How to Revive that Dying Manuscript

Last week, I came thisclose to giving up on that memory erasure novel. THISCLOSE.

This would not be the first time I gave up on a manuscript. In fact, it’s always around this part (the middle of Act II) that I contemplate abandoning this piece of shit that has sputtered and stalled towards the end of Act II. Like NO ROOM IN NEVERLAND, I tried dragging it on for a while before admitting to myself that the story isn’t working and that it’s not going to turn out the way I want it to. It’s commonly known as the “dark night of the soul” for writers, where we languish in the pits of inferiority and debilitating self-doubt.

writers-block

I came across this article recently, How Writers Mourn Their Dead Novels, which perfectly describes what it’s like to have a dying novel in your hands and it’s up to you to bring it back to life.

You’ve spent years falling in love with an idea, working out its intricacies, populating its contours with characters that become like family. And now, after months building it word by word, you have a thick manuscript, mostly finished, that flops about on the desk like a dying fish. “Save me,” says the fish. “I can’t,” you say.

And then it dies.

I’m standing at that point between the flopping and the dying. And as someone whose manuscripts have survived several near-death moments, here are a few tips I can offer to those who are in the same boat as me right now:

1. Keep Your Eyes on the Finish Line

Some days, it feels like you’re never going to finish the damn story. It feels like it will never be done, and that you’re just crawling your way to the end with a boulder tied to your back.

I know.

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Snoopy knows too.

The only reassurance I have – and am clinging on to – right now is the knowledge that I’ve been through this before. I’ve had to contend with several flopping novels on the brink of death before, and somehow managed to salvage. NO ROOM IN NEVERLAND is something I’m sort of proud of (even though it’s still not perfect), partly because it was a manuscript I had almost abandoned but managed to COMPLETE (at last).

Think about what you first set out to do with this story, think about what you’re trying to say. Think about the magic that first inspired you to write the novel, and forge your way towards realising that magic.

2. Enjoy the Ride

Yes, it’s painful.

The whole process of creating something from scratch is like carving out a piece of your flesh with every word you type.

The first draft is ALWAYS shitty. Because that’s when we’re still figuring out the story as we go along, even though we may have plotted it extensively before diving into it. We can never know for sure EVERYTHING that we want to say until we actually say it. So a lot of what we’re saying the first time round comes out garbled and incoherent.

It’s verbal diarrhea.

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But it’s the process – that journey towards The End – that makes the destination that much more beautiful, after all. Why else would you want to keep doing it, story after story? Knowing how far you’ve come since page one, seeing how different – better – the finished product looks from your first draft, realising that you somehow managed to find your way to the end eventually makes everything worth it – the blood, the sweat, the tears.

3. Work on Something Else

Instead of tearing your hair out and squeezing your brain dry while you agonise over the WIP that is just not working (which NEVER works for me), maybe a distraction might help to get the writing juices flowing again. No, not Facebook or Instagram or Pinterest.

Another WIP.

A Shiny New Idea.

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How those other Shiny New Ideas are calling out to me right now.

I’ve found that it helps for me to work on another story simultaneously, so whenever it’s going terrible for one you can take a break and turn to the other. Sometimes, you just need some distance between you and your WIP to approach it again with fresh eyes. It usually works, at least for me.

The whole idea is to not lose momentum. Keep writing – another WIP, a short story, a poem (if you’re into that – personally, I make a terrible poet) – and you might just find a diamond in the rough.

4. Time for a Change of Scenery

do-something-worth-writing

Benjamin Franklin

Artists are anything but drones. We’re human beings who are constantly seeking new experiences, new scenery to reignite that spark.

Which is why my upcoming Beijing trip is well-timed. Not only is it a change of scenery (all! those! palaces!), it also provides a reprieve from REMEMBER, and I can focus on plotting the Oriental-inspired historical fantasy novel I’ve had brewing in my head ever since I watched Sound of the Desert and read Rebel of the Sands. Shiny New Idea, let me give you some loving!

5. Stay Inspired 

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Image from Hoover’s Corner

How do you write a novel when you’re stuck in your own head? Keep reading new stories, watching new stories, listening to new music, and experiencing new things, and never stop asking what if questions to keep the stories coming!

 

So tl;dr I’m not going to give up on BEFORE I REMEMBER YOU just yet. And if you’re thinking of abandoning your WIP, don’t. Just give it some time and space. It’ll get better. Trust that it will!

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By the way, I’ll be in Beijing for a week, so I won’t have access to conventional social media and texting platforms like Facebook and Whatsapp (*cries*). I can, however, still be found on Skype (joyce.chua259) and Instagram (@thewritesofpassage), where I will spam travel photos!

It’s going to be crazy times, y’all! Stay inspired.

 

Until we meet again,

Joyce xx

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5 Writing Lessons from Sound of the Desert

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You know me. After watching a good show, I can’t resist analysing it deeper to find out what worked so well for it so I can apply that to my own stories. (That fangirl-y post I wrote previously doesn’t count as an analysis!) So here are some lessons about writing a swoon-worthy story Sound of the Desert has taught me:

 

1. Backstory give your characters depth 

… and makes your readers/audience more empathetic to your characters.

All the main characters in the show – particularly Xin Yue and Wei Wuji – have fully fleshed out backstory that isn’t served to the audience in huge doses (the equivalent of rambling expository passages in a novel).

Xin Yue is a very compelling protagonist. Her past is complicated – when we first meet her, she is living among wolves, her adoptive father was killed, and she’s roaming the desert, lonely and lost. It is only when she decides to travel to Jian An, of which her father had always told her wondrous stories, that she is filled with purpose.

xin yue

You immediately want to root for this brave, free-spirited girl from the desert.

Wei Wuji, too, is an illegitimate child who rose quickly among the ranks of the military to become a general at a young age and win every battle he ever fought. As the emperor’s favourite, he has to contend with gossip and people waiting for him to fail.

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In a way, those two are similar in that they are outcasts, underdogs. They don’t quite fit in where they are. Xin Yue neither fully belongs in the desert (she was roaming freely but aimlessly with her wolf pack), nor in the city with all its social hierarchy and rules and palace politics. Wuji distances himself from everyone because he doesn’t know whom to trust, and focuses on winning every battle because that’s the only way he can shut up the naysayers.

When two lonely souls meet, you know that’s a love story waiting to blossom.

Wuji 8

 

2. Everyone has a flaw

… and how they regard that flaw determines who they are and who they will become.

Xin Yue’s most notable flaw is that she chooses to stubbornly turn a blind eye to Wuji’s love, instead choosing to chase Jiu Ye and demean herself to the extent of begging him to love her and getting herself drunk when she is rejected over and over.

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Many times, I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her. Get over it, you idiot! But I’m sure we all know what it’s like to to be in a one-sided relationship. Moving on is easier said than done, but we are SO MUCH happier once we decide and manage to – as Xin Yue is when she finally accepts Wuji and lets go of Jiu Ye.

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And as mentioned earlier, Wuji has trust issues because he feels that everyone around him in court is a fucking two-face. As such, he appears cold, arrogant, and aloof. But it is only when he’s around Xin Yue that he can be entirely himself and reveal his warm, romantic, playful nature. Even so, at the beginning, he is wary of her and didn’t give her his real name, which would eventually become his biggest regret because Xin Yue couldn’t find him when she reached the city and he thus couldn’t be there for her in her time of need (Jiu Ye found her instead). This thus makes him chase her harder to compensate for the lost opportunity.

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Jiu Ye is indecisive as hell. Which makes him one of the most frustrating characters to watch in the show. Make up your mind, for crying out loud! Here’s a girl confessing to you time and again, and if you’re going to reject her harshly then make a clean break and stop leading her on. Also, the fact that he keeps her at a distance and doesn’t tell her the truth about why he’s unable to accept her love is a recipe for heartbreak down the road. So we can all safely conclude that his wretched ending was entirely his own fault.

jiu ye

 

3. Supporting characters bring out different facets of the protagonists

Where would Xin Yue be without her sister-from-another-mother, Hong Gu, who first took her in when she entered the city and had no job or connections? And how would she come to appreciate her father’s parting words for her to always look forward with hope in her eyes instead of remaining stuck in hatred in the past had she not met Qin Xiang, who enters the palace just to exact revenge on the royal family?

And if it weren’t for Jiu Ye, she would not have grown into the strong, confident woman whom Wuji regards as his equal. She blossoms under his love, and is free to be herself unapologetically.

xinyue jiuye

That look of longing hits a brick wall.

With Jiu Ye, she always has to second-guess herself, and is uncertain of what he’s thinking even though she tries to read the books he reads and bond with him over flute-playing. Jiu Ye was a necessary part of her life so that she could figure out what she needed and wanted to be.

For Wuji, his uncle plays the father figure in his life (after his actual father deserted him and his mom married another man), so a large part of his upright, loyal and honourable personality, unsullied by greed for power or money, is thanks to his uncle’s upbringing. Meanwhile, his uncle’s son is a snivelling little weasel who plays underhanded tricks and serves as a stark contrast to Wuji’s character.

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That powerful gaze! Eddie gives life to the character.

 

4. Scenes need to vary in intensity and length

Pacing is everything. Or at least, one of the most crucial factors that can make or break a story. A well-told story balances long, introspective or intimate scenes with punchy, high-octane ones expertly.

Between Xin Yue and Wuji’s cute banter and Jiu Ye’s mopey staring out the snowy window and flute-blowing, other subplots unfold. Scheming court officials, battles with the fierce nomadic Xiongnu tribe (Jolecole explains the history a bit more here, and also lays high praise on Eddie), et cetera.

Subplots are a great way to break up the main narrative, which can grow tedious on its own. If woven skillfully in, they can and should also further the main plot and add more dimensions to it while teasing out more character dynamics.

 

5. Character growth is one of the most gratifying journeys

Xin Yue had been adamant about having Jiu Ye right from the start. She only had eyes for him, and didn’t give a shit about Wuji always being there to comfort her when she gets her heart trampled upon by Jiu Ye, to protect her from the people in her past she is hiding from, or just there when she needs a friend in a new foreign city.

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Xin Yue is stunned by Wuji’s sweetness when he tells her she’s not alone in Jian An.

It was only after she decided to let go of her past – her hatred for the people who killed her father and her unrequited affection for Jiu Ye – that she manages to bravely move on to a new chapter in her life.

xinyue

As the audience, we grow together with her. We empathise with her predicament, understand the struggles she goes through to make her final decisions, and experience the same catharsis when she chooses to embrace a new life with Wuji.

 

And lastly, this lesson isn’t about writing, but love.

6. Love is about timing

As Dreaming Snowflake said,

(Sound of the Desert) has always been a story that tells us that love is about timing, however, also that love favours the brave and those who fight for it and never give up and Wei Wuji is the epitome of never-say-die attitude be in it love or in war.

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Gotta love a man who would fight valiantly for what he wants.

 

So while appreciating a mighty fine specimen like Eddie Peng, these truths are what I gleaned. Writing lessons can be derived from anywhere and everywhere, especially in the stories that move you. And the best lessons come unexpectedly, like from a drama like Sound of the Desert that I never thought I would ever watch.

What did you derive from Sound of the Desert or any other stories that moved you?