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Lesson 4 Finding Your Fixes

Where to start?

This lesson, Lesson 4, might be the hardest one in the whole course, depending on your skill and comfort with finding solutions to a broken story.

Or this might be the easiest, most fun lesson. I love finding solutions to problems! The twistier the better. But I have plenty of author friends who struggle with this.

It’s okay if you struggle. It’s okay if you find it fun. And it’s okay to be somewhere in the middle.

I’m going to give few ideas that I hope will help you find fixes for your broken story elements.

Start with the Master List

Okay, so we’ve got our Master List. Now it’s time to find solutions for each problem.

This can definitely be a challenge for people, and full disclosure: sometimes I won’t see the best solution until I’m actually in the act of revising.

And that’s fine! When that happens, I pause what I’m doing, go back and make the new changes, and continue from there.

So let’s go back to the example from Lessons 2 + 3, and let’s say two of your recurring Character Problems are:

  • A character acting out of character.
  • A character whose goal doesn’t feel real or desperate enough in each scene.

To me, that looks like a problem with your character’s initial desire being “too weak” and so you’re letting the plot dictate what they do instead of their own deep motivations. The stakes aren’t high enough, so you need to raise them. That way, their current story desire is so desperate they will make bad choices to get what they want/need.

So maybe a sister who was only missing you now make a kidnapped sister with a a time limit on her life. Or maybe a boy who wanted to get on the homecoming court because he wants to be now faced with a bully who will reveal all his most awful, tragic secrets if he can’t get on that homecoming course. (I have no idea why a bully would do that, but you get my point about raising stakes! 😂) 

One last time for the people in the back:

It is 100% okay if you do not have a strong enough grasp of craft yet to feel comfortable finding solutions. You will learn as you go!!

And again, here are links to resources that might help:

Let’s say you can’t find the solutions on your own—maybe because you’re a beginner or maybe because you’re just totally tapped dry from that toddler that never lets you sleep. No worries! I’ve got some tips below to help get your brainstorming muscles into gear.

Find a Trusted Brainstorm Buddy

My number one piece of advice for aspiring authors is to find a community. Easier said than done, I know. But having people you can talk to about the highs and lows of this business—and the highs and lows of the actual craft—will help in ways I cannot begin to describe.

Only other writers can truly understand why revising is hard or getting an agent is a huge deal or how frustrating it is when you’re stuck in your story.

Plus, when you need a friend to brainstorm with, then you’ve got options right there!

You can, of course, brainstorm with non-writers, but I’ve always found the input from writers who understand story significantly more valuable than the “everyday” people in my life. That said, take what you can get! Outside input of any kind can be helpful!

While it might be helpful if your trusted friend can read the book for you, it is definitely not necessary.

I am personally not comfortable letting my friends read early drafts—it feels like a burden to offload what I know is a disaster onto them! But some people don’t mind, and maybe your first drafts are cleaner than mine! 😉

But keep in mind, whether they read the book or you just give them the summary, you aren’t looking for a solution.

“Wait, Sooz, I’m not?”

No, dear writer. Sure, it would be great if you come out of a brainstorming session with an answer! But it’s also okay to only come out with only the first sparks of an idea.

Writing coach Becca Syme once told me to view it as “getting the ingredients for your elixir from your brainstorming” instead of “getting the whole elixir.” That way, there’s less pressure on the conversation to have an answer—less pressure for you and your writing friend!

You’re just getting ingredients for your elixir; you’re just letting your brain have fresh ideas so it can churn and develop them on its own.

Mind map

I love me a mind map. I make them constantly in notebooks, on my whiteboard, with my iPad. That stream of conscious flow from one idea to the next is so helpful for my brain.

And the visual element of a mind map is so helpful too!

I use them both when brainstorming broken story solutions as well as simply brainstorming my first drafts when I get stuck. Heck, I use them to write lessons like this one!

The beauty of a mind map is that you can write down all your ideas without concern for connection or order. Then, once everything is down, you can start arranging and looking for how things connect.

An example of a mind map from my brainstorming for Witchlight
An example of a mind map from my brainstorming for Witchlight

Go Back to Your Perfect Book

Don’t forget your list of criteria from Lesson 1! It’s very possible you will see right away where the gaps in “translation” are, but if not, then your Perfect Book list will help you remember what you’re aiming for. In turn, that will help you come up with solutions for how to fix things.

Think of your Perfect Book as a compass throughout revisions.

Remember my example from Screechers in Lesson 1? I recently reread that book, and I could immediately see where things broke down. In that newsletter (which is for paid subscribers; I apologize), I described both what was broken—my big plot, character, setting, and beyond problems—as well as offer some solutions to fix.

Here’s one example:

  • I know I don’t like some of the world building. It has some dystopian elements that no longer jibe with the sweeping, moving epic fantasy I see in my Perfect Book. Worse, some of those elements end feeling colonialist, which is definitely not my story to tell!
  • So how did I decide to fix that? I came up with a new arrangement in the world that had nothing to do with “outlanders arriving to help and then never leaving” and instead with a complex cultural and political arrangement across several cities in the same nation.
  • That change also took the book from skewing more YA in tone and content to more adult epic fantasy.

Look at How Others Do It

And on that note, it can be really helpful to look at what others in your genre have done before! I’m not saying you should copy anyone or look at their homework…

But when you remember that story is all one big, collective consciousness built on millennia of first verbal stories, then written ones (and sung ones and danced ones and filmed ones and beyond!), then you can also remember that looking at how other people “make it work” is a great way to find solutions to your own problems.

If I know I want Screechers to be epic, sweeping fantasy then I can look at different epic, sweeping fantasy. Is there some genre convention I’m forgetting?

I’m not worried I’ll copy anyone. Screechers has such a strong, unique atmosphere in my brain, with its dense political landscape and gritty desert wind practically blowing off the pages. So if I go look at one of my favorite fantasy authors—let’s say Robin Hobb, for example—I’m not worried I will copy her at all. None of her series are like what I imagine Screechers as. But they do all qualify as door-stopper mass market paperbacks with epic fantasy inside.

I’m also a big gamer, so I will frequently look to my favorite games to see how I can use what made me love that game in my own stories. I often relay how I learned so much while playing the Dragon Age franchise shortly after Truthwitch went off to the printers, so I made sure to use all that learning—specifically about how to incorporate foreshadowing directly into the physicality of the world—in the rest of the Witchlands series.

Trust Your Instincts

I mentioned this briefly above, but it bears repeating for all of you “intuitive” writers who prefer not to plan or outline.

It’s okay to also trust your gut! You knew enough about craft instinctively to write an entire novel, so you will likely know enough to find story solutions as well.

And you know what? Even if you are a meticulous outliner and don’t consider yourself “intuitive,” that’s okay too! If you see an obvious solution right away, then trust it! It might work, it might not, but you’ll never know if you don’t keep track!

Create Your New Master List

This brings me to my last point which is: record all your ideas somewhere! In a notebook, in a scratch document on your computer, in a digital recorder—whatever works best for your brain, keep track of all the ideas you come up with as potential fixes for your broken story.

Then, once you have all those ideas, you can use them to create a new Master List. Basically, you will go through every problem on your List of Problems, write out a solution that will fix the problem…

And at the end, you will have a Master List of Solutions that we will refer to in the next lesson.

As mentioned above, this might be your hardest lesson…or it might be your easiest. Neither way is “more virtuous” nor “more correct.” It’s just a matter of how your brain is wired.

Now let’s move on and get organized to actually revise!