Writing Excuses 4.27: Major Overhauls to Broken Stories

What do you do when, halfway through the book you’re writing, you realize it needs to be completely rebuilt? More importantly, how do you figure this out in the first place? This podcast came about as a result of a question from a listener, but the question was specific to “what if you find out it’s too derivative?” As it turns out, that’s just one of the many problems you can discover midway through a novel.

We spend the first half of the cast discussing how each of us identify the showstopping problems that require us to overhaul our works.

We then talk about the process of fixing things that might, at first glance, appear to be completely unfixable. Sometimes we shift pieces of paper around, sometimes we push blocks of text around in our word processors, and sometimes we have to do something really significant, like adding an entirely new character or point-of-view.

One of the best features of this particular ‘cast is the bit in the second half where Howard and Dan grill Brandon about his process for Towers of Midnight. Wheel of Time fans won’t find any spoilers, but they’ll certainly gain some insight.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: The Warded Man, by Peter V. Brett, which Howard loves because of the “stand-up-and-cheer” moments of heroism throughout the book.

Writing Prompt: Take something you’ve already written, grab a throwaway concept in that story, and rewrite that scene or chapter so the throwaway bit is now the major focus.

Moment of Extreme Hubris: “I give lessons.” Listen for it.

That Episode on Stealing for Fun and Profit: Right here.

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40 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 4.27: Major Overhauls to Broken Stories”

  1. To any and all of the hosts: (Or anyone else who knows,)
    Do you take any legal precautions when you hand out drafts to writing groups and alpha readers?

  2. Haven’t listened to the episode yet, but just seeing the title, I’m praying it’s not indicative of any problems Brandon might be having with TofM. *fingers crossed*

  3. In reply to Dave- While I am a fan of Robert Jordan and “WOT” myself, you do realize that as far as author productivity goes, Brandon is an AMAZINGLY fast, and accurate writer, don’t you? There are authors I know of who take six months to a year (depending on their personal pace and deadlines or family concerns) to write ONE book. This coming year, (if I’m missing one, please tell me) I believe Brandon has three books being released, counting “WOT”.

    Eventually it will end and people will just have to be okay with that. Cut the guy a break, man. He’s writing his heart out. Patience is a virtue. Also consider, other than adventure novels under different pseudonyms, some “Conan” novels and “WOT”, that’s ALL Mr Jordan ever wrote, day in and out for many years.

    A person can only do so much til they have to take time for themselves is all I’m saying. I think he deserves a little R & R (Rest & Relaxation), personally.

  4. I was surprised that both Howard and Dan mentioned The Last Airbender on their blogs recently. The original TV show was incredibly well written, but I didn’t think any of the W.E. crew would even know it existed. Of course, the movie was lackluster. In fact, I think the movie is a good example of a screenplay that needed a serious overhaul, but never got one. I’ve heard that M. Night is incredibly possessive about his scripts, sometimes not even letting producers read his material all the way through until a contract is signed.

    In any case, writing is meant to be looked at by more eyes than just the author’s. Otherwise, why bother putting your ideas down on paper? Every story needs some outside perspective. That’s why writing groups are so important. Speaking of which, I need to get me one o’ thems. Anyone know a good writing group around BYU that is looking for newcomers?

  5. I used to be at BYU…I don’t know if you’re a student, but there’s a club called Quark that has a writing group as part of it. They meet regularly, and it can be really helpful. Right now they’re doing a “Quark Writing Month” instead of NaNoWriMo, which tends to be over midterms. Also, if you’re at BYU and not volunteering at Leading Edge (a semi-pro magazine that does SF&F) you’re really missing out on a great education. Reading slush taught me a lot more about writing, often, than reading good writing. Alternatively, I think if there’s a handful of WE listeners interested in starting an e-mail crit group…I’d be willing to coordinate. I’m living in Idaho, and haven’t been able to find any live writers around here interested in the same kind of fiction.

  6. @Mark: Legal precautions? What, like a non-disclosure, or printing the manuscript on colored paper so it’s harder to photocopy?

    Short version: No. Long version: Brandon has special arrangements for the WoT novels because there’s actual monetary value in leaked information, so it doesn’t get the same writers’ group treatment his other work gets.

  7. Aside from the WoT, as Howard explained, Brandon doesn’t let anyone alpha-read his stuff who doesn’t value his friendship and his personal respect for them more than they value his writing. I think you’ll find that a common practice among writers, i.e. their alpha readers are people they have known and trusted for years, which makes legal precautions superfluous.

  8. Really good podcast. I had a huge feeling of relief when Brandon said he can’t get it all on the first draft, because that’s what I’ve certainly found. I focus on the main parts, but sub-plots need shoring up, or even re-writing, and all those pesky things that reared up while writing that I never thought of during planning have to be dealt with. So it’s a nice way to think of it – I will understand that this is normal. And yes, it’s way easier to revise than to face the blank page.

    Also very interesting about new writers seeking critique groups that simply encourage them, at least when starting out. That’s who I started, though I’m at the point where I want critiquing. Instead, these days I find I’m on the other end of it, with friends who are just starting out, and I think I need to pull back on critiquing them and just encourage more.

  9. Very relatable podcast to my current situation. I got through about the halfway mark recently of my 3rd draft and realized I had an issue. I’m trying to fix it, but wishing I had seen it far in advance. This is an inherent problem with my writing situation as I can only find small chunks of spare time: during work breaks, lunch and BART commute. So I tend to start and stop frequently, which has me ending up forgetting where I left off or missing big, gaping holes in logic until later.

    Oh well, plus originally I thought the novel would be a short story…now it’s a novel. Plus recently, I finally admitted to myself that the novel is really two books. Good that I have more material to work with. Bad that I have so much more work left to do before it is going to feel ready to go to a publisher for consideration.


  10. One thing mentioned a few times that I would like a podcast about is the process of doing your drafts. You said that Gathering Storm was 18 drafts (if I remember correctly), but I don’t entirely know what that entails.

    Is a draft simply reading through the story and revising with a different thing in mind each time (that was kind of implied by this episode)? Does it actually involve rewriting substantial portions of the story? And how much work do you do during your first draft? Are you just focused on getting the story on paper, or do you spend a lot of time making sure each sentence is as close to perfect as possible?

    Anyway, Writing Excuses rocks. Keep up the good work

  11. @Mike-
    What the heck, dude? Where in my post did I say anything about meeting/missing deadlines? You seem to have me confused with the “Finish the Book, George” SoIaF fans and their WoT counterparts. As a fan of all of Brandon’s work, including this podcast, I’m well aware of his productivity and admire him for it. I was just making a semi-humorous, semi-sympathetic post, since I know from his recent Tweets that he’s deep into edits of TofM, and boy wouldn’t it stink (for him and everyone) if in the middle of those edits he realized the story was “broken?” I’m glad you’re standing up for Brandon, but pick an appropriate target next time.

  12. My current project needs a major overhaul. So major in fact that I’m’ switching from discovery writing to outlining!

  13. Every novel I’ve written so far needs a major overhaul at some point. In fact, my process usually consists of writing the rough draft up to the halfway point, getting so frustrated with the project that I drop it for a couple months to write something else, pick it up again from the beginning and finally finish it. For the one I’m currently writing, I had to write a completely separate novel in the same world to know what I needed to do to fix the other novel.

  14. Great episode! Immensely helpful and insightful, as always!! I think this in conjunction with Ep 18 will help me salvage my work!

    Many thanks!

  15. For those who, like me, are stuck in an area where you don’t have a local writing group, you might find some value in http://www.critters.org/. It’s not the same dynamic as a writing group, since there’s not a lot of personal interaction but if you’re looking for critiques and are willing to spend some time doing the same for others, it’s a reasonable substitute.

  16. Question for Brandon – how do you manage to keep track of all the plotlines for a 350K manuscript? Are you able to keep all that in your head? Do you draw time lines, or use outlines? My mind boggles at that task!

    How about Howard and Dan? Howard sounds like pieces of paper are involved, which would make sense, given so much visual content.

    I’m facing the first big re-write and trying to figure out how to get an overview of the plot and subplots, and I’d love to know what other people do.

    Thanks again – I so enjoy these podcasts. :-)

  17. This was some much needed advice for moi. I’ve set aside at least two books I felt were too broken to continue (one at 20k words, another at 55k or so) that I may give another spin. Although the first one will probably require a full rewrite due to some of the flaws I’d already figured out when I put it down.

    Secondly, I ended up picking up Warded Man based on your review over on the schlock blog Howard. Loved loved loved it. Only reason I haven’t grabbed Desert Spear yet is I still need to read a ton of other books I already have waiting. Though once I’m caught up it’ll have to fight a death match with the sequel to Hunger Games for who gets read first >_>.

  18. Wow, this episode was unexpectedly helpful to me. I of course expected it to be interesting and possibly useful, like always, but it was more! I have a novel that I abandoned probably 2/3 of the way through because I was bored of it and couldn’t figure out how to ramp up the stakes or tension. The suggestions in this episode made me look where I hadn’t been looking before–at the characters. I realized that the main character has a backstory that made her seem interesting, but she wasn’t actually that interesting to write. I need to either take her out or make her a much less significant character. It will mean a complete overhaul, but at least I don’t need to scrap the entire idea!

  19. @Patrick, Kaitlyn, Chris, and Rafael (and others): Thanks for letting us know this episode was useful. We’re always happy to hear that we’ve helped out in some way, and your feedback encourages us to further explore this topic.

  20. I was actually going to request a “how do you know a story is broken” episode to sooth the Writer Neurosis Syndrome that we all get now and then, so this looks like it’ll be an especially good listen beyond the usual helpfulness of the podcast. :)

  21. Well, this was very helpful. I finally started asking the questions I needed to fix the plot of my ending.

    Basically, I needed to act like Howard does here, because for this particular story, I started off with an Act 1 idea thinking it could begin a story, (previously doing short stories and a novella, it usually would be complicated enough on its own) but I continued complicating the story until it excited me as a novel-length project. This was all good until I realised I had two extra acts to plot out and I had no idea where they were going. Given that this is the first novel-length project , I was sort of stuck in the discovery writer dilemma of having to outline and not being very practiced at it, even though I think I’m not ill-suited to outlining.

    Being finally SURE I’ve got everything I need for the draft is a nice feeling, even if I’ve got hours of rewriting and reordering and a couple new chapters ahead of me. :)

  22. @Mark_VanTassel: It’s certainly possible to have a writing group contract that includes non-disclosure-ish things in it, but this seems fairly paranoid to me.

    The more important aspects of any kind of contract for a writers group (with situations like real legal issues, such as with the WoT books aside) are that people agree to participate regularly, come prepared, provide feedback in whatever form is agreed upon, and submit regularly. Most writing groups fall apart because everyone is too nice to point out that someone hasn’t submitted in four months, or that someone never emails track changed documents to their fellow writers (that’s a rule in my group, and it’s important; why should I do that kind of line-commenting for a bunch of people that don’t do it for me?).

    At the end of the day the second you write something, you own it. If someone steals your work (which I really can’t imagine happens more often than being struck by lightening) you have legal recourse already: sue them. Putting that into a contract doesn’t create extra special legal rights. It’s redundant and I’d be afraid it would create a bizarre atmosphere of distrust amongst group participants and applicants (Why does this contractual language exist? Is this issue a problem here?).

    If the issue is that you are afraid someone will steal your ideas, there is really no cure for that kind of thinking. Remember the mantra: my idea isn’t special, ideas are cheap. How I write my idea is what counts. Two people writing the same idea out write different books. Etc. Hopefully, your ideas will inspire your fellow group members. That would seem to me to be a sign of a healthy critique group.

  23. @Mark
    I could be wrong here, but wasn’t the way of kings already wrote? And Brandons working on another world building. Not that there’s anything wrong whit that. He’s one of the best Authors i’ve read in a long time. In my opinion Garth Nix and George rr martin are the onyl ones that i like more. If Brandon was to world build from scratch on a new series, whit characters e.t.c. It would take a lot longer.
    Btw good podcast. I love the selling out joke near the start:P

  24. I could completely and utterly relate to this podcast from this past week, so thank you so much for doing a podcast on this. I’m currently working on a few broken stories and I think this podcast made me re-examine a lot of things not only from my personal eye, but also looking at some of the comments from my own writing group.

  25. tymcon,

    I hope you put a bit more effort into writing fiction than you do writing comments here.

  26. tymcon,

    You should show respect to the people who read this by making sure your spelling and grammar are correct.

  27. Well Howard, not only did this podcast help but your advice on avoiding prologues and writing the story from the true beginning now has set me on the right track. I almost feel like I tried to write a trilogy starting on the third book instead of the first.

    Talk about being lost!

  28. @Ed.
    Hmm I hate having these sort of conversations over comments but here we go. Don’t be petty. I’m not going to reply to anything else since I usually hate the people who start having random fights over a website. But what does writing a comment have to do whit writing abilitie? That questions rethorical btw. Yes I said bte, not by the way. Okay, sorry for being a bit petty myself there. Well that’s it.

  29. I can’t very well disemvowel him for that, because then I couldn’t correct the spelling of my name by editing his post.

    Which I just did. Mostly because I like my Google relevance.

  30. Thanks guys!

    I like Brandon’s tip about going through a whole ms just fixing one character at a time. I was trying to figure out how to do that, because I know that some of my characters’ voices have changed slightly over the course of the work. Sticking to one character at a time is a realistic way to make sure that voice is consistent.

  31. Whether you outline before you write, or outline after you write during editing, I think an outline is pretty important for all books. I can certainly point to a few Stephen King novels that really would have benefited.

  32. Some major overhauls I can understand. But one major thing that needs to be said is, there is a difference between being an editor, and being a cowriter. The amount of changes I don’t want to end up making, is wear the editor might as well have written the book themselves, because they did a complete genre change when they suddenly switched from everyone using guns to everyone using swords.

    What about science fiction screams swords and sorcery?

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