Play up your strengths.
Even more difficult than getting what’s missing from your manuscript onto the page is understanding what you do well, and doing more of it.
Most authors tend to repeat the mistakes that are evident in the first 50 pages, but they don’t necessarily replicate what works well early on. Why not? Probably because getting it right for most writers starts with not getting things wrong. They focus on weaknesses, not strengths.
In fact, authors often tell me that the very things they see as strengths in their manuscripts, the moments that made them feel like they’d accomplished something special or mastered a specific technique, are the very things that they believe cause them to be turned away by agents and publishers. No wonder they start playing it safe!
The truth is, if you’re at the last 10 percent stage, you are doing something right. You just haven’t taken it far enough. You may be doing all the right things, but you’re underplaying them or hoping that a sprinkling of good stuff will carry your reader along.
It isn’t enough simply to cut the things that don’t work. You’ve got to do more of what’s working. But how do you go from happy accidents to deliberate, authoritative techniques?
Start with a few simple questions: What is it that makes people respond so positively to a particular character or scene? Balancing action with emotion? A striking detail, comment or observation? A shock decision? Humor? Crisp dialogue? If you’re not sure, go back and ask your previous readers or critique partners.
Your task now is to recreate that feeling for readers time and time again. Take another look at your strongest scenes. List what works. Suppose, for instance, that your strongest scene enacts a strong change. Great. Work on that until every scene enacts a change that’s just as profound.
That said, you also want to make sure you don’t have a string of similar scenes in a row. Even established authors can fall prey to this trap. It’s an issue that routinely crops up in late-stage manuscripts. Watch out for scenes revolving around character introductions, backstory or people moving from one location to another without implementing change or renewing motivation.
Build-up scenes that promise we’ll learn something important about character or plot—eventually—can also make tension disappear. The problem with delay is that it often unnecessarily withholds information from the reader. What’s preventing you from deepening character, adding plot layers and complications, or paying off an earlier plot point right now? Is it really servicing the story not to play up these strengths every chance you get? Probably not.
Start with those scenes that have special significance to you. What’s the common thread in those scenes? A surprise? Something happening that in some way alters the character by the end of the scene? An unexpected gift? A moment of loss or acceptance?
Try a revision solely focused on enhancing the story’s existing strengths. You’ll be surprised at how much depth this adds to your novel—and how much bolder, braver and more purposeful a storyteller you’ll become.