At a certain point when you’re writing, no matter what the subject matter or how excited you are about a plot–often when you’re ready to revise or rewrite–there’s a moment when you’ll feel like you’re being pushed around by the words on the page.
And that’s the wrong relationship to have with a manuscript.
It begins innocently enough: you’ve kept a list of plot devices that don’t add up or something about a scene keeps nagging you. It should be an easy fix. But the harder you work on it, the more the problem unravels. This character can’t be moved or it’ll affect the scene three chapters from now, this disaster can’t happen that way or the mother won’t be able to bake the cake that mends the rift with the daughter, the hero can’t swing that sword because it broke in Part I when he cracked it across the head of the stone dragon.
Personally, the overwhelming feeling I get when this happens is that what I’ve written to this point is the only way it could be. Changing characters, scenes, whole plot devices–even to fix glaring mistakes or impossible situations–not only seems futile, it feels wrong. It’s like rewriting history. It seems easier to accept what you first wrote and staple on a work-around for whatever’s ailing the rest of the book than to face changing the immutable prose you wrote last week.
This is your manuscript pushing you around. Think about it. It doesn’t want to be changed. Being rewritten, massaged, tweaked, or even trashed is not in its best interest. It just wants to sit there. But the initial stream of words that came out your head and made it onto the page are, let’s face it, flabby. Uninspired. Sometimes just plain wrong. They’re the thirty-something, drug-using, slacker couch potato of your ideas. You need to kick that collection of words in the collective pants and show it who’s boss.
The single most useful trick I’ve found to counteract the feeling of immutability is to simply cut out (or copy) the section that’s causing the problem and work on it by itself. No matter if it’s a single sentence or an entire chapter, you’ll do a better job working on the issue without the weight of the rest of your manuscript bearing down on you. When you glance down at the lower right-hand corner of the offending section and it says “Page 225”, you feel the bulk of the hours you’ve spent crafting the entire book; any changes you make seem paltry and useless.
Now cut out that page and stick it in its own document. What is it, one page? Two? Even if it’s twenty, you should find more freedom to slice and dice than you did when the problem child was squeezed into the middle of all those other pages. Unwind that mess of words and dependent clauses and Machiavellian plot constructions in the safety of your literary bell jar…and only put it back in the master document when you feel ready.
Don’t let your words intimidate you; they’re yours. While they may seem to have a life of their own, you’re always in control. Next time your manuscript tries to shove you around, show your manuscript who’s boss…and shove right back.