Writing Lessons 8

Okay, so what happens when it all goes horribly wrong?

You are sitting down, the writing has been a blast, and you have a brilliant first stage written.  It felt great, it reads really well. But now, you have a problem. This was supposed to be a romcom, but it’s gone all black and dangerous. Or it was supposed to be a book looking at a relationship gone sour, and suddenly there’s a dead body materialised – don’t ask me how this happens, but believe me, it does on occasion. And often these chance appearances can be brilliant for a story. However, right now, all you know is that your plot has run away from you, the characters have altered and the theme of the book is utterly different.

So, what do you do? Is this a happy accident, or have you got to decide to change the whole focus of your book?

The first question you have to ask is, “Does it work”?

Some stories can start out very light-hearted and suddenly go bleak or scary. It is a useful approach to a grim story, to set out with a cheerful beginning that progressively changes, or which suddenly snaps. Sometimes it works very well indeed, but what if it’s a complete change to what you had anticipated for your story?

Read it, and be really cold and objective, if you can. If you can’t, get someone else to ready it who will be brutally honest. What you want to know is, whether the style of the first part and the latter actually fit together. Sometimes you can have a superb beginning to a book, and the rest of the story works too, but the two just don’t somehow want to merge. Both feel entirely discrete, unconnected.

Okay, so you need to see why they don’t fit together – is this something that just needs a small tweak, or is it entirely wrong. The kind of thing I’m thinking of here is the bigger picture. Have you written in the first person, and that doesn’t allow you to get cracking with the other characters, who all need their own space on the page? Have you written the beginning from the wrong point of view? It can happen.

Often the best thing to do, whenever you have doubts, but also when you’re just working through a story, is to print the whole thing. Get it on paper, and leave your computer turned off. Read through all your work, and if you can bear it, read it aloud. Only by doing that will you catch your own writing voice and pick up the cadence of your language. I know, it sounds daft, but if you read from the screen, it is not as effective, believe me.

Something you may notice is, that your entire writing style has changed immeasurably. That may mean that you can rewrite the beginning, and that by doing so you will change the style and narrative voice  to suit the later sections. But I would recommend that you pay attention to that word “rewrite”. Don’t try to simply add more and more sentences. If it’s a change in your writing style, go back to first principles and rewrite it. It will save you a lot of time in the future.

Read through the entire text, and then set it aside and think about it for a good few hours.

I tend to get to this stage at about 60,000 words. I know the direction of travel of my story, and I have a good idea how the book will finish, but even so, I will print the entire work and think about it, reading it aloud, seeing how the voices work for each of the characters, adding some verbal tics to make each unique, thinking about how they all react to each of the stimuli I have thrown at them, are they credible, are they believable? Then I will go back and consider where the story has holes. Which of the plot lines need adding to, where can I throw in some new scenes to make the story flow, where do I need to carefully place some snippets of information that add to the overall plot?

This is a useful exercise, then, even if you don’t have the issue of the entire thing going wrong in the second chapter!

Second, if you still cannot find a specific area that is failing, you have the nuclear approach. You have a working start to the story, and you have a good second  section. If you really cannot see where the problem lies, or if you cannot mend the first piece to make it meld more effectively with the second, you need to ditch one or the other. And my personal advice, based on my last 43 or so novels, is – invariably, you need to ditch the beginning.


The beginning was the section where you were still feeling your way. It may be that the concept was brilliant, it may be that you had a beautifully planned story – but your style, your gut, is telling you that the story you want to write is the second half. That is the bit that has attracted you, the bit that has stimulated you. And if it does that to you, it will do that to readers too.

My rule of thumb is, if I, as a writer, cannot be stimulated and thrilled and excited by a story, I am unlikely to excite a reader. So get rid of the bit that feels wooden, clunky, or just slow. Remove it, and crack on with the book. Later, if you feel it is right, you can rewrite it and put something similar back in that is more in keeping with the rest of the book. Because you have developed a new style, and maybe that is your best narrative voice.

Hope that helps, and happy writing!

3 Responses to “Writing Lessons 8”
  1. Lindsey Russell says:

    Excellent again. But if you didn’t think I was weird before you will now. While I accept that reading out loud is the best way to spot problems being partially dyslexic I have a real problem reading aloud – it gets lost somewhere between eye, brain, and mouth – so will only read the really ‘clunky’ bits aloud after reading it to myself a couple of times.


    • I don’t think that’s weird at all! It’s just that different folks have their own views on things, and what works for me may not work for others. That’s fine, though. It’s always a case of trying out different ideas. Every so often you find one that works for you, hopefully!


  2. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    Michael on what happens when things become pear-shaped…


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