June 4, 2013

Ask Jami: Can This Story Be Saved?

Puzzle missing a piece with text: Can a Broken Story Be Saved?

I do a lot of beta reading for friends, and sometimes they come to me with a question along the lines of: “I’ve really struggled with x aspect of this story, and I’m wondering if I should just abandon it. Can you take a look and see if this story can be saved?”

Here’s a hint about the answer I give them: I think a story can almost always be fixed. In fact, I’ve yet to see a story that couldn’t be saved with the right amount of work.

Some stories might take a heck of a lot of work to fix—ripping out subplots, reworking the conflicts, rewriting from a different point-of-view, etc. I’m reminded of author Therese Walsh and her tale of rewriting—from scratch—one of her stories three times.

Most of the time, we won’t have to start over with a blank page unless we find that method easier. Regardless, sometimes we might decide that a story isn’t close enough to our heart to be worth the effort. But if we’re willing to put in the work, virtually any story can be saved.

A Story Is a Puzzle

How can we save broken stories? Step one is figuring out what’s broken about it. *smile*

I see stories like a puzzle, made up of hundreds of pieces. When they don’t add up to a pretty picture, it’s because this piece is the wrong size or color and that piece is rotated the wrong way or upside down.

Or in writing terms, a story can be broken when the characters, arcs, pacing, goals, motivations, stakes, conflicts, plot points, tone, genre, themes, etc. don’t mesh well. Fixing a story comes down to being able to recognize how things are (or aren’t) fitting together—and changing them.

Can We Fix Our Own Stories?

Recognizing how elements aren’t fitting together can be hard to do on our own story. We see what we intended, and that doesn’t always match what’s on the page.

We don’t see a character as “too stupid to live” because we know why they’re doing what they’re doing. But to readers who don’t see those motivations on the page, the character can look foolish (or worse).

We don’t see that the ending comes out of left field because our knowledge of the actual ending overrides any thoughts of what else it might be. But to readers simply following along, the y plot events lead to the expectation of a z kind of ending.

Critical Feedback Can Point out the Broken Pieces

A good critique partner, beta reader, or editor can point out when they feel disappointed by the story. That disappointment usually indicates a problem with the story pieces not matching up well. (Assuming they’re not the kind of reader who just doesn’t like our story.)

With that feedback, we then need to identify the disconnect between their expectations and the writing. Some readers/editors will be able to explain their disappointment, and others won’t. For those, we have to read between the lines or ask questions to dig into their reaction. Are they…

Disappointed in a character or their actions? Check for:

  • Unclear motivations/goals
  • Being reactive and not proactive
  • Impersonal stakes (nothing to justify their involvement)
  • Missing emotional turning points (showing how they change)
  • Subplots that distract rather than add to the story
  • Weak character arc

Disappointed in a scene or general boredom? Check for:

Disappointed in the story’s ending or the story in general? Check for:

Once we know where the disconnect occurs, we can figure out the cause. Then fixing the story comes down to tweaking the broken pieces. And that’s the key: The story isn’t broken, just some pieces are.

The Pieces Create the Whole

Ever had the experience of changing one element in revisions, and suddenly needing to change a bunch of other things as a result? That domino effect is probably a good sign for the story. The puzzle pieces fit so closely that adjusting one requires tweaks to the connecting pieces.

The same issue in reverse creates broken stories. The pieces don’t fit together well, leaving plot holes a semi-truck could drive through and building inconsistent characters that ruin any sense of a character arc or theme.

Sometimes a bad impression of a character or plot event can be triggered by one line. But that means changing that one line can fix a whole bigger issue.

That’s why I say that virtually every story is fixable. If we know the pieces to change, we probably won’t have to toss the whole story and start over with a blank page. We can focus on the broken pieces and go from there.

My Personal Dilemma: To Edit or Not to Edit?

Long ago, Kristen Lamb accurately labeled me a “maven,” someone who collects vasts stores of information and has the ability to put that information into a useful context. Mavens look for patterns and can spot issues others can’t. My regular blog readers would probably agree with that definition for many of my posts.

Between those maven traits and my love of story structure, I enjoy analyzing stories and figuring out what’s not working. In other words, I find those broken puzzle pieces. Those skills are similar to a developmental editor or a book doctor in that I analyze the big picture of the story, plot, and characters.

I’d love to be able to help more people with those skills. (Mavens are pathologically helpful. *grin*) But I’ve limited those I beta read for because that kind of story analysis takes me more hours than I want to admit (way into the double digits per story).

So I’m considering whether I should hang my shingle and help people identify the broken pieces of their story for a fee. It wouldn’t be cheap. Developmental edits typically run $800-$2000 for a full novel, and while I won’t claim I’d catch everything a top-notch developmental editor would, I typically make at least 200 comments in the manuscripts I beta read. In addition to pointing out specific issues in the manuscript, I describe the overall issues with another 2000-4000 words in the email cover letter (comparable to an editorial letter).

Maybe people beyond my beta reading scope would want to pay me to help them figure out what’s not working. Or maybe they wouldn’t. *shrug* I already have a day job, so this isn’t about trying to make money off people. This would just be a way for me to help more people while making it worth my time. I’m open to thoughts or suggestions. *smile*

Have you ever given up on a story for being too broken? What made you decide not to fix it? Not enough time? Interest? Knowledge? Have you used a reader’s sense of disappointment to focus on which elements are broken? Do you have other tips on things to check when readers are disappointed in elements of our story? Any advice on whether I should offer my book doctor services?

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I have a few stories I’ve shelved, tabled for later, some of which I intend to get back to, and a few which I might or might not. Some of those, I’ll be starting essentially from scratch when/if I revise them.

Ironically, that novelette I recently licensed to a small press? I didn’t intend this, but it’s a prequel to a story that’s solidly shelved at the moment, because it’s…a mess. It has some nice pieces, but… If I ever go back to it, I’ll be surprised if I keep as much as 20% of the original.

Buffy Armstrong

Jami, I have NO doubt that you would be a great Book Doctor. You are honest and insightful and thorough. However, is that how you want to spend a good portion of your time? I know how many hours you must spend working on a Beta read. I’ve seen it. I’m still wading through one right now. Your work is fabulous, but is it the best use of your time?

I’m going to start revising a project in the next couple of days. I don’t have a lot of luck if I try to revise in an existing document. It doesn’t work for me. I just get lazy and just kind of breeze through sections that a) I don’t want to deal with b) I don’t know how to deal with or c) I’ve managed to convince myself are good enough. I have more luck when I print out the manuscript and use it as a guide. I retype the whole freaking thing, adding and deleting sections as needed. It’s a lot of work, but it’s the only way I’ve figured out how to do it with any success.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Some of my readers do clearly indicate where their disappointments lie. But the problems are: 1) different readers often disagree with each other, 2) I sometimes disagree with them, and 3) When I do agree with them, often I get myself into dilemmas, where if I do X, then I’ll gain A but lose B. If I keep it as Y, I’ll keep B but will never get A. One example of this was the one I just told you about a few minutes ago on the “Handling Bad Reviews: Lessons from Amy’s Baking Company ” post. Another general example is, I start off with a straightforward story (with one clear main plot and minimal digressions), and then my workshop critiquers recommend that I develop this character, or show them more of this character’s relationship with that character. So I gladly want to develop them, but then I realize that if I develop these characters or their relationships for example with an extra scene, then the story would lose its “relentless forward momentum”. For some readers, they would welcome the change because they like understanding and learning more about characters and their relationships, but for other readers (in fact, most of my readers), they don’t care that much about character development and they just want a fast-paced, exciting story, and would be annoyed at anything that might slow the pace or distract them from the main plot. For me, I care about both character development and plot tension, haha. Eek.…  — Read More »

renée a. schuls-jacobson

Jami! As a person who directly benefitted from your sevices, I have to say you ABSOLUTELY should hang a shingle. I was so fortunate to have benefitted from your expertise and your laser vision. I know you have a day job, and I know you are writing, too. This editing gig is time-consuming. So I guess I’d say you could TOTALLY do this. You have been. The advice you give is clear and spot on. Just because you are good at something doesn’t mean you WANT to do it professionally. I think the question you need to ask yourself is: Do you want to do this? Think how much time and energy you put into my manuscript. Yes, you would be getting paid, but would it bring you satisfaction? WOuld it get in the way of your own writing goals? If you can feel good about the answers to both of these things, GO FOR IT! And I’ll be happy to endorse you on LinkedIn! 🙂


I hear you. I thought my very first character was a lovable sort, until my CP told me she didn’t like him. Turned out that some of the things I had him do to make him lovable only made him look lovable if you knew his backstory. Ooops. Fortunately, it only required a couple of small changes to fix the problem.

As far as the book doctor stuff, why not go for it? If it ends up taking too much time, you can always stop. No one is going to be mad at you for that. Just make sure you have the time for it. You’ll probably find you’ll want to do an extra special job if someone is paying you and that extra attention can become a time sink. And don’t even think about taking on another book until the first one is absolutely finished.

The hardest part will be deciding how much to charge. 🙂

Janet B
Janet B

I think you would be a great book doctor. The question is, would you like it to be your full time job? Can you replace your income with this and would you want to? Something to think about.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

I have been woefully absent lately and I’m soooooo sorry for that, Jami.
Dr. and hospital visits have taken up a lot of our time and thoughts 🙁
But I miss your blog and all you teach.
I think Kristen Lamb had it pegged when she called you a maven. You are the definition!
I’ve never written a story that I felt was so far gone that it couldn’t be saved. Like you I agree that any story can be salvaged, if you know how to fit the “puzzle” pieces back together.
And I’ve definitely used my beta, critique and agent’s input (or disappointment) to focus on which elements are broken.
Recently my agent asked me to nix a character in my novel. She was a secondary character, but her absence in the story caused a domino affect. I had to go back through and tweak just about every scene. It was as if my puzzle was a picture of the sky, all blue. Ever tried to put one of those together?
It’s not been easy, but I believe her suggestions made my story a hell of a lot better.
I think your desire to help authors with your book doctor services is brilliant!! I think you’d be AMAZING at that.
Best wishes to you, Jami!!
Have a great evening,

Laurie Evans

Great idea, but it seems like a lot of extra work if you don’t charge for it.

Struggling with my book, still. I think it *can* be fixed, but I don’t have the skill level to fix it *yet.* It’s a hard spot to be in. I can’t decide if I should try something new or keep on plugging.

Matthew Shields

OMG! I totally use the puzzle-piece analogy myself! That is so cool to hear someone else “say that out loud.” Or put it up on a blog.

I agree that, as long as the writer KNOWS what they want, a story can be corrected/fixed/bionicized.

“Gentlemen, we can rebuild it. We have the technology. Er, we have Jami Gold.”

Rhenna Morgan

Why NOT do the book doctor thing? Sounds like it’s a God-given gift to me!

I’ve been working with Marcy on my first book and I’m SO glad I did. Working with her brought an unbiased, fresh set of eyes to my work AND (I think) is preparing me for working with future editors (if I don’t self-pub). And if I self-pub? Well, then I’ve already found a damned fine editor to work with. It AMAZES me the amount she’s taught me such a small time frame. I wish, wish, wish I could teach like that. If you can do it, I’d say go for it.

Now, if I can just do justice to the suggestions she’s given me!


[…] Editing is essential to getting a great final product. Gemma Cooper gives us some editing tips; Stacy Ennis shares 5 ways to find the right freelance editor; and Jami Gold thinks EVERY story can be saved—if you’re willing to do the work. […]


[…] Can This Story Be Saved? Writing wisdom from Jami Gold! Have an awesome day, peeps! […]

Lynette M Burrows

Jami, I think you’ve been sitting in my office watching me struggle! LOL. I’m revising a novel I wrote 20 years ago. Why? ‘Cause I think the message I wanted to come from it is important. But OMG it’s a lot of work. I was beginning to feel it was so broken I couldn’t possibly fix it. Thanks for reminding me that it’s some pieces that are broken and need fixed, not the story. I’m diving back in!


[…] Gold: Ask Jami: Can This Story Be Saved? Excerpt: “I do a lot of beta reading for friends, and sometimes they come to me with a […]


[…] be willing to pay for my services. That reinforced a post from last month, when I mentioned that I have an uncommon talent for identifying the broken pieces in stories. In that post, I wondered if people would be interested in my editing […]


[…] I wear my developmental editor hat, I say that stories can always be salvaged. The only question is whether we’re willing to put in the work in […]

Bella ardila
Bella ardila

I edited my 3 scripts and never hired an editor to fixed it. I know editing myself is time consuming but I have to do it because I don’t hire editors and don’t know where to find it. But thanks to my mother, I can finally make my 3 script perfect!

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