Thursday, June 3, 2010

Lawn Care and Fixing Your Manuscript - Part 2

The other day as I worked on my lawn to figure out why a small patch wasn’t growing very well, I discovered a rock just a few inches below the surface. As I peeled more and more lawn away, I discovered it was a huge rock. In fact it was a three foot boulder. I spent the day digging around it and eventually pulled it out with a giant crowbar, a tow chain and my truck.

Sometimes our stories are like that too. The small problems we see on the surface might actually be a symptom of a more significant foundational problem that can take a lot of work to fix. For example, a number of years back I wrote a middle grade fantasy novel that garnered interest from a few editors, but not to the point where I received any offers. I thought that was about to change with one editor who praised it up and down. Some of the other editors at the house thoroughly enjoyed it as well, but it hit a road block when it reached the head honcho at the publisher. The final comment came back saying even though we loved your writing, we felt the novel wasn’t quite original enough.

That response really took me by surprise. I couldn’t figure out what they were talking about. The magic system was very original. The characters were very original. The story line was very original. What did they mean? I had to dig deeper to figure out what they were talking about and as I did I realized that I had some key foundational plot elements that had become cliché in the fantasy genre. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a quick fix. It would require some major re-landscaping of the plot, storyline, and character to fix it.

The point is that you can’t ignore what might seem on the surface to be just a small problem. If in the eyes of your critique group and readers everything in your story seems great except for a few minor things, fix the minor things. They might be symptoms of something bigger. If you’re getting rejections—even if they’re encouraging, personalized rejections—try to discover ultimately why your story is getting rejected and remedy it. Sometimes you need to dig deep below the surface to find out what’s holding your story back. If you’re lucky it still might only need a few tweaks. If not, be prepared to get your hands dirty and do what it takes to make it work.


  1. Condolences on the boulder and the fantasy manuscript. That originality factor is difficult in any genre but especially in speculative genres where readers are expecting something they've not seen before.

    I'm writing a sci-fi middle grade novel and it's amazing how many times a critique partner says "oh, yeah, that's just like how it happens in xyz movie." I never saw xyz movie, probably because it was rated R, and I feel deflated because I thought I had an original idea, but no. *sigh*

  2. Just read this article on common mistakes fiction writers make:

    Mistake #1 is the derivative story idea, which reminded me of your post. It has some good ideas for avoiding the "unoriginal sin."

    The whole article is interesting, really. Esp the part about underdeveloped themes. I think I make that mistake.

  3. Lana, thanks for sharing the link. It's a nice article.