Fixing A Fatal Flaw / The Novel

by Ron Samul 
In this post, I would like to consider what writers should do if they realize that there is a considerable problem with their novel. It happens and sometimes, it can cripple the way you look at the novel or short story. At some point, it all went to crap and you have to either drop it in the wastebasket or deal with the issue. Writing a novel is hard work and it takes time and creativity to make it work. Part of what sets good writers apart from the rest is how they face adversity. Here are some things to consider. 

1) Can you identify the problem? 
This can be a challenge. Sometimes, the problem is complex or compounded by a few things. So, it is important to value your creative process, but it is also important to look for the flaws in your writing. Is it a character? Is it a plot twist? Is the location (setting)? Is it motivation? Conflict?

If you want to go with the gut check – go back to the pages where you were happy or felt like you had something special. Find the place where that feeling stops. And that is where you need to look. 

I remember writing about 90 pages and cutting all the way back to page 30 because I was just frustrated with the direction. I went back and tried it again. 

It also helps me to keep a writing journal – a log of my writing thoughts. It doesn’t have anything but the project. These entries help shape my next moves, my ideas, and connects my own motives for adding and subtracting things. This might be a good way to create low-stakes writing when you are stuck or looking for an issue. 

Sometimes, you just can’t define the problem. It is around this time that writing goes from the creative, inspiring art that you love, to the hard and sometimes oppressive work that you dread. Every novel has those moments of complete hopelessness. This is where lesser writers hang it up. This is where your talent, creativity, and your perseverance needs to master the art of writing. The craft starts when inspiration is gone. 

If you are stuck, then you need to find someone to help you find the problem. 

2) Have a core reading crew that you trust. 
If you can’t find an issue or where the story went south, then create a small group of readers who can look around for you. This is akin to working on a car for awhile and getting stuck. You invite a few buddies over and they look over the engine and sip a few beers. Then they say, you do have gas in the tank right? And that panic

cuts right through you. If you aren’t ready to show your work, then you have to find your own issues. But if you have a few reader that will take the time and give you good first impressions, they might be able to define some issues that will guide you back. 

Pick readers who are versatile. You don’t want readers who are the same. You want a good plot person, and a good character person, maybe a good line editor, and one crazy person who gets your view of the world. They all don’t have to read it, but pick the readers who might help the most. The hardest part: listening to their advice. 

When a reader takes some time to read pages for you — then listen. Don’t defend, don’t get bent out of shape about the feedback. It takes some practice but listen. More importantly, ask good questions. What did you think might happen after chapter one? How did you see the antagonist by the third chapter? Where did you disengage? 

Once you have the feedback, don’t make changes right away. Take the feedback. Sit on it for awhile, let it bake in your head. Reread their comments, think about what they said. Try to be objective and don’t take it personally. (Harder than you think, I know). Then start making shifts and adjustments. In the end, you don’t have to change anything, but if you know you have a problem and you are looking for a solution — change is coming anyway. Why not hear it from the most trusted readers you know. 

3) Read books like your book. 
This may not solve your problem, but it might inspire you to see how other writers deal with some of the issues you are working on. For example, if you are writing murder mysteries, you might seek out books like yours and see where you liked the moves that were made. Maybe you like the protagonist and you want to rebuild your character a bit more. 

I also read those silly MasterPlots books in the library. Basically, they are overviews of novels, plays, and short stories. I read them and listen to the simplicity of some of the great novels and stories. I look for the twist or the elements that are important. Similar to Occum’s Razor – often the simple and refined stories are the stories that make the most impact. By looking at them objectively in a reference book, you can see the refined simplicity and see if you can boil down your own ideas to one or two simple strands. 

You are writing a novel and you are stuck – this is where it gets good. You have skills, the ability, the support, and the internet to resolve your issues. Use the tools out there and keep writing. When you leave something for too long, it is hard to get back into it. Continue to think, write, and create even when you are stuck on something.  Don’t give up. Even if you can’t create new pages, work on research, find readers, or write in a writing journal to document what you are thinking. It is all important and it is all very serious. It should be very important for you to get on track again. Get to work and use the tools and abilities that you have worked so hard to acquire. 

— 2016 Ron Samul 

The Beginning of the End

The whole idea of writing a novel can be intimidating. Let’s face it, we all know that writing is work and writing a novel can be compared to building a skyscraper. It is a good idea to have some character sketches, outlines, plot ideas, and maybe some themes floating around in your brain before you start your novel. For me, it takes more than just a basic skeleton to begin writing. I never start writing a novel until I have an ending. I know, you might be saying – I don’t have a beginning, how am I going to come up with an ending? Don’t panic. Knowing the ending will help you develop convincing story and significant plot.

E. M. Forrester explains story as a linear tool or what happens next. The reader will then ask – what happens next? Plot is not based on time, but on characters. The reader will ask – why? The difference is time sequence verses character desires and motivations. Among the many constructs that an ending may provide for you in the beginning, these two elements are important. Yes, writing a novel is exploration. Yes, writing a novel will take a shell of a character and fill it up completely, so that they will actually begin to function outside your wishes and desires. And you should be listening intently. But, they can’t move blindly. We must make our characters move somewhere logically. That is why knowing your ending will strengthen story, plot and character motivation.
If you are writing historical fiction, memoirs, or non-fiction, you might have a series of factual events from research that dictates your plot and final scene selection. When I was writing the historical account of Harriet Quimby, the first woman pilot to gain her aviation license, I knew the ending – I just had to get there. When I wrote the second novel which was entirely fiction, like a vision, I saw the ending very clearly. Knowing exactly where I was going made the scenes and plot tangible, giving me room to think of some of the higher constructs of the novel, like theme, subplots and hidden conflicts. Let’s look at character, setting and writer comfort with this strategy of writing to a known ending in mind.
The importance of seeing that ending clearly gives your characters direct desire and motivation that relates to those final scenes. In fact, you may realize, as you write, that they have conflicting desires and motivations concerning the ending – but that is what makes clear and meaningful plot twists and good storytelling. It won’t happen automatically, but as you project an ending and move your characters to it – the novel will move toward a purpose. It is similar to imposing an unforeseen fate upon them. Be sure to develop your characters to fulfill the ending scene and see it through. In Moby Dick, Ahab is driven by his loss and revenge to face the white whale and we expect nothing less by the time we get there. Did we ever think that he wasn’t going to find the white whale? Of course not.
The next element that is set right by knowing the end of your novel is the structure of your setting. Knowing the end, you can begin to construct locations and significant detailing for this ending to play out on. If you are going to have a barn fire at the end of your novel – then you need a country side, a farm, and yes, a barn. By knowing this ahead of time – it helps you build these elements in as you write. Setting is more than just scenery in many great novels and writing. Knowing where and how you will get to the end will define the construction you will use. You have so much to do when you start a novel, explain characters, define time and setting, establish plot, have a decent voice, the right point-of-view – to name a few – that it is important to flush as many of these elements as possible and direct them to your established ending.
Defining a clear ending will help you mentally as a writer. Having a sense of the ending makes it clear in your mind where you are at any given time in your novel. If you are writing a normal novel of 300 pages and you get to page 100, you have completed a third of the novel. This is a time to check and make sure you are where you hoped to be when you wrote the first paragraph. This will keep you on track and give you some indicators as to your scope and time remaining. My first novel was a gluttonous 530 pages. It came from a lack of experience and an attempt to write two books when I only needed one. My second novel was a brilliant 252 pages and it was a perfect length. I knew the ending and went to it without changing course too often. Mentally, as a writer, you have to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I must say that this method works for me. In the early stages of writing a novel-length project, I have a very difficult time writing outlines and character sketches because I feel that I don’t know my characters and motivations well enough. However, having an overall novel concept and an ending helps me define the answer to the questions I am about to put to my characters. That’s not to say that once you get to know your characters that you won’t modify the ending a bit; you probably will to keep your character’s motivations and desires in proper order.
If you can’t see the ending or a series of scenes that would conclude your novel project, then perhaps you’re not ready to write just yet. Once you write a novel, you will start to think, like any other writing form, about how to make another one. I do it by discovering great characters and defining where they are at the end of the novel (which includes people who are dead, alive, angry, confused, happy, miserable, satisfied or triumphant) and writing to that moment. If that final scene inspires you, makes you cry, makes you angry, makes you feel alive: that’s when you’ve got it. You will write to it. Don’t forget, by the time you write your characters and story to the known end, it will be stronger, filled with emotion and meaning. You will know your characters and their desire, you will have defined a sequence and a strong plot. And that end, like fate, will draw your characters quickly along to the end, like it was meant to be. It always was.

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