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What to Do While You Take a Break From Your WIP: Working With Your Book, Instead of on It


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Barbara ProbstYou’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 into your story while you prepare to work on it again.

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 one of the key scenes from a different character’s point of view.
  • Pick a scene with an emotional turning point and give it a different ending. A setback instead of a step forward, an insight instead of a refusal—just to see what that evokes.
  • Interview your protagonist. Ask her the very questions she doesn’t want to answer. What lie might she tell you, to get out of answering?
  • Let your protagonist confront you. Let her tell you why she thinks the two of you are alike, and different. Have her argue with you about the way she’s depicted in a scene and make a case for why you should portray her differently.

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)?
  • Take those steps/events and map them out on a timeline. You can vary the distance between points, 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.  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?
  • Do this for each character. Do certain characters always (or never) appear together? Try switching some of them around.
  • 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 points in the story?

Bring in another sense. 

  • Listen. Create a Spotify Playlist for each of the main characters.
  • Taste. What would be the perfect meal for your protagonist—foods, spices, smells? Crunchy or gooey? Where is she, while she eats?
  • Move. Act out a scene. What sensations, gestures, and movements do you find yourself experiencing?  What does that teach you about a character that you didn’t know? 

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 the 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), then it ought to end with a minus (disappointment, failure, barrier, fear, doubt, betrayal), 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.

What about you?  Please share! Is there another exercise that you’ve found especially helpful? Did you try one of these? What did you find?

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About Barbara Linn Probst

Barbara’s (she/her) debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) was a medalist in popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, first runner-up for the Eric Hoffer Award, and short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Her second novel THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES launches in April 2021. Before switching to fiction, Barbara published a book for parents of quirky kids and more scholarly articles than she cares to remember. She has a PhD in Clinical Social Work and has been a therapist, teacher, researcher, and advocate. When not writing, she’s a serious amateur pianist. Learn more on her website.

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