What To Do When Your Manuscript is Totaled

I’ve only been in one bad car accident in my life. 

A chick in a fancy sports car ran a red light and T-boned my dad’s not-so-sweet Chevy S-10, spinning it around and slamming it into a light pole.  I always rode shotgun (sans seat belt because I was stupid like that), but managed to walk away with minor injuries.  Dad made it out okay, but the truck…Ole’ Blue Belle didn’t survive. 

With a twisted frame and severe body damage, she just wasn’t worth fixing.

And sometimes that’s how I feel about my WIPs. 

Revision can repair lots of problems, but sometimes there is just so much rewriting to be done that it’s better to start off fresh. (FYI:  Sara Zarr author of a PW 2011 Best Book always starts her first revision in a new doc and retypes every word). 

Maybe you have a premise problem or maybe the story would be better told in first instead of third (a crisis I face all the time).  Whatever the issue, when you get to the point  that you know it’s not salvageable, DO NOT FEAR!  There are a few things you can do with your WIP that may save you from a mental/emotional breakdown: 

  1. Look for scrap metal:  In Blue Belle’s case, one door, her bumper, and a couple of tires were all still in working order.  Maybe your WIP has large salvageable parts.  It could be a character who, with a few small tweaks, could slip into a new ms.  Or maybe it’s a handful of scenes that are so good they can fit into a different plot.  Look hard!  There is something there worth saving.
  2. Don’t ignore the spare parts: Pop the hood, look inside.  What really made your ms go?  In Blue Belle’s case, her radiator was shot but her actual engine still worked.  There were plenty of things that could set another truck into motion.  For me, the spare parts are phrases, a description, an allusion or simile.  I hate seeing good writing go to waste, so pull out your best stuff and save it in a file for later.  The next time you need to describe say…a forest, or goosebumps you’ll have something to fall back on.
  3. Grab the garter and go:   Once you’ve dug around for all the actual chunks of writing you can recycle, don’t forget the memories.  My brother has a garter hanging from his review mirror and I guarantee that when his ’91 Toyota is pushed through the gritty gates of the salvage yard, that garter is moving on to his next vehicle.  You had to learn something while you worked on the now-totaled WIP.  Figure out what it was and tuck it into your pocket for next time.  I promise you’ll be glad you did.
When it’s all said and done, you’ll look back and be grateful for this WIP.  Then you’ll chirp the lock on your new tricked out truck (complete with a roll bar, some mad chrome, and a trailer hitch) and drive off into the sunset. 

And with that I’m metaphored out for the rest of the day. 


  • E.J. Wesley

    Great suggestions/thoughts, Becky! I might have to try the re-writing in a blank doc tip. I’ve got one project that I’ve tinkered with so much I’m not sure what to do next. Maybe that’s the ticket?

  • carrieannebrownian

    I pretty much had to start over on a WIP I’d put on hiatus many years ago because I couldn’t access the file or convert it, and started over again from memory as best I could, using the basic plot outline. When the discontinued first draft was miraculously resurrected, I was glad I’d lost it and been forced to start over, since there was no way I could’ve used any of it. It was that awful, like a Grimm’s fairytale on acid and with tons of writing mistakes, like excessive purple prose and heavy-handed moralizing essentially telling the reader to feel sorry for the MC.

    I think every writer should have that experience once, starting over on something that’s just not very good, or that’s so unsalveagable it needs to significantly go in a different direction.

  • Laura C.

    Great comparison, Becky! I learn so much from all my endeavors, even failed ones. (Especially failed ones!) I have a character and plotline in a novella I’m dying to transplant to a novel, but haven’t seen an opportunity yet. Some day…

    ~~ I was gonna say it was a great ‘metaphor,’ but saw Carrie’s comment and lost my nerve. (Analogy or metaphor? Uh-oh…)

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