Thursday, July 23, 2009

Evolution of a Manuscript

By Beth Terrell

Thriller writer Gregg Hurwitz said the way to learn to write is not to write 50 books, but to write the same book 50 times. I take comfort in that, since that seems to be the way I'm heading with the second book in the Jared McKean series.

The first time I finished the book, I did several intensive edits followed by a final polish, then sent it to six trusted readers for feedback. Their reactions were overall very positive, but they had a number of excellent suggestions. Unfortunately, one small change often leads to another, which leads to another, and so on. What seemed like a series of minor changes turned out to be another extensive edit. Finally, I was done.

My agent submitted it to Warner Books. The editor he submitted it to loved it (hurrah!), but the higher-up editors decided it was too similar to another book they had coming out that summer. Alas, they decided to pass on it. After several more rejections, I suspected there was something missing and took a good look at the manuscript. It was pretty good. Close-but-no-cigar good. I knew it needed something, but I wasn't sure what.

Then I went to Don Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel workshop. I went in thinking my manuscript needed a little cosmetic surgery and left knowing it needed a heart-lung transplant. Fortunately, Don had given me the tools I needed to do that. I did a massive overhaul. The basic story remained intact, but suddenly it went to a deeper, richer place.

I took that "finished" manuscript to Don Maass's High Tension workshop. (Are you sensing a theme here? Seriously, if you get a chance to study with guy, take it. Take the Breakout Novel workshop first; it lays the foundation for the next one.) This time, my manuscript only needed liposuction, a nose job, and a couple of knee-hip replacements.

Another re-write, somewhat less extensive, but still substantial. Done! Right? Well...almost. I entered in a contest, and while I didn't win, I got some valuable feedback from the judge. The flaws she saw in the manuscript seemed like easy fixes, but when I sat down to do them, I realized that a manuscript is like a well-woven sweater. Each thread is entwined with the others. It's hard to tug on one without unraveling the whole thing. Still, I think it's almost there. I feel a sense of satisfaction with the manuscript that I haven't had before. Before, I knew the opening and the last 100 pages were strong, but there was something not working in the middle. I can feel that "something" changing, those flabby chapters taking on the right shape.

Just in the nick of time, too. With the first Jared McKean book about to be re-released in October, it's time to get that second one in the chute. The third one is still a shapeless mess, and the fourth and fifth ones are just loose outlines, but I have faith that they too will come along in time. Maybe it will get easier.

Or maybe it won't. I'm not a natural writer. I read John Hart's Down River and Dennis Lehane's Mystic River and despair of ever achieving that level of artistry. But what I lack in raw talent, I hope I make up for in tenacity.

So why am I telling you all this? If you've been struggling to become a better writer and wonder if you're the only one who has to work this hard, maybe knowing it's all part of the process will help you get over the next hump. Or if you're one of those natural talents for whom golden phrases flow like milk and honey from the promised land, you can go to bed tonight knowing that--even though the rest of us secretly hate you--you've been truly blessed.

Happy writing!

5 comments:

Cassandra Jade said...

I'm not sure that anyone has been secretly blessed with talent. I'm quite sure that everyone I know who writes, works very, very hard for it. It is a good thing to share though because people who don't write still see writing as something mystical whereby a writer stands in a lightning storm until struck by random inspiration and magically types out a completed manuscript before basking in adulation for months until they decide to stand in another storm. Thanks for the post, I know that many writers out there will appreciate knowing they are not alone.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I agree that writing is hard work but some days the words flow like fine wine. If it's in you to write, it's like breathing. You simply have to get those thoughts on the screen . . .

Chester Campbell said...

You've worked long enough and hard enough, Beth. Maybe now it's time to write FINIS and let 'er go.

Beth Terrell said...

Chester, I think there are two more edits to go--this one and the one I'll do after the Jacqueline Mitchard workshop. I keep remembering the agent who said most people send their manuscripts off one draft too soon.

Cassandra, you make some very good points. I know writers work hard (including the two I mentioned), but I believe that some have a special gift for language in the way that Mozart had a special gift for music. The rest of us may be able to acquire it, but only after many years of practicing our scales:)

Mark W. Danielson said...

I agree with your premise, Beth, but I also believe if there's a story inside you, the words will flow freely. When people ask me about writing, I tell them that writing fiction is basically the same as telling a campfire story. True, it will probably need polishing, but the storyline was there all along.