Sooner or later in your writing life you are going to run up against a novel that just won’t spark to life. Technically the story appears to have all the needed aspects, but as a whole, it is less than the sum of its parts. The characters don’t engage, the plot wanders, and your beta readers are unmoved.
Where are the book-talk guys?
Most of us would love to have some Book Talk Guys. That is, a talk show where you can call in and describe the worrisome sounds coming from the third act, or the way the thing won’t budge on a cold day or how you’ve already spent 400 hours rewriting, and the story still does not engage.
Alas, there is little outside help for this. You might pay a book doctor to help you, but listen: you gotta learn to do this yourself. Because stories-that-won’t are common. They stall, and you can’t throw money at them very often. So we are stuck doing our own diagnosis.
Trying to write when you’re discouraged or tired might seem like a brave thing to do–and if you are often discouraged or tired, it is brave to keep on–but in most cases it’s a bad idea to flog yourself until you get back at the project.
Sometimes taking a few week’s break is not only good for your mental health, it can do wonders for your novel rewrite. Work on a short story or an essay. Pile up some reserve blog posts. Don’t be idle, but don’t work on the problem project.
There is an almost magical power you can tap into when you let your manuscript sit for two weeks or a month. It is called perspective. Perspective is what you lose when you’ve been too close to your novel, especially if you’ve read the draft a number of times either aimlessly fussing with style or remodeling the story arc. If this sounds like where you are right now, read my post on gaining insight on your story by doing nothing.
Get below the surface
If your story is not working from a structural standpoint, you should look there first. An excellent resource is Larry Brooks’s Story Engineering. It belongs on your bookshelf. But assuming that your novel has a good structure (that was for the early re-writes) you may still be left with a sluggish tale.
Here’s how I approach a much-revised novel that still won’t. Once I can come to the project with fresh eyes, I dive deep. You may not have a deeply character-driven story, but even if not, that’s where your best story improvements will likely come from.
I take a hard look at key questions having to do with character and concept. Of course, I have already worked on these critical aspects of the novel during the planning stage. Now I step back and ask, are these really accurate? Has my story changed? And also: If my concept and characters are clear, have I brought them onto the page?
At this point you are looking at the story as both a whole creation and as the sum of its parts. You also look at it subjectively. You listen to the tiny voice in the back of your head, one that might be saying “that character is just not snapping to life.” Or whatever insights your subconscious is giving you that you’ve managed to deny.
Key emotional questions
I get insights about the emotional depth of my story and how much the reader will empathize, by pondering a few key issues:
Theme. In one word or simple phrase, what is the meaningful theme of the story? At the deepest level, what is the story about? For example: loyalty. We should not hit too hard on this. It must, in fact, not be apparent to your reader at a conscious level. For more on this, see my post What’s It All About? But the author must know the theme and let it guide him or her deeper into the story.
Premise. What does the story attempt to say about life or attempt to prove? For example: Distrust leads to desperate proofs. (My hero wishes to be seen as loyal, but his goals are thwarted by the poison of mistrust.) Does the story deeply explore this premise?
Emotional core. What emotional principal (largely conveyed through my main character) will resonate with my readers? Example: Everyone yearns to belong. (In my hypothetical story, the protagonist wishes to be thought loyal so that she can belong to the group.) Does this core emotion strikingly engage in several key scenes, and is it the subtext of many others?
These are the main diagnostics I look at with an otherwise excellent story. These are also good questions to ask when you are rewriting early on. But in the final analysis, and after all the rewrites, to have the strongest possible story, we should answer these questions regarding meaning and emotional experience and bring them clearly into the story.