Thursday, April 5, 2012

Discovering What's Missing

Hey everyone, Annette here. Sometimes I read through a chapter (even my own) and know there is something wrong but I can’t always pinpoint it. Have you experienced this? You’re sitting in a critique group or trying to evaluate your own manuscript and you know it’s missing something, that elusive something, but you can’t name it. What do you do? There are too many elements that go into a great story to just run down a mental list. That list reads like the criteria for a writing contest. But it’s laborious and scientific. Sometimes what’s missing is quite a bit less tangible than that.

Here’s how I attempt to answer the question of “what’s missing?”:

First, I hit on the big things. (I’d really like to avoid that long list if I can.) So, did I feel the emotions of the character? Readers want a satisfying emotional experience. Did I sympathize with the main characters? Are they unique and do they sound different? What about tension? Am I hooked? Is the story engaging? Does the story fit its genre. Readers come with expectations to your story. If they pick up a romantic suspense, don’t give them a prairie romance (unless you’ve tied the two genres together somehow *wink*).

Second, give myself time to think. Give yourself permission to not know what the missing element is. If you’re critiquing, you can just point out: I’m not feeling the emotion here (if you can get that far), even if you don’t have a specific suggestion for how to fix it. If the missing element is too elusive, just leave it alone until you have something constructive to share. No use confusing the crit partner. However, talking it out might help you both hit on something. Sort of like brainstorming. So don’t be afraid to bring it up.

Third, give myself some space. Work on something else for a while. Give yourself a true break from that project. This is especially helpful if the project is your own. Then, when come back to it, read it aloud. Chances are the missing element will come out of hiding now.

If all else fails, you can go through the list of necessary elements, but be prepared to spend some time. Besides a contest list, I’ve never seen the criteria itemized in an exhaustive list. But we both know there are a million elements that go into making a strong novel. The key is to focus on strengthening our weaknesses. And if you do that in the off times, you’ll become more adept at identifying missing elements, both in your work and in the work of others.

Here’s to naming what’s missing and having the wisdom and strategy to fix those holes in the manuscript. I’m sure this gets easier with time. You can even practice on published novels. While you’re reading, ask yourself: is there anything missing? What would I do differently? Is there anything I would change? All of those strategies help us become stronger writers.

Either way, dear writer, write on!


  1. Yes, it does help to step back from it for a while. And the ACFW Genesis scoresheet is a great practical checklist to look for problems in your manuscript. I think I might get my critique partners to use the checklist on my wip.

    Thanks for putting all the steps together for us, Annette.

  2. You're welcome, Angie. The Genesis checklist is great. There's no "letting myself off the hook" when it comes to that list. ;) The only time we can do that is the rough draft when we're in fast-writing mode. After that, the ms has to get in shape and a checklist will help guide us. Happy writing!


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