Make it work!

Sunday, November 05, 2017
On a rebroadcast NPR show from last December, I heard Tim Gunn, host of Project Runway, talk about his catchphrase "Make it work." Something he said resonated with me when he explained why the phrase was so useful.

I am paraphrasing when he said he uses it because it teaches students to analyze the situation/project, figure out what's wrong, and then fix it. He said he has seen many students realize what they have isn't working the way they wanted it to, in that the vision does not match the reality, and then abandon projects and start over. He said starting over teaches us nothing. He recommends that the students sit down and analyze what does works, what the problem is, and how to fix it. In this "throw away" culture, we may lose the ability to examine everything with the eye of a critical thinker, and when it's something so close to us, it becomes even more difficult.

Analyzing a problem is something that many groups/companies/writers aren't comfortable with. We get to a spot, realize there's a problem, and then abandon the not-perfect work in order to go in another direction. Sound familiar?

I am having this problem with both of my flawed novels. I have been thinking about them for several years, but this year I've taken a couple of chapters to my wonderful critique group for help. They are honest and familiar with the problems we all face, and have come up with ideas I wouldn't have thought of.

I know there's something in these novels that is readable and worthwhile, and tell a decent story. But dang it if I haven't fallen into the same traps as many others when getting to a point where I want to give up and start over. This is a lot of work, and I have to decide if my stories really need to be told.

In addition, I must figure out if I am passionate enough about them that I will take the time to analyze the problem so I can fix it. It's a tough question, but decided the answer is yes, so here's what I am doing to guide myself through the process. Hopefully these five steps may help someone else, as well.

Step one - Print out chapters and read hard copies. I did this with my first book "Strengthen Your Nonfiction Writing." It may not be a step that is necessary for others, but it worked for me. I am a visual learner.

Step two - Summarize each chapter in a paragraph or on a notecard, and then read them together in order to see if the story flows or makes sense. I've already done this in a separate file, but will edit any changes I want to make, etc.

Step three - Ensure that the journey of the plot/character makes sense.

Step four - Fix any storyline flaws. I know where one problem lies, and need to address it. Part of this involves doing some research into plot development, which may involve reading or watching movies in the same genre to see how these stories evolve.

Step five - Read it again from start to finish making any copyediting changes to ensure that where I changed the plot, I also remembered to change tenses, character POV, etc. (I have a problem with this!)

Just like designers, the vision in a writer's head may not show up on the page as planned, so we may need to adjust the vision, or tie together the vision and the reality, or abandon the original vision for a new vision based on the new reality. Don't delete, modify!

Thanks, Tim Gunn, for the reminder that there is always something worth saving!

Mary Horner's short story Shirley and the Apricot Tree was recently published in Kansas City Voices. She teaches communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Mary--Thanks for those five steps/reminders. There is something satisfying about taking something that doesn't work... and making it into something palatable. Good for you, Mary, for taking that challenge on.

(And if we dressed as sharply as Tim Gunn does, would be soar even more as writers? ;)

Mary Horner said...

Sioux, there is something about dressing for the part! And I've been able to do a bit this year, but hopefully next year is better!

Beverley Baird said...

I am exactly there with a novel - that I feel passionate about. I had a critique done through a course and I know I have a lot of work to do. Thanks for those great steps.

Pat Wahler said...

Your suggestions are perfect and timely, with so many writers doing the NaNoWriMo marathon this month. There is definitely always something worth saving!

Mary Horner said...

Thanks, Beverly, glad you are making it work, too! I've had people recommend a book doctor, but I'm not quite ready for that yet.

Pat, I hadn't thought about tying it in to NaNoWriMo, but to be honest, one of them is from NaNo a few years ago.

Sarah Angleton said...

This is great, Mary! A good reminder that the hardest and most rewarding part of writing comes with the revision.

Renee Roberson said...

I love these five steps! They are so practical and focused. I hope to use these with one of my manuscripts I need to revise. I don't think it's in bad shape, but I know there is some of that character journey I need to work on. Your method sounds perfect for that.

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