Fantasy Manuscript Panic

I like editing.

I’ll say that again.

I like editing.

I have to keep repeating it because, faced with a manuscript that (single spaced) is nearly two inches thick, I’m beginning to feel a little…anxious.

Fantasy Manuscript Panic (FMP) is a newly recognised anxiety-spectrum disorder.

I think, discounting A Dance to the Music of Time, this is a syndrome that is specific to fantasy. There is so much worldbuilding, so many stories running on parallel timelines, such a profusion of walk-on parts that it reaches a tipping point where any one part of the manuscript feels frighteningly distant from much of the rest.

FMP starts to occur once the story passes the 80 000 word mark, and recurs regularly thereafter, and its diagnostic feature is that it’s the one writer’s dilemma for which there is no advice on the internet.

Nil. Nada. Not a flaming sausage.

So, as a service to allĀ  first time multi-book fantasy writers out there, may I say: You are not alone. We are all there with you, cowering away from the MS as it quivers and mutters to itself on the edge of your desk. You can tame the beast – witness the number of published writers who have done so. It can be done.

The first watershed was when I realised that it was all right to spend a day (or several) reviewing the story. You do not have to spend all the time on the actual words. In fact to do so will actively harm your tale, in most cases. Divide it up into chapters and lay it out on the floor.

This was the point at which I realised that I need to sell this manuscript in order to buy a bigger living room, but that’s another issue entirely.


Lay your story out. Then work through each chapter at a time, checking that it holds together as a whole, that those pesky scenes all have some sort of narrative reference to each other. If they don’t, you have a problem, but not as big a one as your reader will have. A few scene shifts here and there – not a problem. If each chapter is a sprawl of unrelated scenes, then you’re going to have to either rewrite, or work through the novel in sections, switching scenes around to regain coherency. Fortunately, most manuscripts have some sort of linear coherency, and this is a manageable problem, though possibly a time-consuming one.

Next, look at the chapters. This is especially important if you have multiple plotlines. I usually find that this is the point where the timeframes of my subplots bear no relationship to one another, and have vanished off into an alternate dimension of time and space that would make Einstein weep.

FMP usually strikes, low and hard, as I look at the sheets of paper all over the carpet. It is followed by at least two cats, who add their own interpretation of linearity in plotting by racing across theliving room and vanishing under the bed.

Pick up the chapters, trying not to get distracted by actually reading them. Reorganise them so that the chapters line up in such a way that temporally related events will actually make sense to your reader.

At this point you will likely find that book one has about 130 000 words, which will fall neatly into the required count when you’ve added a few linking scenes and edited. Book three will be about 50 000 words, but that’s all right, because you haven’t written all the subplots and battles into it yet.

Book two has 200 000 words, and you haven’t got anywhere near putting in everything relevant yet.

This is the point at which you get up, chase the cats from the room and sit down with alcohol, caffiene or whatever your relaxant de jour is. FMP swirls around you, making you feel dizzy and sick.

Breathe deeply.

Repeat to yourself:

Book two is always a nightmare. It can be fixed.

Now, without letting yourself think any further about book two, go and finish book one. Book two is a figment of your imagination until you have had an agent or publisher nibble at book one. Book two can be sent to John jarrold, so that he can hack through the forest of prose and rediscover your plot. Start saving for the editing fees right now, if necessary. But it’s all academic until book one is finished. You will, by now, have a better sense of the shape of your story, and what needs to be in that first book. You can even add a bit more to book two, for light relief, weeping hysterical tears as you do so. But do not allow anything to distract you from finishing book one. Without it, all is mist and magic.


3 responses to “Fantasy Manuscript Panic

  1. Send it to me! I can hack and slash / precis / structurally edit. Or m aybe this needs to be two volumes in a quadrilogy.

    Do you have a group of “beta readers”? I realize it should be “alpha readers” since this is pre-pre-release but don’t want to imply dominance.

    Naomi Novik, who writes a great fantasy novel, has draft readers to give feedback; and a lot of famous writers used someone–their spouse, their children, their valet, or their best friend–to give a second opinion.

  2. Never mind about sending it-I see you have an editor. Just remember that every project has its panic stage, when it seems that it will never jell. You’re right: breathe deeply, don’t panic, keep on chugging along. You can do it!

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