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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.

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