Thursday, August 19, 2010

To Kill A Manuscript

When I finished the Novel Under the Bed, and then realized it needed more revisions than a sweeping proofreading, the task seemed overwhelming. I knew I had a good idea: the first three agents I queried requested it. But the execution was lacking. I tried rewriting the first chapter.. six times. It wasn't better... it was just different. I put the book under the bed.

When I finished Some Kind of Normal I had a trick up my sleeve: a critique group. This fabulous group of writers read my work, pointed out a few places I need to beef up my descriptions and correct some typos, but overall, they gave it a thumbs up. Fantastic! That book was published with no major overhaul on my part. I liked that. I got spoiled by that.

This June, I finished my third novel, and when I sent it out to my critique group I felt less excited about it than the other two. Was I going to need to just scrap the whole thing?

Thankfully, I have a crit group that is more about the fixing than the scrapping. And they pointed out why it wasn't working for me and offered some ways to fix it. Big things. Overhaul things. Like the narrator's voice needs to change. A major character needed to be dumped. The main character's history needed to be altered and her new life needed something positive in it. Big things.

I sat on the ideas for a while. I won't say I wasn't discouraged. I wanted it to be easy. I wanted critiques that looked like, "Wow! This is perfect! I wouldn't change a thing!" or "Besides a comma or two, I think this is ready to go!"  I wanted this, even though I know it wasn't true. Still, it hurts when someone you look up to says, "You are really a great writer... the way you use words is amazing... but the story is somewhat a mess."

Because when people whose opinions you value tell you something needs to be changed, you know it needs to be changed. Even if it's a lot of work.

When I threw the first chapters at them months ago, when I was still in the process of writing, they said I needed to get rid of the male character. I wasn't ready. I tweaked him a bit, but truthfully, in my head he was such a huge part of the main character's history that I couldn't take him out. When they told me this time he still needed to go, I slept on it, and decided I was ready to do that. At least, I took him out of the story. In my head he's still part of Kat's past. He's part of who made her what she is, and I as the creator of her know that. But the reader doesn't need to know that, and so out the window he went.

And over the last two weeks I've worked on revising the hard to revise things. It's the first time for me that revising has actually felt like a struggle, and hard work. But as I was working through the issues, the book suddenly started to come together. The changes were good. Really good. They took the book from a story I didn't care so much about to a story I'm loving. The main character is someone I can finally see readers investing in and feeling for and rooting for. I find myself rooting for her.

Along the way, the changes have set up tensions in the book that weren't there before. They've created layers and complexities and depth. In short, my crit group was right.

All it took was a little humility to acknowledge it.

It was in the middle of these revisions that I stumbled on this article about Harper Lee and To Kill A Mockingbird, one of my favorite books of all time. If you are a writer, you need to read this. If you are close to revising, it's a must.

Because it turns out one of the classic books of the last century went through a lot of major revisions. A lot. And a temper tantrum by the author that had her manuscript flying out her editor's New York window.

The conclusion of the article is the same on I came to this week. Revisions can make a huge difference, but to get there it takes some great critical eyes, and a lot of humility.

I've got the first in spades. I'm working on the second.


  1. I just did a MAJOR re write on my first MS. I left it alone for more than two months because I was surly about knowing it needed changes. Once I started, the same thing happened, I fell in love with the story all over again.

  2. I can't relate because my manuscript is perfect so far and will always be perfect. Sorry.

    But really, critique partners are GREAT. I am doing some major changes to the beginning of my book, and I'm not even done yet. Maybe that's a little out of order...

    Anyway, I wanted to ask why you always have Some Kind of Normal paired with Mockingbird. I haven't read TKAM in a long time, so maybe there are likenesses? I want to know.

  3. Jolene - time is really the best thing for a book, but the hardest thing to give it!

    Jessie - Some Kind of Normal went through a phase in querying where it was "If the Mockingbird Won't Sing", a title I loved and fit the story, but not the tone of the book. I switched it back when I got picked up for publication. I've left the label in case people who used to follow the blog or knew the book as that name could find it. :)

    Such a disappointing answer, eh?