Total Control

Have you ever thought you were totally in control of something, only to find out you weren’t? I had that happen recently. I thought I had absolutely everything I needed for a meeting at my daughter’s school, only to find I didn’t have the proper immunization records, the registration form they had mailed me, AND that her birth certificate had disappeared.

Sometimes the same thing happens in my manuscripts. I am a partial-pantser (writing friend Marie Lamba calls us “thongers” but that’s just not an image I want burned in my brain), so there’s plenty of space in my manuscripts to go off the rails. Reading over the rough draft, I find things like neglected plot clues, inadvertently changed place names, and minor characters left in the bathroom from chapter 2 until the end of the book.

So what to do when things firmly in hand spiral out of control? The only effective way I’ve found to deal with this is to concentrate on fixing one thing at a time. I called my toddler’s pediatrician and got her records, picked up another registration form at the meeting, and still haven’t found the birth certificate, but I can pick up another copy from the vital records office.

As far as mistakes in the manuscript, the same rule applies: tackle one thing at a time. I always go from big picture to nit-picky because changing big picture items will inevitably change the smaller things. Why waste time fixing commas in sentences you might cut out altogether?

Sometimes I can’t have everything as under control as I’d like. (This is a lesson I am learning over and over as the mom of a toddler.) All I can do is control what I can, not beat myself up for what I can’t, and fix what needs fixing.

Total control is impossible.

Getting to the goal by tackling one issue at a time is not.


  1. Kerry you are speaking to me! My life has been completely out of control lately due to the needs of my extended family, and I so look forward to getting my “writing half-day, editing for others half-day” mojo going again.

    But I want to add a different perspective on the editing. You know how in life, when all spirals out of control, sometimes you just have to clean your desk? It’s way low on the priority list, considering your mom’s in the hospital and you’re still chasing down your toddler’s birth certificate and you have an article deadline in 12 hours and you haven’t even started it.

    But when you are stressed and brain-dead, sometimes you have to start small. Do something achievable. Rebuild the confidence that says yes, I can do this.

    THAT is the reason to sometimes take the time to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. My developmental edits can be overwhelming for an author—I’ve pulled apart structure and tossed new ideas about and there’s so much for the author to think of, especially since it’s been weeks since their head was in this project. In such a case you might start with the on-the-page edits. They are easier, for one thing, and this detailed task will help you regain intimacy with your project. The improved syntax (who did what to whom) will already help your story grow in power and impulsion, and the clean prose will raise your confidence—making it easier for you to tackle the bigger edits now that your head is in the game.

    Yes, you might delete those pages—but was “cleaning your desk” a waste of time? Not really. You’ve gone from a place of overwhelm to putting one foot in front of the other, steeped yourself in your journey, and cleared the path before you—and become a better writer in the process. It’s not for everyone, all the time—but I can see why one might embrace it, as I have on many an occasion.

    • Very good points. I can see how that works sometimes. Personally, I find the big picture stuff more exhilarating, so I gravitate towards that first. And cleaning the desk can really make a difference in how you feel – unless you throw the birth certificate away with the junk mail! 🙂

  2. I don’t know what partial pantser means, but I have had issues with inconsistencies in my manuscripts also. My editor Maura was a jewel in finding them. The issue came up when I called a medication by 2 different names, changed the name of some of the characters (but some characters still had the original name). I was relying on Word’s search and replace, but that doesn’t always work. I found that having a week off of vacation and time to focus on each problem helped.

    • Ahh, vacation! Since Toddler came along, I have forgotten what that’s like. But yes, time away from a problem is often helpful in getting it done when you return to it – a new perspective.

    • Oh, Popple, a partial pantser means you use a very sketchy outline – like you might have the beginning and end and a few major plot points in the middle. Not total seat-of-your-pants, but not every-scene-nailed-down-before-writing either.

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