How Sick is Your Novel—Can It Be Saved?

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Army Medicine

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Army Medicine

Many writers struggle. We hate our beginnings, revisions are a nightmare and endings can fizzle. We work, rework, cry, try again and still don’t nail it. The second act sags and we start wondering if maybe we should reconsider learning medical billing instead of writing.  Yet, I do have good news. I’ve never worked with a dying patient manuscript that couldn’t be saved.

Granted, we might have to do massive reconstructive surgery, but I have yet to have a patient die on the table :).

I’ve been blessed enough to help countless writers see the story they were trying to tell all along….just couldn’t seem to execute. Often this is a perceptual problem.

We can be too close to our own work.

Also, remember, high school and college English classes aren’t preparation for understanding HOW to create a work spanning 60,000-110,00 words. I might be going out on a limb here, but MFA students aside, I doubt’ y’all ever wrote a paper longer than 50 pages (more like 20). So stop beating yourself up. You might just need a little training and surgical residency.

Let’s look at some reasons for the most common maladies that can kill novels.

Weak, Flawed or Unclear Story Problem

When we have a weak, confusing or flawed story, there’s no way to know where to begin or even end. Why? We don’t know where we’re going. There is a difference between a clever idea and a defined problem in need of solving.

A recent BBT Advanced student brought me book she’s been working on since the 90s. Why didn’t it work? She had a clever idea, not a strong plot problem (the heart was weak…ok not there).

The problem wasn’t big enough and worse, the story problem made the protagonist unsympathetic. The protagonist was part of a matriarchal society who essentially used men for the purposes of propagation only. The laws had been set that if a woman didn’t birth a female child by a certain age, then she’d lose everything and be banished.

Interesting premise, but then I spotted the problem…

The writer’s goal for the book was for the protagonist to have the law changed and extend the time she had to birth a child because she hadn’t found the “right guy” and didn’t want to be exiled.

Yet, my first comment after hearing her story idea was, “Um, but you’re essentially wanting us to sympathize with a reluctant sex-trafficking slave-owner whose biggest goal is to modify an inhumane law so she has more time to get preggo. And what is the Big Boss Battle? C-Span? She changes a law? Doesn’t seem terribly exciting.”

*Cues Schoolhouse Rock’s I’m Just a Bill*

Her answer? Wow, um didn’t see that.

Without this observation, the writer could have revised into 2020 and still not have a workable story, because the core was flawed (though pretty simple to repair). She was fixing ingrown toenails when the beating heart of the story was dead.

But, with these critical pieces of information, we could go back to the drawing board surgical table and make her character into a hero. Yes, the protagonist is born into this matriarchal society that uses men like human cattle, but WHY are they doing it? What started it? What are the consequences for a society like this? What happens if protag fails?

HOW do we make the protagonist into a person who dismantles the evil system and brings freedom and restores love?

By the end of our talk, the writer still had all the essential pieces of the story, but they’d been strengthened and put into proper order. Now she has the template for a three-book work that is heroic and that addresses problems as old as humans—freedom and love.

Strong beating heart.

More Problems

There are other problems that can create MAJOR pits of WIP death.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Sally Jean

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Sally Jean

Story SiameseTwins

We may be trying to make one book do too much (and it needs to be more than one book).

Story Anemia

Our story might be confusing or the premise too weak to support something novel-length.

Story Disfigurement

Events might be in the wrong order. How effective could we be with our legs growing out of our head? Same with stories.

These maladies can make revisions a living nightmare. How can we know what and where to cut? It’s like performing surgery with no diagnostic tools. We’re just opening the body and hoping we don’t cut out the wrong parts while leaving in the diseased ones.

Story Surgery

This is one of the reasons I run my Antagonist Class. One is coming up in three days (Sept. 20th) and this one is a early class, which is ideal for those who need a daytime class or for any of our overseas peeps.

I’m also offering an evening version on October 16th. These classes starts at a basic level $49 (webinar, recording and detailed notes) and go up to $249 (on the phone/in the digital classroom helping you plot a series or trilogy). Use WANA15 to get 15% off.

The extra levels are optional, of course, but it gives you time working with me, one-on-one to help build or repair your story problem and plot. Sometimes another set of (trained) eyes can really help. The added benefit is that once you’ve been through the process, you will have the skills to fix other unfinished works or start new ones the proper way.

Feel free to read craft books (which I recommend), but even if we only read four craft books, that’s almost 50 hours of reading time, instead of 2-4 hours with me talking specifically about your story and FIXING it.

With the skeleton created, the “Boys in the Basement” have something to work with and can come up with twists and turns, themes and subplots that only the subconscious can create.

Another Option

As y’all know, WANACon is coming soon. I’ve recruited the BEST of the BEST. Learn from the likes of Les Edgerton, NYTBSA Allison Brennan, Best-Selling Author Candace Havens, Award-Winning Author David Corbett and more. Twenty-seven sessions to help you grow in craft and social media from home and recordings are provided for free, which is essentially $5.50 a class. Check out the line-up HERE.

How to Triage Your Novel

I just work hard to give you guys as many cost-efficient tools as possible to make you the best writer you can be. To check the health of your story:


What is the CORE problem that will be solved in Act Three?

Can I state what my book is about in one sentence?

Does my book relate to larger human issues?

Is my protagonist sympathetic? Can we at least empathize?

What are the stakes? What happens if my protagonist FAILS? What will be the consequences not only for the protagonist, but the larger world around him/her?

How does my character change due to the plot problem? I.e. Slave-owner who mildly questions the ethics of her society to freedom fighter.

Am I generating drama or melodrama in each scene?

Some references to help you, Hooked (Les Edgerton), Scene and Structure (Jack Bickham), The Art of Character (David Corbett), The Writer’s Journey (Christopher Vogler), Save the Cat (Blake Snyder), Plot and Structure (James Scott Bell), Story Engineering (Larry Brooks), Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature & Purpose of Drama (David Mamet), Writing Screenplays that Sell (Michael Hague).

***NOTE: Two of these masters (Les Edgerton and David Corbett) will be presenting at WANACon.

Do you have a WIP on life-support? Have you ever resurrected a WIP from the dead? What did you do? What suggestions do you have?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of September, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

My new social media book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE. Only $6.99.


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  1. This really made me think about the ‘epic’ novel I’m working on. Thanks!

  2. I got the Les Edgerton book on your recommendation and read it through, post-it notes and highlighter in hand. I got a couple of the books HE recommended and did the same. As a result, I went back to the drawing board and moved what had been the opening to later in the book. I mulled for a week and finally wrote the perfect hook of an opening. This one little tidbit of advice improved my novel tremendously! Thanks!!

  3. Well, those are really good questions to ask about a WIP, and I need to sit down with your list to see whether my novel answers them to my satisfaction. I think the stakes are pretty high. But I can be wrong from time to time . . .

    Jan at Website
    Beyond Acadia
    Swamp Lily Review

  4. Awesome post, as usual – thank you!

  5. Haha, as a nurse and a writer, I feel a special appreciation for this one. Thanks Kristen!

  6. Great advice hear. I think I’m on the right track with my novel except I’m struggling to build back my motivation with each draft – the latest has been sitting around for almost the entire summer, which is now over. I know it’s good, but it’s my first novel and I lose momentum as I round the corner of each drafting step. I’m new to your blog so I don’t know if you address that issue somewhere here, but for now it didn’t hurt my motivation – it helped it – to read your advice on focusing more clearly on the story’s problem and how the character gets through it. Thanks. Looking forward to more.

  7. I wish I’d known this info early on with my first book. lol

  8. This made me mourn the WIP Kristen helped me bury after I took her Antogonist class. I still have too much work to do to get the “real” story we found walking tall (seems more like a zombie right now). I’m looking forward to motivation in the form of WANACon.

  9. I want to sign up for the Wanacon but have something going on from 10:00 am until 1:30 pm on Saturday October 5th.

    1. You get the recordings and we are about to offer a daily rate in case you just want one day, so you could get PajamaCon and Friday.

  10. Changing a law “not exciting?” But George Lucas made a whole movie about the “taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems” and it was… oh, that’s right it sucked. 🙂

    • Jane Sebok on September 17, 2013 at 1:36 pm
    • Reply

    Kristen, I read this blog with great interest. I’ve been struggling with the first book of a trilogy for quite some time. It started out as an epic-length work, but I was advised to shorten it and market it as a young adult work. Problem is – I’m just not sure what I’ve got. Your class sounds interesting, but I’m just not sure it’s for someone with an existing book. It sounds like it’s for someone outlining a new work. Tell me what you think.

    1. Actually, I can help you better with an existing work (if you are willing to slay Little Darlings). I can look at the pieces and “see” the story you are trying to tell. It gives me raw material to work with. So, no, it doesn’t make any difference. Just with a new work we don’t have to butcher villages of Little Darlings ;).

  11. I do this all the time. I send my work while i’m editing it to others for them to give me their opinion of it while i’m working on it. Often times I am too close to my work and need a fresh perspective. I have always lived by the two most devestating comments i can get are. “It is awesome” Or “It sucks” Because neither tell me anything about the vision I am working on as a whole. This is extremely helpful as always thank you.

    1. I do the same thing. I send my works to two writer/friend/editors who give me feedback on big picture concepts and character growth. My works would suffer without their help.

      1. Yep mine too.

  12. I rewrote a book 9 times while I was learning the craft, but I finally got the antagonist nailed down (the trouble was that I had 3–the rival, the bad, and the big bad), the hero’s goal working, and the main story problem addressed and solved by the climax. Now I do all that stuff in the outlining stage. I wish I’d found your blog way back when I was first learning–it’d have made things so much easier.

  13. Great post! I’m still performing triage, but I’m so much happier with the story. There are still a few things to work out and darlings to kill though…

    I’m so glad I took the BBT class. Thank you!

  14. Great post, as always Kristen. I really look forward to reading your blog each day.

    Since you brought it up, how about a blog about drama and melodrama?


  15. Great post Kristen. I really love how you explain things in a language and in a way even I can understand and you don’t beat around the bush to do it.

    • sao on September 18, 2013 at 3:59 am
    • Reply

    Yes, I had a few plots up my sleeve that turned out to be missing a core conflict. And I’ve read a few WIPs with fundamental problems. I think one of the most important bits of advice for a writer is to listen to criticism with an open mind. Just because someone tells you something you really don’t want to hear doesn’t mean they are wrong.

  16. I think I need to do a wall poster with “What are the stakes?!” about 4″ high… thanks, as ever!

  17. I continue to read your blog and find inspiration each time. Thanks for being there and giving us new ideas!

  18. Quick question, maybe this is a separate post. I think I need help knowing when to bring outside help into my work. Like, I am reworking first drafts, but when have I spent too long looking at it myself?

  19. I’ll be seeing you friday! 😀

    • brookeyt on September 18, 2013 at 3:23 pm
    • Reply

    Thanks for the book suggestions. That is very helpful.

  20. Thanks for the question at the end! I’ll be sure to mark those down and as myself all of them. 🙂

  21. This is one of those posts I’m going to have to come back to and think over some more. Thanks for the diagnostic tools!

  22. Thank GODS I found this — there was something niggling at me through the first 25000 of my WIP, and now I know exactly what it is: Weak heart.

  23. Ah, yes, I was re-reading PLOT & STRUCTURE the other day and had an epiphany. No wonder that section wasn’t working! It is a pain to replot a novel, but it’s far worse to keep trimming at the edges and never letting the story unfold the way it should. Great reminder, Kristen!

    • Disciple of Night on September 26, 2013 at 1:35 pm
    • Reply

    I think I’m going to enjoy this blog. Fingers crossed for the drawing.

  24. Reblogged this on Sophia Kimble.

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  5. […] Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of Army Medicine Many writers struggle. We hate our beginnings, revisions are a nightmare and endings can fizzle. We work, rework, cry, try again and still don’t nail it.  […]

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