There are just so many problems that can be resolved in one novel.
This article is advice for both editors and authors. It applies to fiction and memoir. If you think your manuscript suffers from "dancing at two weddings," I'd be happy to take a look.
Many writers out there struggle with their manuscripts because they are trying to write two novels at once and it doesn't work.
A common question for authors is this: what is the best piece of advice you have ever received? Very often authors answer regarding advice given to them by other authors. I have done so myself. That's a separate article.
Today, I want to write about advice I've received from an editor I hired to review my manuscript and I'll get right to the point: this advice has resulted in publication after years of struggling with one particular story or rather two.
Here is the advice that saved my manuscript, ahem manuscripts: you're writing two novels. In Hebrew there is a saying that you cannot dance at two weddings. This is a manuscript that took me to two weddings for years and the result was the feeling of frustration and failure. I did all I could to deny it, including writing two other books. This just won't work, I kept telling myself. But every once in a while, I found myself attempting to conquer this story again. Yes, conquer. I felt as though I had to win a battle.
I had an image in my mind of one character, a brother; another image in my mind of another character, the mother. There was a father and a daughter. They were all there. Why was it so difficult for beta readers to grasp my message? In my mind the conflicts and characters were so clear.
I gave up and hired a professional editor and, among many things she said, the words that brought me down to earth were these: You're trying to do too many things with this novel, there were too many layers and too much I wanted to say. Her words resonated with me and that's how I knew she was right. Not at first, in the beginning, I thought that can't be. Surely, this manuscript is near completion after three years of off and on writing. But on reflection there was no getting away from it. She was right.
Stop Competing with Yourself; You'll Lose
As a book editor, I am aware of this when I do my own developmental editing and over the years have realized that it's not just me. Many writers out there struggle with their manuscripts because they are trying to write two novels at once and it doesn't work. The result is competing protagonists, competing themes, and competing conflicts.
Sometimes even the locations are competing. Half of the book is located in one city or country and the other half in another; there's nothing wrong with that, unless you have 300 plus pages to write about both places and the characters' experiences in both places. Often in these same novels characters are trying to work on too many issues at once or have too many flaws and scars. There are just so many problems that can be resolved in one novel. The characters compete for reader attention and focus scatters and is usually lost altogether.
The initial results of such a diagnosis is not good in the sense that it means, yes, a lot of work. I had to go back to this manuscript and divide it into two. I had to put half of the book away completely and work to rebuild the other half into one complete novel with all of the revising and editing it entails. Then I had to do the same with the other half. Though I am not pretending it was not a lot of work when deep down I was hoping my manuscript was at least one complete draft, it was freeing. It freed me to concentrate on one theme, one message, one purpose and the result was yes, one unified novel. A novel has to weave itself together, not try to weave itself in conflicting directions.
Signs this may be the problem with your manuscript include:
I don't know how much of this part or that part to put in. Do you find yourself asking this question often? It could be because one part is really better suited to a different theme and a different central conflict.
Is it hard for you to identify the central conflict? Do you have two conflicts that seem to be at the same level of intensity? Are your characters motivated to solve too many problems at once. For example, does your heroine want to get away from her parents, resolve her sibling issues, start her career and build a family of her own? And of course, you want to show all of this in the novel.
What about the character arcs? Are you trying to make the villain so complex that another villain is needed to justify this first villain? I mean where did he get all of these bad vibes from? Someone must have given them to him when he was too young to fight them off, right?
Finally, the threads of your story have to weave together at the end, not tuck themselves into their own resolutions with no connections between them. What's happening in your story? A nice tight woven ending or a set of endings?
Congrats! Two Novels
Many of us want to travel to several destinations, but we can only do that one writing journey at a time. It will be a much smoother ride if we are trying to touch down in one place instead of two.
Lastly, if you believe this is a problem in your manuscript, instead of thinking of how much work that is, think of it this way: you've written half of two novels! For me this resulted in another few years of work (yes, years), but at the end, a two-book deal, so dancing at one wedding at a time speaks for itself.
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