Monday, June 15, 2009

Can This Manuscript be Saved? Susan Meier

Good morning…afternoon…or evening!

I’m Susan Meier. I’ve written over forty books for Harlequin and Silhouette but most of you know me as a workshop speaker…especially an online speaker. CAN THIS MANUSCRIPT BE SAVED is my most popular workshop.

I think there are two reasons for that. First, the material for this class came from my own blood, sweat and tears as I learned how to write AFTER I got published. I’m not exactly proud of that (LOL!!!) but because I did learn all this stuff by working with editors YOU get the benefit of editorial noodle whipping without having to submit bad manuscripts and taking the lashing!

Second, I think all of us have a manuscript somewhere that’s “broken” and we don’t know how to fix it!

So here is the very, very, very condensed version of CAN THIS MANUSCRIPT BE SAVED.

There are seven common reasons books get rejected:

1. Doesn’t fit our line/Isn’t right for the publisher to which it was submitted
2. Not enough emotion (too much emotion/romance if it’s going mainstream or single title)
3. Pacing off/bad
4. Tone wrong
6. No conflict/weak conflict
7. Weak story

Unfortunately, those are only symptoms of what’s wrong with your book. Think of going to the doctor. You go in. You say, I have a fever, body aches and I’m throwing up. He doesn’t say, “Oh! You have fever, body-aches and puke disease.” He says, “You have a virus.”

That’s one of the most important things about figuring out what’s wrong with your book. Most of us deal in symptoms and forget the disease. So what does a book “disease” look like?

Well, we write on 3 levels…Story, Scene and Word. You tell a story using scenes and you create scenes with words. Those are the main entry points to fixing (or writing) a book. So if something is wrong with your book, it’s either a story problem, a scene problem or a word problem.

Let’s take them one at a time.

Your story is your premise, (forgiveness is hard, opposites attract, boss falls in love with his secretary, older man falls in love with younger woman, hero and heroine must catch a killer) coupled with your characters’ goals, motivations and conflicts. (i.e.: The hero and heroine must find a killer, but she’s already been charged with the murder and he’s the DA prosecuting her.)

If you’re getting rejections saying, “I wasn’t wowed by this story.” Or “It was okay.” Or…shudder… “It didn’t make sense.” “I didn’t believe the hero would behave that way.” “Hero (or heroine’s) motivation was off.” “The main characters goals weren’t compelling.” You have a story problem.

To fix a story problem, you don’t jump into the manuscript and start changing things willy nilly! You first create a story summary which includes your story’s premise coupled with your characters’ goals motivations and conflicts. You change this SUMMARY first. Then when you jump into the book you have a plan for what the NEW VERSION should look like. This summary will keep you on track but also show you what can stay the same. And sometimes, knowing what NOT TO CHANGE is every bit as important as knowing what to change!

How about scenes? Well, the purpose of a scene is to illustrate a journey step. Journey steps are the steps it takes to take hero and heroine from chapter one – the introduction of terrible trouble, the day/moment everything changed, the inciting incident – to the satisfying conclusion.

Poorly written scenes, scenes in the wrong order and scenes without purpose can cause poor pacing.

Jack Bickham and Dwight Swain give us a magic formula for plotting – which is combining story with scenes. That formula is action/reaction/decision. For every action there is a reaction (consequence) which usually results in somebody making a decision…which results in that person taking action (or getting someone else to take action) which results in a consequence…which results in a decision…and on and on.

To check to see if you’re following an action, reaction, decision formula, you can create a story board to “see” your scenes. Write your chapter numbers across the top of poster board (or spreadsheet in Excel). Print the journey step and number of pages used for the scene on a Post-it and paste it to the poster board under the appropriate chapter. When you’ve done this for an entire book, scenes without a journey step (or scenes with weak journey steps) will become obvious!

Scenes without journey steps aren’t necessary! If you’ve got a lot of them, that might be why your book is “slow”. But there’s another trick to writing scenes that lots of us don’t know. Come closer…it’s kind of a secret…Not every scene has to be the same length! Scenes with “lesser” journey steps can sometimes be a page, or a paragraph or even a sentence. And some “lesser-journey-step” scenes can be combined!

On the flip side…you don’t want to shortchange the scenes that should be your most powerful. Those scenes might be the scenes where you want to “spend” the most pages!

I believe the skill of discerning if a journey step should be illustrated as a sentence or a fifteen-page scene is the master skill of the greats among us!

Now there are other reasons scenes “go bad”. You could have picked a poor way to illustrate your journey steps. You could have simply written the scene poorly. In those cases, you don’t need to “rewrite” an entire book…simply fix those scenes!

Studying your storyboard will show you everything you need to know about your scenes!

And finally…Words.

Think this through. Words are your primary tool for creating scenes, characters and tone. If an editor tells you that your character isn’t likeable…it might be because his or her actions make him unlikeable. But…could it be the words you’ve chosen to describe him make him unlikeable? More to the point…could it be the words you’ve chosen to use as his “reactions” to the events around him that make him unlikeable? Have your words turned your character into something/someone you didn’t intend?

Follow me on this one! It takes some thought.

“Reaction” phrases are an important part of the “word” problem of characterization. Not only can character reactions create a “tone” for your book that you might not want, but also characters are “known” by what they do…how they react. Your characters are only as good as the words you put in their mouths and minds and the words you use to describe them!

So if you sit down tomorrow and read your problem manuscript and discover that you’ve inadvertently created a character you didn’t intend by the words you chose, how can you fix this?

First, create a List of 20 for more creative character reactions, movements and traits.

What do I mean by that? Well, if your character is always reacting in a dark and somber way and your rejection said the book was too depressing. Put a question at the top of a piece of notebook paper that says…WHAT ARE TWENTY DIFFERENT WAYS THIS GUY CAN REACT THAT WILL MAKE HIM BEHAVE AS A STRONG AND DETERMINED PERSON RATHER THAN A DEPRESSING WEIRDO? (Have fun with your question! It has to inspire you!)

Then work to figure out twenty reaction phrases. If he sighs every time he learns bad news, you might replace those sighs with more action-oriented, expressive reactions. For instance, his eyes could glint with anger or glaze over with rage. Or he could make a fist, grit his teeth, snap his toothpick in two.

Once you have twenty good reaction phrases, you can begin to plug those in everywhere he sighs or has any other type of reaction that makes the book (and him) depressing! You’ll not only strengthen his character, you’ll improve the book’s tone.

So if you’ve gotten a rejection that said the tone of your book wasn’t good…go back and take a look at how your characters are reacting!

So what have we said here?

Create a story summary BEFORE you try to fix a book wherein the editor has criticized goals, motivations and conflicts! Then use that summary to guide you on fixing your book.

Create a story board to evaluate scenes, if an editor has said your book is slow, pacing is off, or (God forbid) boring!

Use a list of twenty to create better reaction phrases to fix books with rejections that pertained to characters.

And that’s the quick and dirty version of CAN THIS MANUSCRIPT BE SAVED!

I'll be happy to answer any questions!

susan meier
MAID IN MONTANA, 6/09 Harlequin Romance


  1. My goodness, what a wonderful post! This is a keeper. Thank you, Susan!

  2. Thanks, Magdalena.

    I think I mentioned in there somewhere that it's part of a much longer workshop.

    but that's a really good overview of how to revise something!

    susan meier