Reinvigorating That Manuscript
You've Put Aside
by Philip Cioffari

Many of us have at least one manuscript tucked away in a drawer, one perhaps we’ve written some time ago. We know it’s not right yet, not publishable as is. BUT we still believe in it. We know in our hearts it’s a worthwhile project, if only we can get it into proper shape. Here are some ways I’ve used  to approach that manuscript from a new direction, to give it the life it’s capable of.

Change the Point of View

Seeing the story through another character’s eyes can often give us a radically different insight into our material. We discover elements of the story we hadn’t seen before, and we see familiar elements in a totally different way. In a manuscript I’d been working on for years, I changed the POV from limited third to first person. It brought me to a confrontation with my main character that was immediate and forceful. It opened up aspects of his personality that I’d previously been blind to. I was able to go deeper into his psyche, into the emotions that drove him. I fed off that energy as I rewrote the novel.  

Change/Adjust the Voice.

We know the importance of narrative voice, those qualities inherent in the voice of the teller of the tale. They help define the narrator, help us feel who that person is. By tinkering with that voice, we can create a more empathetic, accessible, vivid character. (This is most obviously recognizable in a first-person narrator, but it is equally though perhaps more subtly evident in third person narration as well.) Again, in reference to the manuscript. I mentioned above, I tightened up the language of the narrator, used fewer words, gave those words more of an edge, made the sentences and phrases shorter and more abrupt, used more fragments rather than complete sentences and within those fragments used more present participles instead of past tense, all of which made the quality of his voice sharper, tauter, harder-hitting, which not only brought out his personality more fully, but also added to the overall tension of the novel.   

Change the Beginning and/or the Ending.

Sometimes as simple a thing as changing where we begin the story can jump-start the work with a burst of new energy. I try to find a new angle to introduce my character and the situation he/she is facing, perhaps a place later in the narrative, a place farther along on the rising tide of tension. It can also be helpful to reconsider the end of the story. Of course, we want the most fitting, powerful conclusion we can conjure, but there are many options for that. We sometimes fool ourselves into thinking the ways we begin and end our stories are fixed, immutable. But coming back to a manuscript after some time has elapsed allows us the opportunity to re-evaluate what we thought was absolute.

Change the Main Character.

I know—a daunting prospect. But the payoff can be surprising and enlightening. Like changing the POV, the story takes on a new dimension that opens up unforeseen possibilities. In my novel, The Bronx Kill, I had three young men who were all candidates for being the main character. In early drafts of the book, I had chosen one of them as lead. But something was missing; there was a lack of energy. I didn’t create the vitality I wanted until I chose a different one of them as lead. And once I did, within a matter of a few pages, I could feel the difference in energy: the novel had come to life. (I should add that, when you make any of these changes that I’m discussing, you’ll probably know fairly quickly if you’ve made the right choice. You’ll feel an excitement you didn’t feel before. You’ll feel the story coming alive in a new way.)  

Add a new Character.

As daunting as that sounds, introducing a new character can open up a story in surprising and beneficial ways. While working on my first novel, Catholic Boys, an editor suggested that I might want to add an adult character. The original version of the novel consisted of a group of young boys who discover a dead body near their housing project in the Bronx, in the swamps where they play. The main character was one of those boys. The editor commented that adult readers might be more engaged if there was an adult character they could relate to. His suggestion struck a nerve and, within hours of when he made it, I had come up with the character of a housing detective whose job it was to investigate the death. I became so enamored of this detective that he became the main character in the novel and the story, ultimately, became his story. Much of what I had written thus far became part of the unfolding plot of his life, his investigation. Adding a new character changes the dynamics of the relationships of all the characters in the story. Like the stranger who arrives unexpectedly at a party, everything is suddenly in flux; nothing remains the same. Possibilities abound. (Side note: with the twenty-first version of that book, I found a publisher.)

Add a Character or Plot Reversal.

If a character feels flat or one-dimensional, I try letting him/her do something completely unexpected, maybe something that on the surface seems totally out-of-character. This adds an element of surprise and mystery that enhances the character and thereby serves to engage the reader. It can open up a previously unexplored side of a character. So, too, for the plot. If it feels humdrum or dull, I find a way to insert a reversal of a situation or set of circumstances. Aristotle, in his Poetics, put great store in this as a dramatic technique. He called it Peripety—as in Oedipus Rex when Oedipus calls upon the blind prophet Tiresias for help in finding the cause of the plague that has beset the kingdom. Tiresias, because he is blind, is led in by a young boy as his guide. Because he does not like what Tiresias has to say, Oedipus curses him and casts him out of the palace; but later in the play Oedipus, who has blinded himself, is led away in exile with a young boy as his guide, a complete reversal of circumstances for a once mighty ruler of the land. Reversals can come as a consequence of a character’s actions, or as a consequence of fate. Handled deftly, either can be effective in raising the intensity of the plot.

Change or Enhance the Setting(s).

Often overlooked or under-rated, setting can give both texture and verisimilitude to our work, so where things happen in our stories, I believe, should be accorded careful attention. Setting is a reflection of our characters and their actions, and in many instances it can become a character in itself. So I try to make my settings be practical as well as symbolic, atmospheric as well as sensual. Setting can easily be a driving force of fiction. Certainly that has been true for me. In my novel, Jesusville, the setting consists of both the barren, arid reaches of the New Mexico desert and the refuge for troubled priests situated in that desert; each intensifies the other. In my novel, Dark Road, Dead End, it is the brutal physicality of the Everglades that plays as much of a role as any human character does. I tend to think that where things happen is as important as what happens.

A final consideration.

Something that has helped me when I return to a manuscript that hasn’t yet realized its potential is this: I try to re-connect to the inspiration/impulse/desire that made me want to write it in the first place. Then I examine what I’ve written in search of those pages or details that feel disconnected from that original impulse. That has always seemed to me a good place to begin.

Philip Cioffari is the author of the novels: Catholic Boys; Dark Road, Dead End; Jesusville; The Bronx Kill; and If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues; and the story collection, A History of Things Lost or Broken.