are you grandmothering your manuscript?

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Grandma Frog by E.R. Crowell

Grandma Frog by E.R. Crowell

I was once a manuscript’s grandmother. When I drafted my first novel, I was like a grandmother to my characters–heck to the whole story itself–I thought everything my characters did was adorable. If they wanted to toddle down a rabbit trail, I tagged along, allowing the little darlings do or say pretty much anything their hearts desired. It was fun!

As a doting grandparent, I said, “Well, the kids are only here for such a short time. Let them twist the plot to smithereens. Who cares if this dialogue doesn’t contribute to the story. We’ll clean up the mess later.” Oy. And such a mess they (we) made. Like cleaning up the PB&J on the walls after the grandkids go home, the revision process that followed was messy and painful.

I will confess that I chose the “grandparenting approach” intentionally (and in my defense as a once novice writer, unwittingly) because I thought writing that first draft was all about discovery. Who could work from an outline, I thought. How boring to know how the story will end ahead of time. It’s the not knowing that pushes you to keep writing. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?

I’ve since learned (through much wailing and gnashing of teeth) that parenting a manuscript is the way to go. Motivated by love for my characters, I have disciplined myself to tell them no. I must also allow my sweeties to make bad choices and to get themselves cowlick-deep in doo-doo (something a rescuing grandma could never do). And I have come to appreciate pre-writing and planning because, not unlike a parent who is looking out for a child’s future, it propels me to be more productive and create a stronger product sooner than I might otherwise.

Parenting and novel writing have another thing in common–the goal is to work yourself out of a job. A parent wants to raise a happy, independent, responsible adult, not a kid who stays a kid forever. A novelist wants to create a fully-formed (and finished!) story, not a germ of an idea that never develops or sits half-finished in a file forever. Planning and preparation aren’t guarantees, but they do increase your chances of finishing what you started and being pleased with the result.

Consider these jump starters to help you parent your manuscript to maturity:

* Snowflakes Try Randy Ingermanson’s amazing Snowflake Method
* Notebook Paper Create a traditional outline (you know, Roman numerals, et al.)
* Index Cards Draft the novel scene by scene on index cards (pretty ones)
* Paper and Markers Use mind mapping (great for very visual writers, plus, you get to color)

(Now, do any of these sound that scary?) 

If you’ve always taken the grandparenting approach, let me challenge you to give one of the jump start methods an honest try. It will feel confining and foreign at first. But I think you’ll be delighted to discover, as I did, that these methods still allow you lots of wiggle room to be surprised by your characters as you get to know them, to “see” something new you hadn’t anticipated in the planning phase, and just like a proud parent, you may see your work grow to become something even better than you first imagined.

If you’re going to write a novel, you have two choices: Jump in or wade in. Either way you’re gonna get wet. So, why not give manuscript parenting a try?

To Grandma, For being my first editor and giving me the best writing advice I’ve ever received: ‘Christopher, I think you should wait until you’re done with elementary school before worrying about being a failed writer.’ ― Chris Colfer, The Wishing Spell

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