January 21st, 2019

What to Do While You Wait: Working with Your Book, Instead of On It

Barbara Probst

You’ve made your manuscript as good as you possibly can—for now. Everyone has advised you to take a break, let the book rest, so you can return to it with fresh eyes. Perhaps you’ve sent it off to a beta reader or developmental editor, hoping they’ll see the flaws and holes that you can’t and will show you how to bring your story to the next level. You know you have to avoid the temptation to keep tinkering with the manuscript while you await the very feedback you’ve requested—yet you can’t bear to do nothing.

The good news is that there are ways to work with your novel, rather than working on it—that is, without opening the Word document where it lives and awaits your return. Working with your book can help to loosen, deepen, shake up, and inject new energy your story while you prepare to work on it again.

Note: These exercises assume that you have an overview of your manuscript at your fingertips—a scene-by-scene summary that you can refer to. A good thing to have, for many reasons!

Write stuff you never intend to use.

  • Focus on secondary characters, especially their backstories. What kind of house did Jane live in, as a child? What were her favorite toys? What did she dress up as for Halloween? What’s her recurring dream? What’s inside that box in the corner of her closet? What is something she lost and tried to find but couldn’t?
  • Write a key scene from a different character’s point of view.
  • Pick an emotional turning point or dramatic scene and give it a different ending.
  • Interview your protagonist. Ask her the very questions she really doesn’t want to answer. Make her squirm. What lie might she tell you, to get out of answering?

Draw. Make maps and diagrams.

  • Identify five core scenes. Think of them as mountain peaks. What are the steps up the mountain (prior scenes that make this core scene inevitable)? What are the steps on the descent (consequences that also prepare for the next peak)? Map this out on a timeline. You can vary the distance between steps, depending on how much chronological time passes between them or how much narrative space (word or page count) each occupies.
  • Make a grid. Divide the left or vertical axis into scenes.  Across the top or horizontal axis, write the names of the major characters. That will give you a grid composed of boxes or "cells."  Mark where each character appears—that is, go down the column for Jane Smith and mark all the scenes that Jane is in. Then look at the frequency and position of her appearances. Are there big gaps? Does she need a tiny appearance in-between so we don’t forget about her, perhaps in another character’s conversation or interior monologue? Can she serve an additional role at a different point in the story? Do this for each character. Do certain characters always (or never) appear together? Try switching some of them around. How does that affect the tension and pace of the story?
  • Do a similar grid, replacing characters with settings. Where do scenes take place? Can any of the settings be changed from a boring or over-used location (e.g., around the dinner table) to a place that’s more evocative? If a lot of scenes take place in someone's office, for example, is there a way to make the setting do more work for the story by highlighting specific elements that vary during these scenes? If your character’s boss always has fresh flowers on her desk, what do the flowers look like, at different moods or points in the story?

Do super-summaries.

  • Write an epigram, slogan, or bumper sticker to capture the essential message of each scene. Do a lot of scenes have the same slogan? If so, think about variations on that message or its opposite. What small changes in some of the scenes could give them a different slogan?
  • Focus on upward and downward motion, not on specific content. Tag your scene beginnings and endings with a plus or a minus, a “chute” or a “ladder.” Up if the protagonist is closer to her goal and down if she’s farther away. If a scene starts with a plus (hope, luck, an opportunity, an unexpected opening, etc.), then it ought to end with a minus (disappointment, failure, barrier, fear, doubt, betrayal, etc.), and vice versa. If you discover a string of plus-to-minus scenes, switch some of them around.

Avoid the temptation to open the Word document and start changing words, sentences, and scenes.  That’s tinkering with the old, the already-known. These exercises are designed to push you into the not-yet-known—to help you re-vision your book, not simply revise it.  

If you do these exercises (or others that you invent), when you do return to the manuscript, you’ll have turned the soil so something truly new can sprout.  

Anyone out there waiting? Will you try one of these? Any other suggestions?

About Barbara

Barbara Linn Probst, author of the groundbreaking book on nurturing out-of-the-box children, When the Labels Don’t Fit, is a writer, researcher, and clinician living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. She holds a PhD in clinical social work and is a frequent guest essayist on major online writing sites. Her debut novel More Than She Knew will be issued by She Writes Press in Spring 2020. To learn more about Barbara’s work, please see http://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/

14 responses to “What to Do While You Wait: Working with Your Book, Instead of On It”

  1. "you’ll have turned the soil so something truly new can sprout."
    Love this! Great post, Barbara. I will definitely employee a few of these exercises.

  2. Fae Rowen says:

    These are great tips, Barbara! Thank you! The maps, charts and summaries are all good, based on what I need to get out of my "wait time."

  3. Patricia says:

    Great post. This is something I will refer back too often. Thank you.

  4. Laura Drake says:

    I love this time! I'm sick of the book anyway, and consider this my play time! I'm free to look around for new ideas, or fill my head with the NEXT story!

    Great post, Barbara!

  5. Linda Rosen says:

    Great suggestions, Barbara. I especially like the chutes and ladders and will use the idea. Thanks

  6. Jenny Hansen says:

    That "no pressure" time is the best time for a writer, isn't it? I think when people lose that ability to have free-flowing creativity, just for creativity's sake, that's when writer's block and burnout occur. Thank you for a lovely, lovely post!

  7. Thanks, Jenny! I totally agree about the need for both "directed" writing (aimed at making a specific thing happen in the story) and "free" writing (when there's no set aim but more of a sense of exploration). We need to carve out time for the latter, and to take advantage of those times when they occur.

  8. Hi Linda, I'd love to hear how the "chutes and ladders" worked for you! It can be fun to take a familiar idea or metaphor and apply it in new ways! This one, in particular, helps us to see that everything is always in movement, in one direction or another. Sometimes we have patterns in our writing that we're not aware of!

  9. Hi Laura. You make a great point that this "play time" can also be used to noodle around with other stories ... even if they never see the light of day, they help to keep our creative juices flowing and may, surprisingly, circle back to illuminate the current story in a new way or add another aspect that we hadn't realized could be there. Thanks for adding that idea!

  10. Thanks, Patricia. I would love to know which ideas were useful to you, and if they sparked you to come up with new ones as well! It can help to have a list at hand that one can turn to during those times when we feel aimless or impatient. I'd even venture that an exercise like this can give us a renewed sense of agency while we wait for "the other person" to get back to us.

  11. Thanks, Fae. Maps and charts are a great way to turn what is essentially a "linear" story into a graphic form that is based on relationships rather than time. Summaries, on the other hand, help us to get at the essence of the story—both are great, especially if done during the same period of time, because they exercise different parts of the brain and stretch us in different ways!

  12. Hi Jen! Thanks for your comment! We do need to shake things up, loosen our minds, "turn the soil" "so we don't stay stuck in what we've put on the page. These exercises can absolutely help us to see what's there in a new way ... and to turn up new possibilities! I'd love to hear how they worked for you!

  13. apisacano123 says:

    These suggestions are so fun! Thanks, Barbara!

  14. […] delineates the difference between critique partners and beta readers, Barbara Probst has ideas on how to work with your story instead of on it, and Sam Lipsyte reveals the key to writing: it all has to be the good […]

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