Remember that time you wrote a perfect manuscript, proofread it, fixed a couple minor grammatical errors, then fired it off to your favorite publishing house and woke up a month later to find it on the Best Seller’s list? Yeah, me either.
Let’s be honest, if writing was such a magically painless act, there would be no editors and you wouldn’t be here right now. Writers of all levels are well aware that no first draft materializes fully-formed and ready for mass consumption, but what is truly difficult is not only recognizing areas in which you have failed to achieve what you envisioned, but accepting that failure. Not accepting it in the “well, this sucks, but I need it for the mechanics of this story to work, so I guess it stays” sense, but accepting that you have failed in order to understand why you failed, which in turn will lead you to the rectification of said failure.
While a great many issues can be dealt with during regular revisions, it is common to be so focused on a specific idea or approach that you overlook faults that negatively impact other areas of the work. Given the nature of these more insidious flaws, they usually require an external perspective, such as a beta reader, editor, or critique group to bring them to light. However, having someone else question your failings within these foundational elements can be challenging when you’ve already built an entire story or novel atop them. As I recommended in a previous post, take time to consider these suggestions before dismissing them outright. You aren’t beholden to the specific requests of any editor or reader, but their acknowledgement of the problem will help you internalize that it exists, and your wild writer brain will begin to redraw the map that will lead you to the optimal solution.
In high-concept pieces, each poor decision can construct a step in a Rube Goldberg machine triggered to derail your story. The first tripwire is the most important to root out, and once you see it, its entire architecture will become clear. Yes, you will have your work cut out for you. Yes, you may want to call for backup to help determine the success of your restorative efforts, but if you want to tell your story on your terms, I suspect you want to do it as effectively as possible. There is a delicate balance in non-traditional works that are more driven by tonal or visceral choices than plot, so be on the lookout for sections where style devours story.
Not all pieces require such in-depth scavenging, but that does not necessarily make them any easier to edit. All the best stories take us to previously unimaginable places and make us feel emotions we would never fathom otherwise, but these powerful elements can’t just be loaded up into the ol’ canon and blasted at our sensory receptors to achieve the desired effect. An intense or climactic scene might exist precisely as you envisioned, but if it doesn’t translate for your readers, it’s a wasted effort. Oftentimes, it isn’t even the writing of the scene itself, but the storytelling around it that leaves people grasping at your intent. Scenes featuring unrealistic or traumatic events are almost always divisive in early drafts, because they require the reader to conjure considerable imagination or empathy, and it is possible that you have not properly set the stage for such an undertaking. It can be particularly difficult to endure these criticisms if you are fictionalizing a lived experience, or are writing non-fiction, but no one said this would be easy. Again, recognizing that a problem exists, accepting that your approach is off, and working your way through will guide you to a more fulfilling story for you and your readers.
There is something to be said for a writer who will defend their vision to the death, but the mark of a true professional is identifying something that isn’t working, being open to changes, and dedicating themselves to improving the reading experience.