As a child, I went through a period when I struggled to button my shirt. I looked down at both sides of the fabric and matched the button with the hole, over and over again. Once I reached the bottom, I noticed I had two buttons and one hole left. In frustration, my uncoordinated little fingers undid all the buttons and started over.
Years later, I don’t fumble with buttons (too often). But as a writer, I have struggled to put the right pieces of plot, characterization, and world building “in the right holes.” My first drafts are glorified outlines. I set many of the pieces of my story in the wrong places at first. Rearranging them is what revisions are for. But what do you do when you’re nearly finished writing your story and you find it has been off a button from conception?
- Don’t panic. My first instinct is to get frustrated and eat chocolate. I tell myself I’m the worst writer in the world and wish I had become a marine biologist instead (my childhood occupation of choice). This is natural. Feel sorry for yourself. Eat all the chocolate. Dream up a life where you live on a boat and tag sharks for your career. But whatever you do, don’t delete your file or burn your manuscript. Revisions are a natural progression of every story. The fact that you’ve found a section, or sections, that are wrong is good. This will help your story become stronger.
- Gain perspective. Go for a walk and then sit down and think through your storyline. What needs to change and where? Note the chapters and the size of the revisions. Often pulling out one button to put in another hole means undoing the whole shirt. Talk this through with a beta reader, family member, or friend. Discussing the changes that need to occur will help you understand the extent of the revisions.
- Decide if your story can be undone and buttoned up right. Now that you’ve gained perspective, are you in for a few changes or a total rewrite? Do you have a deadline or commitments that compel you to complete this revision? Or can you set the manuscript aside? No one can answer these questions except you. I believe any story can be fixed as long as the author is willing to put in the work, but you should do what is best for your career. Sometimes shelving your manuscript and starting something else is enough to help you decide what story you most want to write. Once you find your resolve, you can determine if reconfiguring what you have is the solution or if you should write another manuscript.
- Save your work. Copy and paste every section of your story that you “unbutton” into a leftovers file. Do this no matter how small or insignificant the scene or dialogue may be. Keep those bits and pieces, but also be ruthless in their removal. Take your manuscript apart where necessary. Don’t hang onto segments that no longer serve a purpose. Your story will feel messy, sparse, and unwieldy, but remember that reorganization is part of the process. My apologies for switching metaphors on you, but think of it as surgery. A surgeon must cut their patient open before they can repair what is wrong. For a time, it looks like a mess, but they always sew them up when they finish. Have faith in yourself that you can repair your story for the better.
- Button those holes. You have the right state of mind, a proper perspective, a story you must tell, and your important pieces saved. Now slide those salvaged parts into the right places, rewrite where necessary, discuss any lingering questions you have with your beta readers or editor, and finally, smooth out your pacing. If you have any last doubts that your story is indeed what you set out to accomplish, write a query letter or pitch. This will force you to condense your characters, world, and plot into a concise summary. After your mind has been swimming with several versions of your story, this will help you refocus on your initial vision.
Now that you’ve got your story buttoned in all the right places and it’s looking snazzy, celebrate by posting GIFs on social media of people dancing. And eat chocolate. Always celebrate with chocolate.
Emily R. King is a reader of everything and a writer of fantasy. Born in Canada and raised in the U.S.A., she’s perfected the use of “eh” and “y’all” and uses both interchangeably. Shark advocate, consumer of gummy bears, and islander at heart, Emily’s greatest interests are her four children. She’s a member of SCBWI and an active participant in her local writers’ community. She lives in Northern Utah with her family and their cantankerous cat. You can find Emily at emilyrking.com