New Podcast Episode, a Chance at Publication, and More!

This week, we're excited to announce our newest podcast episode, your chance to be published, and more!

David Adams Cleveland: On Truth Revealing Itself in Historical Fiction

David Adams Cleveland: On Truth Revealing Itself in Historical Fiction

Award-winning novelist David Adams Cleveland discusses the timeliness of his new novel, Gods of Deception.

Lisa Jewell | Writer's Digest Interview Quote

The WD Interview: Lisa Jewell

The New York Times-bestselling British author discusses creating thrilling plot twists and developing characters in her 19th novel, The Night She Disappeared, in this interview from the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.

5 Tips for Successfully Pitching Literary Agents in Person (That Worked for Me at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference)

5 Tips for Successfully Pitching Literary Agents in Person (That Worked for Me at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference)

Author Anat Deracine found her agent at Writer’s Digest Annual Conference. Now she’s sharing what she’s learned to help other writers become authors. Here are her 5 tips for successfully pitching literary agents in person.

Tips for Reading Poetry in Front of an Audience

8 Tips for Reading Your Poetry in Front of an Audience

Poet's Market editor and published poet Robert Lee Brewer shares eight tips for reading your poetry in front of an audience.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Strength Lost

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Strength Lost

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, let a character lose their powers.