Ask Jami: Can This 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:
- Lack of goals/purpose (no decision point or change occurs)
- Not enough going on
- Low stakes/tension
- Weak or illogical conflicts
- Slow pacing
- Missing consequences from previous scenes (broken cause and effect)
- Plot events not following story beat structure
Disappointed in the story’s ending or the story in general? Check for:
- Misleading plot events
- Unintentional themes
- Weak story arc
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?Pin It
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.
Yes, I have one story that’s shelved until I’m ready to fix it. I love it enough that I will get back to it someday, but it won’t be this year. I don’t think I’d have to start from scratch with it, but I’m too close to figure out its issues. 🙂
Wow, that’s interesting about your novelette. It’s funny how a prequel could be publishable and the story it’s introducing is…not. That just demonstrates how every story is its own struggle. I hope it all works out for you in the end! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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.
Thanks for the vote of confidence! 🙂
I’m right there with you in questioning whether or not that’s how I want to spend my time. Honestly, I’d take on a max of 4 projects a year (one a quarter), so that I’d still have time for everything else. (Like my normal beta reading for friends. 😉 )
The only reason I’m thinking about this at all is because I have to say “no” to so many beta reading requests–and I feel bad about that. 🙁 So I figured if someone really wanted me to analyze their work, I could set up a very limited doorway through which to offer my help. *shrug* I’m not trying to sell anything here, so if I never get any takers, that’s okay with me. LOL!
Yes, my story that I have set aside will take more work than I’m able to put in right now. I’m not sure if that’s laziness or dread. Or both. 😀 I haven’t tried the retyping method, but I might have to at some point. Thanks for the comment!
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 »
Yes, we can certainly have readers disagree with each other, and part of why that happens is how you mentioned a few days ago that readers pick up on different things. Some will pick up on the subtext and come away with a certain impression, and others won’t see the subtext and come away with a different meaning. So some readers will like things others won’t or might expect things others don’t. I think getting across the impression we want is the biggest struggle of writing.
So when I get conflicting feedback, I think back to the impression I want to get across. If a reader’s impression matches that, great. If not, maybe I need to work on the subtext, the motivations, the arc…something. 🙂
As far as developing other main characters–like we talked about in the comments of that bad review post–we can try to figure out ways to show their development that meshes with and/or helps drive the main storyline. In other words, character development shouldn’t be detour or pit stop along the narrative path; it should be a conversation during the journey. 🙂 I know you enjoy reading lots of classics, but maybe study how recently-published books handle integrating the development of all the main characters. Studying how authors do something is the good kind of stealing. LOL! I hope that helps–thanks for the comment!
Thanks for the tips! XD Lol, I love how we’re talking about stealing again. Haha, yeah it’s true that I read too many literary classics, lol. But I do really enjoy pre-teen fiction–fantasy, in particular, as well. It’s too bad that there are a lot of things people in the past could get away with, but now readers are more demanding (at least on those aspects), so we have to come up with new tactics, LOL. Hmmm, sorry I’m thinking about a classic again: I’m reading The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky right now (I think I told you already, haha), and he does integrate the character development of the three brothers, Alyosha, Mitya, and Ivan quite well. Their character arcs were very much to do with the main storyline (the plot events force them to change, and their changes also cause the plot events). Well, maybe Alyosha’s arc was a bit of a tangent, but MAGICALLY that was not a problem because he’s my favorite character and I happily absorb anything Dostoyevsky tells me about him. XD That leads to another interesting thing I’ve noticed recently. You know the advice to never start a novel with a character’s backstory (even if it’s the protagonist), because the reader won’t be connected yet and thus get bored? I’ve found exceptions to this rule! The Brothers Karamazov as mentioned above did this, but I was riveted by the backstories. In fact, if the backstories weren’t told to me at the beginning, I would… — Read More »
Oh I forgot to say: I think your book doctoring plan is a good idea! 🙂 Though it’d probably be too expensive for me. ^_^”
Thanks for the input. 🙂 And yes, as I said in the post, it wouldn’t be cheap. If I tried “competing” on price, the loss of my time wouldn’t be worth it and the influx of requests would prevent me from getting any writing done–which isn’t what I want. *sigh*
It’s all a trade-off, and I’m not interested in “competing” with other editors out there anyway. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Yes, very true that reading audiences aren’t letting writers get away with some things any more. I guess it all comes down to what we’ve talked about before. If we’re writing mostly for ourselves, then don’t worry about what the reading market will or won’t support.
But if we hope to gain readers in the genre marketplace, we have to make our work appeal to them in some way. That doesn’t mean we can’t do anything experimental (I hope not!), but that we have to balance those experimental aspects with reader-appealing aspects.
As far as backstory, I think a lot depends on how it’s shared. Is it static? Or is it active and purposeful and feels like it’s moving forward?
If it’s active, we might not realize until later that the scene is actually backstory because it has a narrative drive all its own. That forward movement can carry the reader just as much as any other scene. I hope that makes sense. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
“If we’re writing mostly for ourselves, then don’t worry about what the reading market will or won’t support. But if we hope to gain readers in the genre marketplace, we have to make our work appeal to them in some way. That doesn’t mean we can’t do anything experimental (I hope not!), but that we have to balance those experimental aspects with reader-appealing aspects.” Haha, I guess I’m neither of the two. Ultimately, I write for myself, but in reality, I want to please my friends (especially a few particular friends), who may or may not like my genre, lol. (My current novel’s genre is sci fi and adventure.) Yeah, it’s a constant balance between experimenting and adjusting things for the audience! “As far as backstory, I think a lot depends on how it’s shared. Is it static? Or is it active and purposeful and feels like it’s moving forward?” Hmm, I’m not sure if Alyosha’s backstory is active or static. It talked about how he was as a person, and demonstrated this by how he was as a child, with an example of how he behaved in the classroom. But it didn’t exactly feel like it was “moving forward”; it was more like Dostoyevsky was using some examples/ incidents (from the character’s childhood) to support his point that Alyosha has THIS particular personal quality, lol. Maybe I liked it because 1) The incidents were remarkable enough; and 2) I really like people of his personality, and he is extraordinary… — Read More »
LOL! That would be a whole blog post in itself. 🙂 But it’s similar to what makes character or setting descriptions static or active.
“She had dark hair” and “The room was lined with windows” are both static. It’s like looking at a picture of the thing. “She twirled her dark hair around her finger” and “Bright daylight flooded the room, the multitudes of windows leaving no dark corners for her to hide” are both active. In those, we see characters in motion against a backdrop. It’s like looking at a scene while we’re there.
Think, “show vs. tell.” 🙂 So if backstory information is showing us either a specific event itself (in a prologue or flashback) or how their history affects them today, those can feel active. If the reader senses why the author is sharing this information–and how it’s relevant to this story–they’ll go along with it because they’ll sense there’s a purpose behind the sharing, and that it’s not just a tangent.
The thing that kills pacing in stories is when tangents (too long of descriptions, irrelevant backstories, unrelated subplots, etc.) distract from the main story. It’s like a commercial interrupting a tense scene in a TV show. 🙂 The tension is lost. And just as distracted TV viewers might change the channel, a distracted reader might set the book down.
I hope that makes sense. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
Ah, I see. Yes, I also think “She twirled her dark hair around her finger” and “Bright daylight flooded the room, the multitudes of windows leaving no dark corners for her to hide” sound more interesting. “The thing that kills pacing in stories is when tangents (too long of descriptions, irrelevant backstories, unrelated subplots, etc.) distract from the main story. It’s like a commercial interrupting a tense scene in a TV show. 🙂 The tension is lost. ” Yes! That feeling! I hated it every time George R. R. Martin tells me a whole long backstory about a new minor character I totally don’t care about, because I’m thirsting to know what happened to Daenerys, Arya, Bran, Tyrion, and co! EVEN when the minor character later turns out to be relevant to the plot, lol. “Think, “show vs. tell.” 🙂 So if backstory information is showing us either a specific event itself (in a prologue or flashback) or how their history affects them today, those can feel active. If the reader senses why the author is sharing this information–and how it’s relevant to this story–they’ll go along with it because they’ll sense there’s a purpose behind the sharing, and that it’s not just a tangent.” Yes, I as a reader am more willing to put up with sudden backstories if I feel there’s a purpose to them too. The problem is when it LOOKS like it’s totally irrelevant, but later turns out to be relevant (like in the George R.… — Read More »
Exactly! And I’d rather avoid annoying my readers. LOL!
I’d argue that it would be hard for a new author to keep readers, not have their readers skim those “seemingly irrelevant” backstories, etc. until they’ve built up enough of a readership that new readers will hear from their friends, “You have to stick with it.” 🙂 The obviously relevant backstories are much safer. Thanks for the comment!
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! 🙂
Thanks for another vote of confidence! 🙂
Yes, it would be time consuming–which is why I mentioned to Buffy that if I do this, I’d limit the number of stories I’d take on. So I guess I see it less as “becoming a professional editor” and more as “offering a service to those who want my help and are willing to pay for it.”
As to the question of getting satisfaction, the answer is absolutely! I love helping people, and I love helping people with the skills I have even more. 🙂
In my various posts about beta readers (finding them, recognizing a good one, etc.), I’ve seen how many people struggle to find readers to check their writing. And even if they find beta readers, it can be even harder to find good ones.
So I know that not everyone has my ability to analyze writing and pick out what’s not working–that “we can’t fix it if we don’t know what’s broken” problem. Yet I can’t possibly offer to beta read for everyone, so this idea would be a compromise in a way.
As I said, I wouldn’t be doing this to try to quit my day job. The fee is more about making it worth my time and limiting how many requests I’d get. If I get no requests, I’d be okay with that too, but I want to offer an option to those who don’t have other options. 🙂 Thanks for helping think this through!
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. 🙂
Oh, you have no idea how much I’ve struggled with likable characters. LOL! I’m right there with you. Like you pointed out, it’s usually because we don’t have something on the page that needs to be there for the right impression.
On the book doctor stuff, yes, I mentioned elsewhere that I’d take on a max of 4 stories per year (one per quarter), so I’d still have time for my writing, this blog, all the social media/business stuff, my volunteering to the writing community, beta reading for my peeps, etc. 🙂 Er, yeah, I’m insanely busy already. LOL!
But like I said in the post, I feel bad that I can’t offer to beta read for everyone who asks, so for those who don’t have other options, this is a way to justify the time sink. We’ll see. Maybe no one would want to pay for it, and I’d be okay with that. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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.
Thanks! No, I’m not looking to quit my day job. 🙂
Rather than being something to live off of, the income would serve two purposes: making it worth my time (as those hours take away from everything else, like my writing) and limiting the number of requests to an amount I could handle without it taking over my life. LOL!
That’s a great question to ask though! Anyone considering a big change to their workload should know what their goals are. Thanks for helping me think it through and for the comment!
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,
Thanks for stopping by, but never feel guilty. Your family comes first. *hugs*
Great example! Yes, those all-one-color puzzles can be a nightmare to put together. I’m glad it’s coming together now. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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.
Yes, I’d definitely have to charge for it to make the time away from other things (like my writing!) worth it. 🙂
I mentioned in a comment above that I have one story set aside until I’m ready to deal with it. Moving on was the best thing I did for developing my voice and character/story development skills.
Every story has its own struggles, so things that you’re having trouble with in this story might be easy in the next, and things that are hard on the next might be things you’ve tackled successfully before. Just my experience, but I thought I’d share it in case my thoughts resonated with you. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!
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.”
LOL! *fist bump for strange brains* 🙂 Thanks for the comment!
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!
LOL! Yeah, that’s one way of looking at it: why NOT do it? Especially since like I mentioned earlier, I’m okay if no one signs up. 🙂
I’ve heard great things about Marcy Kennedy’s editing services. She’s on my list to talk to about my stories (editors still need someone else to edit their stuff 🙂 ). Good luck with your revisions and thanks for the comment!
[…] 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! […]
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!
20 years? Wow, that’s daunting and exciting all at once. At least I hope that means you’ve had enough time to gain distance on the story. 🙂 Good luck with it and thanks for the comment!
[…] 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 […]
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!
Some people are better at gaining the necessary distance to self-edit than others. This post also has some ideas for how to save money with editing. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!