Sunday, September 27, 2009

Time for a Checkup?

by James Scott Bell

I have a new doctor.

My old doctor was brilliant. He could tell me what was wrong just by examining my wallet.

My new doctor is young and aggressive. I met him the first time a couple of months ago and he said he wanted to put me through a battery of tests, including a look at my ticker.

I said, "But Doc, I'm the picture of health!"

He did not care what I thought of my own pictures. He went on looking at my records, telling me I needed an updated this and a new that, then ordered that I get probed, scanned, tested, stuck and bled.

And so I was.

Some time later I got a message to call his office.

Now, when you get such a message you have a moment of panic. You start hearing those movie lines, you know, where the doctor says, "You have six months, maybe a year."

Or you wonder if he's going to want you in for full on heart surgery, today. (My response is that, in lieu of surgery, I'd prefer he just touch up the X-Rays).

Well, the news was all good. A clean bill of health.

But it got me to thinking. There are times in a writer's life when the pallor of impending doom falls over a manuscript. You think, Man, this thing is having heart problems. It's struggling for breath. I hope it isn’t going to be DOA when it's finished!

I suggest in that instance you run some of your own tests. Like these:


Step back and analyze: Is the Lead's objective strong enough? Readers want to care about a character's quest. Unless it is of absolutely vital importance to her well being, the objective is not going to grab the reader as it should. And by vital importance I mean that death is on the line—physical, psychological or professional. It can even be all three. (I have a section on the importance of "Death Overhanging" in Revision & Self-Editing).


The living, breathing center of your novel is the Lead character. Is he original, complex and in some very real way, compelling? Readers want a character who is not just some retread out of previous movies and books. You have to personalize and truly fall in love with the Lead. Here are two questions to ask: Do you find yourself thinking about the Lead even when you're away from the manuscript? Can you imagine your Lead living a life outside the book? If your answers are no, you need to do some deepening.


What is the "passionate center" of this novel for you? Have you lost it? Is your daily writing a dry exercise? Stop and write yourself a letter. Pour out all your emotions. Be honest with yourself about the book. Here's the thing: you need to find out if you're writing only to sell. If so, you're more market driven than story driven. You're not being true to the tale trying to break out. And it will show. Manuscripts without heart are piled high in countless offices in New York.

Yes, selling is the goal and market considerations are wise. But they are not enough in today's competitive environment. What matters even more are the passion and individual voice you bring to the pages.

So give your story a check up in these areas and get your manuscript back to the health it so richly deserves.

Have you ever had to resuscitate a manuscript? How'd you manage it?


  1. Following with the doctor's analogy, sometimes a manuscript needs a different pair of eyes (a critique partner, an editor, your dog) to let you know what is wrong. You can become so enamored with your story that it becomes a blind love.

    I guess that's why there are some classified ads in Writers Digest magazine about "book doctors!" Hum, my book seems to be coming down with a cold, better call the book doc.

    Thanks for the post, Jim. I'm glad you are healthy.

  2. Good point about getting a second opinion, Nick. I have a trusted first reader who actually lives right in my house with me. Good thing we're married.

    OTOH, be careful of too many opinions. The right critique group can be good, but may, at times, be hazardous to the health of a novel.

    Leeches are a last resort.

  3. Very timely post for me! May I ask you to weigh in on this: how do you handle the complexities of what your protagonist wants when, even s/he doesn't yet know, and it changes as the book progresses and things develop?

  4. Carla, great question. I'll give a bit here, and then I'm going to be on the road for a while. Maybe others can add their voices.

    Consider distinguishing between outer and inner needs. The latter may be unknown to the protag, which is why the character needs to grow. Self-awareness is usually the last thing to happen but is a powerful arc.

    But also consider giving us a strong outer objective, whether it's Holden Caulfield's trip to New York to find "real" people (psychological death on the line), or Dr. Richard Kimble's need to avoid capture (physical death, for he's under an execution order) and find his wife's killer (psychological). That gives the reader a "through line" that makes for page turning fiction.

  5. You gave me the Eureka! moment I needed. Thank you!