Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Throwing Out the Baby...and the Bath Water...and the Towel

I recently received some blistering feedback from a well-regarded reader. She did not like the manuscript in the least bit, but at least she was honest and told me what I needed to hear, and what needed work. But now, I am questioning my ability as a writer. I love to write, and I put a lot of hard work, long hours, and expensive editing into this novel, so I am frustrated. At least I know that it's not ready to be shopped around, and don't have to worry about embarrassing myself. Anyway, it leaves me wondering whether to further refine it or to concentrate on a new novel. Any suggestions?

I think this is a more common dilemma than we all realize. When we're sitting at home reading and rereading our completed ms, how can we possibly know whether or not it will amount to anything? After all, if we didn't think it was genius, or at least had potential, we'd never have written it in the first place. Yet nearly EVERY published writer I know - and clearly, I don't know all of them (!!!), so there are obviously numerous exceptions - has an unpublished ms rotting up her hard drive. So...the question of the day is, "how do you know when to throw in the towel?"

I've already shared my experience: it really wasn't until I'd written a MUCH better second book that I understood that my first really was a fairly large pile of crap. Okay, maybe that's not fair. But it certainly wasn't as good as it could have been, and truly, were it now being published, it would probably only serve to embarrass me. Since I'm out of ideas on this question but thought that it merited a discussion, I surveyed some fellow authors to garner their advice. Wise words were offered. It would be smart to heed them.

Melanie Lynne Hauser, author of Confessions of Super Mom and the upcoming sequel, had this to say:

"Well, for me, it was almost a physical thing. (This was for my first completed manuscript that never got an agent.) One day I was fine, working and reworking it for the 100th time, ready to send still more queries out - the next day I woke up, opened the file, felt nothing for the words on the screen, and I closed the file, opened up a new one, and started right in on the next book - not knowing, until that moment, that I had a new book in me. But knowing that I had to move forward, and going back to that old file wasn't accomplishing that. It was like a friendship that you keep nurturing along - a one-sided friendship, actually, where I was the one coaxing it along long after the book had served its purpose. (Which was - to teach me how to write a novel, to let me get all the rookie mistakes and bad habits out of my system.) It was just time to start over again with something new and the most important thing I learned by doing that was - that I could do it again, that I would always be able to do it again. That was a very liberating moment for me, because it helped my writing immensely - it gave me the freedom to edit and chop and remove and start over without any fear that these were the only words I'd ever write that well again.

With books that were agented and I had to give up on them - it was much clearer. The 15-20 rejections that each of them accumulated pretty much made the decision for me. But each time, I was eager to tell the next story, so while it was painful, it wasn't crippling. "

Best-selling Louise Bagshawe, author of numerous books including the upcoming Sparkles, offered this brilliant advice:

"When I started my writing career, I had to junk books several times. I mean complete MS that had been handed in to my editor. She said, 'Unpublishable'. I said 'Fine.' Started over the next day.

The fact is that the market is tough, and if you are your own worst critic, you will be your own best friend. I don't know, but I have a feeling that newbie writers often fall in love with their first effort just because it was such an effort. They confuse the hard work of the process with the quality of the results. That's why spending time apart from your MS when it is finished is SO important. If it doesn't knock you out - if you have any doubts - it's not ready, I don't care if you spent two years on it. Now, I'm sort of in a groove with my novel career. I know what my fans want and I deliver it. I do not expect my MSes to require major rewrites. But at the start of my career it wasn't that way. The remedy for me was and is to go away, read the bestsellers of my rivals/heroes/competition in the same genre and then reread my own book and ask if I'm even in the ballpark. I recommend that to amateurs on my blog, but I always suspect most people skip that step. Just look at the competition. Is your book that good? No? Why not? You can do better, then do better. Especially if you're unpublished, because then you stand a chance of that really big deal when you hand the truly great MS to the enthused agent. You only have one chance at being fresh new talent.

Rachel Cole, who has been published in several literary magazines and who is fine-tuning her third ms, echoes similar thoughts to me. "For me, this has only happened recently, when my latest WIP (my second) really started to click. I realized that my first novel, no matter how much I loved it, had one too many core flaws that no rewrite could fix and that I was now cannibalizing it for the new story. Though all the characters and situations are completely different, there are some very strong similarities in the themes and ''morals'' of the two. So, while I'm not writing the same story again, I feel I'm in a much better situation to say what I wanted to say then, but via a completely different story." Adds Shana Silberberg, who recently wrapped her second ms, "what made me realize the first one sucked was writing my second novel - a novel that was much better, and actually spending the time to fix it up instead of considering the first draft to be the only draft."

A lot of wisdom to be found in the above words, me thinks. Did they ring true to anyone besides me? Anyone have other thoughts on when to move on?


Bernita said...

Louise Bagshawe put some beginners' stumbling block extremely well..."confusing the hard work of the process with the quality of the result.."

Anonymous said...

While Melanie Lynne Hauser experienced a "physical thing" to make her move on, I experienced a "mental thing." My character's voice -- after enduring three revisions -- faded away. She was totally silent. (Very scary) I took a week off and, during that time, a new character not only began talking to me; she played out her first three or four scenes in my head. This was exciting, different and something I needed to explore by moving on.

Anonymous said...

P.S. Thanks to all the guest authors for sharing their experiences and advice.