Recently I’ve been going through a process of “unfucking” a novel — parts of it fired really well, but it just didn’t feel right. Something about it just didn’t hang together, so it was time to break out all the tools a writer has in his arsenal — every scalpel, hatchet, reciprocating saw, Drilldo, and orbital laser I had in my cabinet of madness. The agent was instrumental in shining a light in dark corners on this book.
Thus I thought, “Well, hell, I should chronicle the grand unfucking at terribleminds.”
So, here we are.
This isn’t meant to be a list where you do everything on it. It’s a list where, when you discover your story may indeed be well and truly fucked, you come here looking for ways to reverse the heinous fuckery at hand.
First part of the list is geared toward helping you identify the fuckery.
Second part of the list is meant to help you provide the deep dicking your manuscript may require.
With that in mind, let’s commence to unfucking!
1. Find The Cancer
First up: root out the heinous fuckery at hand. Somewhere, your story went off the rails. The flow has been dammed up by some log-jam, some sewer-clog, and it’s your job to find out where the thing got gummed up. You cannot cure the cancer if you have no diagnosis indicating where it lives. Is it face cancer? Butt cancer? A deep and septic cancer of the soul? You need to know where to aim your editorial laser-knife.
2. Let It Sit And Pickle
Writers need time away from their work. Go at it too soon and you either hate it too much to let it live or love it too much to cut it with your steely knives. You need enough distance from the work to let you read it and believe that someone else wrote it — that distance allows you the cold, dispassionate dissecting the tale needs. Maybe that means you leave it for two weeks, two months, or two years. That’s on you to figure out. But when you dig back in, you’ll be amazed at the clarity a little time has afforded you. The trouble spots will start to stand out like a shadow on an X-Ray.
3. Read It Aloud
Another good way to get a feel for the story: read it aloud. Last week I interviewed author and alpha clone Dan O’Shea, and he said some characteristically smart shit about reading your work aloud: “Writing is just a system humans dreamed up because the sound of speech was transitory. … When you read something out loud, you catch things with your ears that you don’t with your eyes. All the awkward little constructions that your eyes rolled right over, the word you are repeating too often, the dialogue that’s glaringly bad when read out loud – your ears will catch bullshit that your eyes never will.”
4. Solicit The Help Of A Story Doctor
Sometimes objectivity only comes at the hands of someone who plainly Isn’t You. Agent. Editor. Beta reader. Strange homeless guy who has a cardboard sign reading: WILL UNFUCK MANUSCRIPTS FOR BOTTLE OF RED WINE AND NEW PAIR OF UNDERWEAR. (Which is, for the record, a seriously good deal.) You can’t always WebMD this shit. Sometimes you need a proper story doc to diagnose the patient.
5. Determine Severity Of Fucked-Upedness
Okay, good. You now know that your story is bewitched by fuckery-most-foul. The question now becomes: just how befuckered is the tale? To what depths do the rancidity and rottenness go? I’ll suggest that the condition of the story will demand one of three courses of action (which we will call “The Three R’s”): it may need Refining, Repairing, or Rebuilding. Refining is easy enough — the story’s got grit in its panties and it just needs to shake out the sand. Give it a thorough washing, waxing and polishing and you’re good. Repair means getting handsy with it — move some chapters around, excise a supporting character, tinker with the overall architecture of the thing (“MORE FLYING BUTTRESSES”). Rebuild is… well. No good way to say it, is there? Time to pack the walls with C4 and bring the whole thing down. Only then can the phoenix fly free from the pile of ash you left on the linoleum. More on that last one later.
6. Carve A Prison Shiv From Your Prose
A story can be held back by the language used to tell it. The story itself may be in tip-top fighting shape, but a story that’s poorly-written won’t ever make it to the ring. Refining language is key. Go through every sentence with pruning shears. Cut out junk language like so many fatty tumors. Dead-head your darlings. The goal of a sentence is clarity above all else. (Shameless self-promotion time: 250 Things You Should Know About Writing features: “25 Things You Should Know About Writing A Fucking Sentence.”)
7. Rearrange The Revelations
No, I don’t mean the final book of the Bible — you can rearrange that book however you want, it’ll still read like an eschatalogical acid trip. (“Holy shit, is Jesus karate-fighting a dragon!?”) No, I mean, a narrative progression is about the revelation of your story, and sometimes you need to re-jigger the timing of how you reveal certain things. Put differently: rearrange the sequence of narrative events (also known as: “the plot”). Your story may be frontloaded with too much drama — or not enough.
8. Re-Outline That Sumbitch
I just did this, and Sweet Sally Sugarbottom did it do my story wonders: first, take your story and outline it as it exists. Now you’ve got the story’s bones laid bare before you (perhaps on index cards, if you’re so inclined) and it becomes easy at this macro level to start doing what I just said you should do: rearrange the pieces. But — but! — not only does it help you rejigger, it helps you find problem spots. I literally killed off a handful of chapters and re-outlined new ones. Suddenly, I could see the forest for the trees — and it helped me hunt down the tumor-bedraggled grizzly bear that was eating all my wonderful story bunnies. No, I don’t know what that means. I just wanted to write “tumor-bedraggled grizzly bear.” And “story bunnies.” And also, I ate fistfuls of peyote earlier. So, there’s that.
9. Learn To Be Fashionably Late
You’ve got this whole beginning, right? This whole first act where you establish characters and create exposition and set the setting and — ZZZzzZzzz — wuzza? Whooza? Who are you? Why are my pants undone? Fuck the beginning. Take a chainsaw and lop off the whole first act (er, roughly — the chainsaw is not a precision tool, after all). Start the story as late into the plot as you can possibly manage without completely obliterating reader comprehension. This is true of individual scenes, too — Chris Holm, in his interview here at terribleminds, said: “If there’s a scene you think just grinds the story to a halt, before you go chucking the whole damn thing, try deleting the first and last paragraphs of that scene. I’ll bet you it reads better.” See? Smart dude. High-five to him.
10. The Glue Of The Throughline
Obi-Wan Kenobi, before all that stinky Midichlorian hoo-hah, said something really cool about the Force: “It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the Galaxy together.” (Assuming he wasn’t talking about some bondage fuck-party at some Huttese orgy palace on Tatooine, I guess.) In terms of writing, Obi-Wan could’ve been talking about a story’s throughline. The throughline is everything. The throughline is the element (or several elements braided together) that is found on every page of your story. It’s theme and motivation and idea and conflict bundled up together. And guess what? Your story may not have one. Or, more likely, it may have an inconsistent throughline. Take time to identify a throughline. Then take the time to hammer that nail through the whole of your manuscript.
11. Unearth The Emotional Core
The emotional core is the molten hot heart of your story — but it remains properly concealed, because if unleashed it will burn the rest of your story in a scorching wave of fiery twee pap. (If you say “fiery twee pap” over and over again, an elf will appear and Taser you in the face. True story, try it out. Then film it and put it on YouTube.) That said, while you may not expose the emotional core, it should still power the story like a big ol’ battery. Have you identified the emotional core of the story — and, the emotional core of each character? Do you know the emotional component that drives them? Is that emotion present and keenly felt (if not entirely seen)? You may need to install an emotional core inside your tale. Which makes your story sound like a spaceship. Which is kind of fucking awesome.
12. Tighten The Gooshy Mushy Middle
The middle of your story can feel like everyone is lost in the desert. Like the narrative structure has dissolved into a gallumphing pile of gray, raisin-specked ooze. The middle needs tension. The middle needs structure. Consider a mid-point act break — smack dab in the middle of the story, change things. Pivot the tale. Let the narrative experience a state change (steam to water, water to ice). Make sure that escalation and conflict are continuing through the middle — don’t let the second act play out as a straight line connecting the first and third.
13. Ensure Every Scene Has A Porpoise
If a scene fails to have a dolphin or porpoise, then your story is a bonafide turd-blossom. *checks notes* Wait, that’s not it. Oh. Oh. Purpose! Heh. Hah. Oh. Let’s try this again. Each scene must have a purpose. Test each scene. Weigh it in your hand. Does it have narrative purpose? Meaning, does it just sit there, or does it get up and go to motherfucking work? Does it push the plot forward? Does it reveal something new about the characters? Does it tell us something we didn’t know before? If you can’t find its purpose, kill it. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to replace it, either (though a transition may be required).
14. Speaking Of Transitions. . .
Sometimes, transitions are all you need. A plot can feel inconsistent and inconsequential if you haven’t drawn the proper bridges connecting each event to the next. The opposite can be true, too. You may have too many needless transitions. Don’t spend 10 pages getting the characters to where they’re going. I mean, unless they’re riding jet-skis. BECAUSE FUCK YEAH JET SKIS. *vroom vroom splash eeee!*
15. Blow Shit Up, Boom
Fuck the status quo. Your story got boring, son. Hey, it happens. It settled like a sleepy snake taking a nap in a wheel rut. How to fix? Blow something up. This can be literal (as in Stephen King’s THE STAND, when a writing block in that story led him to blow up half the characters with a bomb), or metaphorical (meaning, you drop a “bomb” that reverberates throughout the entire rest of the story).
16. Not Enough Dialogue
Dialogue is story lube. We hit a patch of dialogue and we glide right over it — it’s textually light, easy on the eyes, and it damn sure keeps things moving. Yet it has great potential to carry forward plot, character, and theme. Look at the actual construction of language upon the page. Do you see lots of description? Great heaving tsunamis of text? Will the audience feel as if they’ve been walled away with the cask of Amontillado? Cut that down, break it up, and add liberal helpings of dialogue.
17. Faster, Pussycat, Write, Write, Write
Pacing is key — you want a story that moves, not a story that lays there like a fat old housecat on the windowsill. That’s not to say every story needs to whoosh forward like it has a bitey ferret shoved up the pooper, but certainly you want to take a long look at a story that has all the momentum of a moth caught in cold honey. How to increase pacing? First, language. Use shorter paragraphs and sentences. Get to the action quicker. Keep things moving — boom boom boom boom. Second, cut out plot fat. Anything that the audience does not absolutely need to know should not be told. Third, chop out heavy description and exposition. And remember that note about dialogue: story lube.
18. Breathe Oxygen Into The Tale
The other side of pacing is that things can go too quick — sometimes you need to cool your heels, hoss. A story needs oxygen. You need to cool down the tension so that the readers get to catch their breath before you push them off the cliff once more. Do things feel like they’re moving at a pace too frenetic? Stretch it out, like taffy. Interject some strong emotional beats to space out the action.
19. Tantric Storytelling
One of the reasons we read is to pursue mysteries. We are transfixed by variables; we are held fast by unanswered questions. So, unanswer some already-answered questions. Withhold revelation. Find those things you’ve already told the reader and pull back. Keep it obfuscated — answer as late in the story as you possibly can. A lot of storytelling is you being a dick and not telling the reader things. You’re promising them, “Oh, no, I’ll answer that question real soon,” and then soon as they dive for the carrot you pull it back another five inches. “Soon,” you say again. Then, just as you’re about to lose them: POW. Mystery answered.
20. Your Characters In Full 3-D And Smell-o-Vision
Your characters might be falling flat. Reason? They are flat. They’re too simple. Too predictable. They have all the depth and breadth of a hot pink Post-It note. Give your characters some complexity. Motivations and fears don’t always need to be so cut-and-dry. Desires can compete. Characters should zig when the audience wants them to zag. They should be able to still surprise us. Pull each character out and give her a good long look. Is she too simple? Too one-note and on-the-nose? Then either fill her with the breath of complexity or throw that boring-ass douche-cookie in the refuse bin. Mmm. Douche-cookies. So vinegary!
21. You’re Being Too Nice
A storyteller must possess a savage cruelty, a compunction to do great harm to both character and the audience who loves that character. Look over your story. Are you pulling punches? Does the story operate at maximum malice? Stop glad-handing it. It’s not your job to be kind. Show your teeth. Sharpen your claws. Let the audience gaze upon the terror of your FUCK YOU IMMA EAT YOUR CHILDREN face.
22. Hot Sub-Plot Injection
We like a layered story, a tale with lasagna layers of meat and cheese and sauce and unexpected spices (“Is this sage? Do I taste… marmoset saliva? Oh! These ivory buttons give it such crunch!”). Sub-plots help give a story added complexity. A sub-dermal love story? An off-the-books heist-gone-wrong? The reconciliation of two best friends long ago separated by one’s preference of cake over pie (the blasphemy!)? Whatever. The sub-plot should bolster the main plot and should offer more of that throughline we talked about earlier.
23. You’ve Lost The Thread
Theme is the argument you’re making with the story. All men are doomed to fail. Or, nature wins over nurture. Or, pie is delicious and anybody who says cake is better than pie is clearly a Manchurian Candidate put here to assassinate our leaders. Right? Right. Sometimes, though, you’ll find parts of your story — scenes, characters, whole chapters — that seem to entirely ignore your theme and go traipsing off on their own. Such portions will stick out like broken noses. Find those outliers. Either tweak to confirm theme or eradicate and put something better in their place.
24. The Disappointing Ejaculation
Your story’s ending is everything. A great story with a real poodle-fucker of an ending feels like a let-down and can take a whizz all over the rest of the story. It’s a grumpy panda playing a sad trombone. The ending might not make sense. It might be too predictable. Maybe you just tapped out early and descended into a flurry of senseless profanity. “And then the three elves went to the old wizard and FUCKDUNKING JIZZFARMING SONOFACOCKJUGGLING NIPPLE-THIEF.” Sometimes a fucked-up story just needs you go back in and hammer out a new ending. So, go do that. I’ll wait here. Shameless self-promo #2: 500 Ways To Be A Better Writer has within its digital folds: “25 Things You Should Know About Endings.”
25. Go All Dalek On They Asses: Exterminate!
When I first wrote BLACKBIRDS, that book was all over the place. It was like some hyperactive child upended his toy-box all over the floor — the tale had no cohesion, the narrative components were everywhere, it was more a “pile of shit” than a “lean mean tightrope walk.” Came a point when I realized I had a good idea — in fact, many good ideas — in there, but the lit-puke I’d yarfed up on the page was never going to cut it. And so I fixed it the same way we’re going to fix civilization after the Mayan apocalypse: I destroyed everything and rebuilt it from the ground up. Meaning, I rewrote it. I scrapped everything I’d done and started over. (After re-0utlining, if you must know.) Then, in a few short weeks, I had a much more sensible, streamlined draft — a draft that would go on to get me an agent, a book deal, a film deal, a moving van full of gold doubloons, and a harem of book groupies with astoundingly loose morals. (Okay, that might not all be true.) Point is, sometimes you have to blow it all up and start over. No harm in that. In fact, it might be the best — if not the most pleasant — thing for your story.
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