When An Idea Breaks Your Manuscript – 4 Ways To Fix It

I am a huge fan of serendipity. That moment when you realize something about your world or your character or your setting that makes what you’ve been planning and your story all seem inevitable.

This post isn’t about that. This is about when you realize everything is wrong.

Sometimes, it’s a huge plot hole, when you realize what you had planned for isn’t going to work and you have to change it. Other times, you think of something better — to improve your characters, plot, or pacing. Or, if you’re pantsing, something might have come out of the blue and now you have to set it up properly.

There are of course, several approaches to this.

Why?

Because we’re writers. And none of us do the same thing the same way. Sometimes, we don’t even do it the same way twice ourselves.

So, without further ado, let’s talk about the four ways an author can handle an unexpected realization that ruins things they’ve already written.

1 – Ignore the Idea

Maybe you’re a planner and this was not in your outline. Therefore, you will ignore it and write the story as planned.

Perhaps, you’re a pantser and the idea will take far too much much effort to work in.

Sometimes, it’s a brilliant idea — but it’s not the story you wanted to tell.

In any case, if you don’t make the change, you don’t have to do the work. Just barrel ahead and leave things as is. (Assuming, of course, it’s not a gaping plot hole.)

Although… many writers have found, when they have an idea that strikes the right chord for their story, ignoring it will cause their story to actually fight them. Either the words stop coming, or that dang story idea keeps trying to work itself in at any opportunity.

2 – Make a Note, Then Ignore It

If you’re writing away, a big change like this could derail your momentum. Or, maybe you just hate switching between editing and writing modes? Either way, some people just make a note and keep writing.

Where do they make the note? Wherever makes sense to them. It could be in a notebook, a draft email to themselves, in the margins of a printed out page (if you print each chapter as it comes out or something), or, in the margins of the electronic document.

No matter where the note is made, the idea is that it will remind the writer of the edits to come, and they can move forward with the story.

But, without knowing how the details will be set up, it can be complicated to just start writing as if that note had been true for the entire story. Thus? Some writers will keep writing with the wrong details, so that when they come back to revise, all the changes can be made smoothly and congruently.

3 – Make a Note, Then Incorporate It

You’re still writing away, still not breaking your momentum. You’ve added a note, so you know where to edit up to. Now? All you have to do is make the change and move forward as though you’d always intended your world or character or what have to be that way.

Details are often less intrusive than one might fear. Fixing that detail and reviewing what you had before might re-energize your writing.

Or? It might bog you down. Some writers, once they start editing, need to fix everything. Thus, even if your goal is to get your rough draft finished, you might end up stuck in editing-hell, doomed to keep thinking of new things to fix and never moving forward on your manuscript.

Only you can know if you’ll be pulled into that trap.

4 – Rewrite the Whole Thing!

Sometimes, your idea is just so novel, so pivotal to the story, there is only one option if you want to see it play out properly. Throw out the entire manuscript (or, you know, save it to your drafts folder and open a new document. Never, ever, ever throw out a manuscript!) and start from the beginning again.

Feel free to steal, without reservations, lines, scenes, or chapters from the original, but make sure everything is reworked and made fresh.

Sure, it might be a lot of work, and some writers struggle with writing if they feel like they’ve already written this scene, but sometimes, it’s the only option.



Writing a manuscript is hard work. It takes time, effort, and creativity. Hopefully, with these four options, you can find yourself a gameplan next time your drafting runs off the rails


Let me know if there are any options I missed! Have you ever had to use one of these to get a manuscript back on track?

Commas: The Joy and Bane of Writers

If you ask one-hundred writers the proper use of commas, you’ll likely get one-hundred-and one (or more) answers. The grammar rules might not have changed much, but the editorial preferences sure have.

Now, this post may get a bit more grammatically technical than usual, but I hope you’ll hang in for the ride.

Where To Use Commas

The Oxford Comma

I would be quite remise if I had any discussion of commas without discussing the Oxford comma. On Twitter, my pinned tweet (as of this post) has long been declaring fellow lovers of the Oxford comma supreme.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, the Oxford comma refers to the use of the comma before the word ‘and’ during a list of items. It is also known as the serial comma. For example:

Morgan, Sara, and Kelly went to the coffeeshop to write.

Oxford comma

Morgan, Sara and Kelly went to the coffeeshop to write.

No Oxford comma

Now, while I would love to claim it is necessary, I must admit the truth. The Oxford comma is optional, unless the meaning of the sentence would be confused without it. You’ll often see memes of sentences arranged to make the meaning garbled without the Oxford comma.

In this next example, the implication is that the writer’s parents are named “Ayn Rand” and “God.”

“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

Internet meme

Obviously, if “my parents” were listed last, this wouldn’t be a concern.

Conjoining Independent Clauses

Independent clauses are effectively two sentences conjoined with a conjunction (and, but, or, because, …). Basically, if both halves can stand alone as a complete sentence, you need a comma.

I’m going to write my blogpost, and you get to read it tomorrow.

Around Phrases That Aren’t at the End of the Sentence

What do I mean by phrases? If you’re not like me and didn’t have your mother give you grammar books to work on over summer vacation, you might not be as familiar with the next few concepts.

The first type of phrases are: introductory or conditional phrases — like the ‘if…’ part of the sentence I just gave, “When I was younger,” and that sort of thing.

The next are prepositional phrases (although, sometimes can be ignored for shorter ones. Prepositions are words that tell of spacial or timing relationships. “On the box”, “in my stomach”, “around the corner”, “after lunch”. For example:

If the phrase is at the start of the sentence, you put the comma after it.

For phrases in the middle of the sentence, on the other hand, you bracket the phrase with commas.

The comma is often not necessary at the end of the sentence.

There are two caveats to this rule. The big one is, if the sentence would not make sense without the phrase, or is part of the subject, then the comma should be omitted. For example:

The writer in the blue shirt is running away.

And the rule is in the example for the next one:

The second is for phrases that begin with the word “that”.

After Introductory Words

Well, you know I like to start sentences with introductory words. So, you’ll see tons of examples of this on my blog. Yes, you may find it excessive. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not valid!

In-between Coordinated Adjectives

I had to look up the details on this one, and I’ve been messing it up because I thought it was ALL adjectives, but knew it looked wrong.

For those of you whose grammar lessons were long ago and far away, adjectives are words that describe a noun. A noun is a person, place, or thing.

So, here’s an example of a list of coordinated adjectives:

Let’s describe a well-rested, happy, contented writer.

Besides imaginary, note that I use commas between all of those descriptors. What makes them coordinated? I can re-order them and it makes equal sense. Plus, obviously, I can use the word “and” in between each of them.

What makes an adjective list un-coordinated?

How about a writer fueled by a cold-brew mocha latte?

While still not me, at least, you’ll see that none of those descriptors can be “and”ed. They’re all describing one particular type of coffee, rather than the descriptors of the imaginary writer who can be many things.

For Contrast

This one’s a little self-explanatory, but these are typically at the end of a sentence, often when you want to invoke a response from the reader (or the one being spoken to).

You’ve used a comma for contrast before, haven’t you?

To Offset Dialogue Tags

The joy of being a writer is finding the right balance between too many, and not enough dialogue tags.

“Do you ever know,” she asked, “if you’ve got them right?”

He said, “a proofreader would know.”

“I hope so,” she replied.

Where NOT To Use Commas

Between Verbs

Not every use of the word “and” deserves a comma before it. When you have multiple verbs or verb phrases next to each other, they are not treated like nouns with an Oxford comma. (For those of you who forgot, a verb is simply the action word (or state of being) used in the sentence.

You don’t need a comma to revise and edit your work.

Between Subjects

The subject of a sentence is the noun (or implied noun) who is doing the verb action.

Morgan is blogging.

In this simple sentence, “Morgan” is the subject, “is blogging” is the verb. [Note: I think, since I’ve verbified the word “blogging”, that it is not a gerund in this instance. A gerund is a noun turned into an action by use of adding -ing.]

But, when if I have two subjects, even if they’re described by a phrase, we don’t add a comma.

The owner of this blog and Ellie are blogging.

Sometimes, those gerunds I was just talking about get used as a subject themselves.

Writing all night is bad for your health.

Where It Gets Wiggly

It used to be, especially in dialogue, the writer would put in commas at every instance the speaker would pause.

My voice acting group used to do the same.

But, we’ve found that we get better results not dictating the commas.

And the publishing world seems to have agreed.

Unless it can change the meaning of the sentence, it’s currently recommended to avoid commas where not grammatically necessary. It can be useful for differentiating voices between characters, but much can also be said about verb and other word choice.


Any comma questions? Anything I got wrong? Let me know and I’ll fix it.

I double-checked the guidelines at this Perdue writing site google gave me.

How to Self-Edit That Lousy First Draft

Welcome to Part 9 of my Virtual Balticon panel writeup.

The painful panel description was as follows: Panelists will discuss they’re favorite techniques four editing when they don’t have outside reader, or editor too help.

The panelists were: Mark Van Name (as moderator), Julayne Hughes, Margaret Riley, Beth Tanner, and James Stratton.

(I know, I just did Making Painful Edits, but I was in the editing stage when I hit this convention, so I hit more than one panel with the same theme.)

Different Approaches To The Writing Process

Before you can self-edit, you’ve got to have a draft to work with. There are several different methods people use — and just because one worked for you last time, doesn’t mean you’re stuck using the same method every time.

First drafts stink. That’s just the rule. Sure, there are exceptions, but you’re probably not it. But, it’s okay. It’s all part of the process. Ninety-nine percent of all writers are gonna have to edit their lousy first-drafts.

  • Pantsers – Draft it out and see what happens — easier for short stories, writing “by the seat of their pants.
  • Planners – Outline first, then write
  • Plantsers – Create a light outline, but sort out the details as they go, letting the story deviate organically
  • Immediately share chapters as they come out
  • Wait until it’s done before sharing
  • Wait until it’s revised to share

Things To Do To A Rough Draft

Now that you’ve got that rough draft, you’re gonna want to edit it. No, really.

  • Let it age, so you can look at it with fresh eyes. 2-3 months is usually good.
  • Or? Dive back in while the world is still fresh and vivid.
  • Run spellcheck and grammar check. Use Grammarly or EditMinion or the HemingwayApp
  • Change the font and/or print it out so you can look at it with fresh eyes. Or have your device read it aloud to you.
  • Read through and clean up the sentences
  • Outline the draft AFTER you write it, check for pacing and seeing what themes emerge that you can build on
  • Declutter, declutter, declutter
    • Don’t say something 6 times in 6 different ways. Keep the best version and cut the rest
    • Remove the filler words that exist to hedge: “just”, “so”, “well”, “a bit” “feel”
  • Kill your babies, your darlings.
    • We hear this a lot, but what does it really mean?
      These are the pearls of wisdom or great moving drama. It’s not gonna be everyone’s taste. Structurally, look for descriptors — most people have fairly good imaginations. You don’t have to spell out everything about the horse the rider hopped onto. Give them as little as you can at the beginning, move up the details as you move along.
  • Don’t write like a computer programmer or a stage director, you shouldn’t be dictating every move of your character.
  • Draw out your story arches — one for the plot, one for the POV characters. See where each peaks and ebbs and make sure they complement each other. See where you can cut or combine characters, or scenes, or chapters.
  • Don’t let your reader suffer for your research. Just because you spent five hours researching canning techniques, doesn’t mean you need to spend more than one sentence talking about your characters canning fruit.

Tools used for structural work

Maybe the part of the story you’re most worried about is the pacing or plot coherency. In that case, you’re probably going to want to use some tools to inspect your story’s structure.

  • Scrivener corkboard view. Or 3×5 cards on the table.
  • To organize the changes: watch where POV shifts. Color coded by POV or type of scene, etc.
  • Murder maps can be fun if your story has conspiracies.
  • Spreadsheets to track things:
    • When do we see each person
    • Travel distance
    • POV switches.
    • Character info
  • Create your own wikipedia (archivist.com will allow this)
  • Create a sort of D&D character sheet for each character

Editorial Pet Peeves

When editing your own manuscript, you should probably keep in mind the things that professional editors see as pet peeves. They’ve seen a lot more manuscripts than just yours, and I’m sure you don’t want your writing to come across as trite or overdone.

  • “letting go of a breath that he didn’t know he was holding”
  • “walking and walking” Or whatever word you’re reusing.
  • “Continued”
  • Words with the right meaning but wrong connotation
  • Fillers like: suddenly, just, that, of
  • Having every other sentence as a fragment
  • Not using conjunctions to seem more literary
  • Going out of your way to avoid using “said” as a dialogue tag
  • Bouncing POV, without a clear break
  • Bad grammar — for no reason
  • Reusing and overusing words

When to bring in the beta

At some point, though, you’re going to reach the limits of what you can fix on your own. You’re only one person, and you know the characters and the story too well to see what might be missing.

While it’s up to you, you really should bring in outside readers at some point. Some people share a few chapters to see if they’re on the right path. Others wait until the story is polished, then share. If you’re struggling with your story, you may want to reach out sooner.

Beta-readers are usually readers of your genre, but not necessarily writers themselves. They bring a different perspective to your story.

However, a critique partner/fellow writer is going to be more useful with story issues. Be selective who you’re sharing your manuscript with.

As always, you don’t have to agree with the edits, but even if you don’t like a proposed fix, you may want to look into clarifying the scene your beta tried to edit, to make sure it was properly set up.

And? As Margaret said, “you don’t come with the book. If I have to ask you questions, you’ve left something out.” The book needs to stand on its own without explanation.

Once beta-readers have taken you as far as you can go, there’s always one more option. If you’re querying for traditional publishing, you might be able to skip this, but if you’re self-publishing, you definitely want a professional editor, to make sure your book has that professional quality you want associated with your name.

You’ll want to make your manuscript as clean as possible before you hire an editor. You can’t afford not to. You don’t want them wasting time fixing things that Word could have told you, you want them to be able to see the bigger issues.

Make sure you’re hiring the right sort of editor — or get one who can do it all.

Types of Editors: Copy vs Clarity

Content editors are concerned with the plot and characters.

Proofreaders come in after edits and check for typos.

Copy-editors watch for repetitive/missing words, bad phrasing, bad logistics [missing arms, where’d the sword come from], etc.


There are a lot of stages of editing, and I know I’ve covered this topic before in different ways, but it’s always good to get fresh advice from more writers. Especially when they agree.

Any tips or tricks you’d like to add?

Let me know and thanks, as always, for reading.


Shameless Plug: If you’re already attending WorldCon – CoNZealand July 29-Aug 2 (July 28-Aug 1st here in the states), come check me out day one on What to Expect When You’re Ready to Query and Establishing a Social Media Presence.

Making Painful Edits

Welcome to Part 7 of my Virtual Balticon panel writeup.

It’s hard to cut out scenes or characters that you love, but your story may be better off without them. How do you learn to recognize when something has to go, and how do you reconnect any threads that run through the parts you’re removing?

These are my notes from the titular panel at Virtual Balticon 54. The panelists were: E.C. Ambrose (as moderator), Kim Hargan, Julayne Hughes, Nick Martell, and the writer guest of honor, Wen Spencer.

Editing can be painful. But it doesn’t just hurt the novice, even experienced, award-winning authors can suffer the pain.

Ways of Handling Painful Edits

Nick Martell once cut 100,000 words. Then, he basically rewrote the manuscript. He hated it at the time, but made it better. He doesn’t regret it for a minute.

Julayne Hughes – In her first short story published in an online magazine, there was a beautiful, long description… gorgeous writing and it felt like “just a punch in the stomach” to her when she deleted it. But it sold.

As an editor, she has told authors to cut chapters. She will justify the cut and the authors typically agree with her.

Wen Spencer usually walks around, stomps and screams when she needs to make painful edits.

One example: while on contract, Wen wrote 50k about a slave on a ship. Then, realized the character needed free will. So, turned her into a freelance translator. Then, realized she needed to go over there. So 2 boats, with the character working for the other boat. THEN. Threw that away and started with going off somewhere else. So, rewriting the opening is part of her process.

E.C. Ambrose prefers painful edit notes via email, not live or via phone. (A thought I 100% concur with.)

How to figure out what needs to change in your story

While the big picture can be easy to plan, the details are often where everything goes off the rails.

  • If you’ve gotten a rejection letter with a clear complaint? Start there.
  • If you outline, (and you can outline after your drafts are done), do you want it to be good or bad for the character? Usually, you want to escalate the conflict. You can also try checking your chapter pacing against beat sheets (see: Jami Gold’s great selection)
  • Does the story track? It has to be logical that the character does what they do. Although, there is a difference between what’s happening and what the character knows.
  • Ask your beta readers — one reader might be off the track, but if multiple beta readers are saying the same thing — you’ve got a problem.

Tips for those painful edits

  1. Let it set.
  2. Outline what you ACTUALLY wrote, not what you intended to write and see how that affects the pacing and character development. See if plot lines or side characters are dropped. Etc.
  3. Change the font
  4. Read it out loud (or use an app: naturalReader.com or apple accessibility features)
  5. Check your time-table/travel — don’t hesitate to map it out and use spreadsheets
  6. When making a change, start at the beginning of the scene and work your way through
  7. When cutting a scene, reread the previous chapter and the remaining sequel to make sure it still flows.
    • Note: Just because you cut a scene or setting, doesn’t mean you have to eradicate all mentions of it. Wen once HAD a magic school but left references in as a “we wish we could, it was back in the day”, that way the ruins, etc were still cultural touchstones.
  8. Make sure all your characters are needed and three-dimensional. A lot of times, especially if multiple characters are fulfilling the same role, you can consolidate those characters into one. The more reoccurring characters, the harder it is on the reader. And one shot characters don’t need names.
  9. Sometimes, you’ve gotta take the full draft, use it as a reference, but re-write and reorganize the whole thing from scratch.

No matter if you’re the one deciding to completely revamp your novel, or the suggestion is coming from a beta-reader or editor, it’s hard to set aside the pages and chapters that you spent so long on.

I do tend to overwrite, and from experience, I know that I like the finished product a lot better when I’ve streamlined my story by cutting about a fifth.

A final thought. One of the most nebulous complaints we try to fix as authors is: ‘I just didn’t connect’. While you don’t actually need to have a likable main character, you do need a relatable character. That, plus a clear setting can go a long way toward helping immerse the reader.


Have you struggled with knowing how to fix your writing? How did you figure out what was needed? And how did you fix it? Did it work?

Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back again next Thursday with more writing tips and writerly musings.

Choices To Make With Beta-Readers

After you’ve written your manuscript and gone over it at least once, it’s usually time to ship it out to some beta-readers, to get an outside perspective. If nothing else, they can spot the things that you know about your story that you didn’t actually put down on paper.

There are tons of different techniques, and I’ve got to say, this time around, I’m kinda winging it.

How Many Beta-Readers To Ask?

It has been quite some time since I sent a new, fresh book off to beta-readers.

My first time, I just asked my friends on facebook — before I’d jumped into the writing world. I had RPG game masters, english teachers, family, and readers reading it. I tried my best to mix backgrounds, gender, and age. I sent it out to seven readers and heard back from five. I had in-depth feedback from four and high-level feedback from three (there was some overlap).

Since then, I’ve had plenty of critique partners — writers, looking at my manuscript with a similar lens to mine, that I let loose in ones-and-twos on more polished drafts.

For this beta? I asked a middle-grade writer friend, a YA writer friend, and was pleasantly surprised when a friend working on base during quarantine asked for something to do while waiting out his shift, helping make sure I didn’t *just* have writer perspectives.

Three beta-readers. Not a lot, but a nice balance if they all come through — which mine have. Just in time for me to have a block of time between chapters on that never-ending YA revision of mine.

What To Ask For

The best way to get beta-feedback you can really use is — shock-of-shocks — to ask for it. You know I’ve got my 10 Questions I Ask My Beta-Readers, such as: what works, what doesn’t, and what parts they enjoyed.

No matter what you’re worried about: characters, dialogue, world-building, pacing — now is the time to ask. Have them focus on the parts of the story that you care about.

You can even tell them to skip the line edits, if you want! Make this a developmental round of edits, not a copy edit.

They might not address all your questions directly, but by asking, you plant the ideas in their head before they begin, and it can really help direct their feedback.

Should Your Betas See What The Others Are Saying?

There are mixed feelings on this, and clearly, the answer is to do what works for you.

If you’re still world-building or playing with techiques and things, where you want to almost brainstorm what the story could look like with your betas, a shared document with open feedback might be just the ticket.

For me? I make sure they all have their own private copy, so they don’t know what anyone else is thinking. This way, I know they’re all facing it fresh, with no one else’s pre-conceived notions influencing them.

The choice is yours.

How To Compile Beta Feedback

Some people read feedback from beta-readers as it comes in, addressing stuff immediately with the excitement and energy they get from the fresh critique.

I like to sit on it.

Well, I read the draft letter they usually send with the big picture stuff and let it percolate in my brain. But the read-through and all the inline stuff? That waits.

I like to wait until I have feedback from ALL of my beta-readers. And then, I–

Wait. Let’s be honest here. This is only my second completed manuscript. I need to stop talking about this like I have a process. I sorta did this with my 2 or 3 shorts I sent out, but noo really. I just have “what I did last time” and “my vague plan that I’m stalling on by writing this blogpost.”

So, my plan and what I vaguely remember from my first round of betas, longer ago than I would like, is that I’m going to go through the feedback, chapter-by-chapter.

I’m going to have all three beta drafts and my own fresh-copy open at once. Maybe on separate quadrants of the screen? As I see line edits, I’ll see what the other betas thought, and decide if I want to incorporate them.

On a notepad, or gmail draft, I’ll be jotting down the larger stuff (although, most of that, I’d imagine, is not in-line, but instead in the draft letters they all sent me, that I already read).

I know, all the advice says to skip the line edits until you know if you’re even keeping that chapter, but I find getting the line edits out of the way makes the big choices easier, because I’m not overwhelmed with all the ‘clutter’ of the small stuff.

Last time, I printed the whole thing out, going chapter by chapter, making notes, writing new scenes on the back of the pages of the last draft. I’m debating now, and if I should do that before or after I do the quick line-edits. I almost called them ‘easy’ line edits, but they can be quite challenging. They’re just often smaller changes in scope, not difficulty.

To me? I consider changing wording and adding descriptions, etc, as ‘editing’. While changing pacing, characterization, and other big picture stuff are ‘revising’.

So, after I use their feedback to edit my manuscript, it’ll be time to look at the big picture and decide where to go from there.


How do you like to work with your beta-readers?

Are there any things you’d suggest I do differently? Does something else work for you?

Let me know in the comments below and I’ll be back again, next week, with more writing tips and writerly musings.