Recently, I received some feedback from beta readers after sending them what seemed like the millionth version of my latest WIP.
Already up to draft 9, I was hoping this was the one where I’d ironed out the problems raised in the previous round of feedback.
I had not.
The issues were still there, and I’d made them worse. That’s not fun feedback to get when you were genuinely happy with the draft you’d sent off.
Not only did I feel bad for wasting my beta readers’ time, but I honestly wasn’t sure how to fix the mess I’d made.
My first instinct was to give up. I’d already been having a crappy few months, and this was another disappointment in a long line of disappointments.
I wasn’t sure if I had it in me to go back to the drawing board and carry out yet another rewrite, but I gave myself a day to wallow and emailed about it with a beta who thankfully convinced me that my declaration I was no longer the right writer for my story was not true, and I enacted the following plan…
What To Do When You’ve Made A Mess Of Your MS
Don’t Make Any Rash Decisions
While your first instinct may be to ignore the feedback you’re getting or to delete your MS and go back to a life where the pressure of being creative is not on you—don’t.
Read the feedback a few times. Pull out the good bits, note down the constructive parts, and sit with it.
Give yourself time to process the fact the MS still needs more work. Take a day, a week, a month to put some distance between yourself and how you’re feeling, and when you’re ready, prepare to make changes.
Read, Summarize, And Reverse Outline
Read the feedback again, understand what the issues were and note them down. Then it’s time to read your MS again. While at this point you should know it pretty well, reading it as a reader instead of a writer or editor will help you see the manuscript how your betas did.
As you’re reading, note down a summary at the end of each scene:
- What Happens.
- The POV Character.
- Issues Raised By Betas (If Any).
- What You Could Do To Improve The Scene (If Applicable).
Once you’ve done this for all of your scenes, take the What Happens part and reverse outline your story.
If you’re never done it before, reverse outlining is where you put together a story outline once the MS is complete and you know what happens from beginning to end (as opposed to a traditional outline where you’re outlining what you plan to write).
Now that you have the ins and outs of your plot and characters on hand, it’s time to make a new friend.
Make The Note Feature Your Friend
Most writing software has a note-taking feature. Word has the Comment function and Scrivener (which is what I use) has an inspector pane you can add to the right-hand side of your screen that gives you a Synopsis panel and a Notes panel.
If you’re using Scrivener, add your summary notes for each scene in the Synopsis part.
As for the Notes panel or the Comment feature in Word, use it to record what changes you want to make to every scene. This can include snatches of ideas, new dialogue, basically anything that you will be fixing, deleting, or creating.
With your notes next to the relevant scene, it’s easy to see what the plan is for fixing your mess, and to get started on it.
Go Back To Basics
Before you get started, however, there are a few other things to do.
The first is to uncomplicate things and go back to basics, both with your story and in your approach.
The reason my MS was such a mess was that it was two and half different story ideas tenuously mushed together and some scenes that were written in a way that made sense for some plot twists that were removed after the first round of beta reading.
With those plot twists gone, the scenes and events didn’t have the same impact and were coming off as confusing. As the person who’d written and read all 8 drafts of this book, I couldn’t see that taking out certain aspects in draft 9 was making the readers who were new to the story completely confused.
Now that I was aware of my mess, it was time to take out those parts, kill off some darlings, and put new ideas in place. Ones that would work with what the current story is, not the version I was clinging to because I’d been working on it since 2016.
As for my/your approach to writing when you have to do big rewrites, I suggest forgetting deadlines, complicated twists that don’t work, and trying to force the plot to be something you once thought it should be.
Get your love for writing back instead. Write like no one else will read it and rediscover why you started the story in the first place.
If you’re like me, you might have forgotten that over the countless rewrites. Being reminded of it will bring back your passion for the story and for writing.
Create A Plan & Mini-Goals
When you’ve accepted that you’ll need to put in more work, and you’re mentally ready to do that, it’s time to create a plan!
With a plan, you’ve got something to work on and to work toward.
Vague plans like “write today” are no good here. Be specific. Plan how you’re going to tackle this draft and the changes you want to make to it.
Use the summary, notes, and outline you made to get the plot in order, plus work out what new scenes are going to be added and where.
If you now need to add 5 new scenes, create your plan for them and set mini-goals for when you want to achieve them. Working on a new scene each day, or two a week, are some brilliant suggestions. Break your plan into mini-goals to keep them from being overwhelming.
Now you can sit at your desk, look at your MS notes, and work on exactly what you need to for that writing session.
After all the acceptance, preparation, and planning, the last step for cleaning up your messy manuscript is to just start.
You know what to do, so just do it.
Get on with the edits. Let them take the time they will take. Don’t try to get every sentence right the first go. Burn from your memory the plot you thought you had and free write and see where it takes you.
I found doing all of this changed my attitude, to not only this story, but also to writing.
Allowing myself to approach it differently and to clean up the mess I’d made really helped. If you’re in the same situation, I hope it does the same for you too.
— K.M. Allan