Learning from Bad Manuscripts

Today I pulled the plug on my WIP manuscript, The Swarm. At final count, the unfinished collection of garbage words weighed in at just under 53,000 words. Considering that novels run anywhere from 60,000-75,000 words and up, shouldn’t I be sad that I stopped so close to “the end?” Hell no!

I’m glad I stopped working on this manuscript. Despite spending months and months on it, I don’t consider any of it wasted time. As writers we can learn just as much from a piece o’ crap novel (and rejections) as we can a masterpiece. Don’t believe me? Well, it’s time for some truthfacts–with examples taken straight from The Swarm.

So why did The Swarm fail as a story? Let’s start with the characters. I tried to write a book with three separate main characters whose stories are mostly separate from one another until the very end where their paths finally converge. While multiple protagonists can work (see the A Song of Ice and Fire series for example), in my case trying to write multiple characters meant that the protags were watered down and spread thin. Each one had maybe a third of the amount of personality that they should have had if they were the book’s sole focus.

One of the characters, Galtiero, had no flaws other than the fact that he slowly becomes unhinged as he tries to fulfill his “destiny.” But even that wasn’t coming through in the manuscript. He continued to get what he wanted. He won battle after battle (all of them happened off screen, of course). He became the ruler of his country easily. Even though I talked about people plotting against him, nothing ever happened. Galtiero was boring because nothing bad ever happened. Hell, nothing really happened on screen in general.

Of the other two characters: one was an asshole (that was his only defining quality) and the other barely had any screen time. In the fifteen or so chapters that I wrote, I think she was featured in about two or three of them. She would have gotten more chapters from her POV as the story went on, but the whole novel would’ve been unbalanced. Blegh. Nobody wants that.

And that takes us to the plot. The Swarm failed because like the main characters, having three separate storylines meant that each of them got less “awesome plot juice” than they deserved. There was no clear antagonist in any of the storylines. Only at the end would one of the characters turn into the “villain,” but by then it would have been too little too late. The characters didn’t have clearly defined goals that would in turn drive the plot forward. Without those motivating factors, things happened in each of the storylines, but all the events lacked pizzazz.

So how could I fix The Swarm if I ever wanted to? There’s several possibilities, but they would consist of major rewrites, probably all the way back to the outline level. I’m thinking this post about novels as engineering projects where every chapter needs requirements, and this post about using “Yes, but… and No, and…” to help develop stories and outlines would be extremely helpful. I’d have to carefully examine all of the characters’ motivations and find ways to deepen them, find ways to thwart their desires, and basically scrap everything I’d already written.

Not everything is gloom and doom, though! Because I learned what went wrong with The Swarm there’s a chance that I’ll be able to avoid those same problems with my next project. In fact, because I’m using the principles discussed in those two posts, I already have a good feeling about my current novel outline.

What about you guys? Has anyone else abandoned a manuscript more than halfway in? Did you learn anything from writing a “bad” or “unsalable” manuscript? I know I sure did.