When will it ever end

Last September, I dotted the last ‘i’ and crossed the last ‘t’ on my final final final draft of SINGLED OUT. Or so I thought.

murder your darlingsLast September, I believed I’d taken My First Novel as far as I could in drafting and editing terms. I wrote my synopsis (a traumatic experience) and carved off a chunk of text into a sample document. I took a set of fluorescent markers to my copy of ‘Writers’ & Artists’ Year Book 2014′ and lined up a shortlist of lucky, lucky agents who were to be the priority recipients of my masterpiece.

Then I sat back and waited for the offers to flood in. I waited, I blogged about the wait, and I waited some more. Instead of a flood, there was a trickle, and what trickled in was not overawed, enthusiastic ‘oh my word, this is magnificent, send us your full manuscript and come in and see us at once, and by the way don’t talk to any other agents until we’ve explained what we can do for you’ emails. What trickled in was – yes, right first time – a smattering of polite and kindly worded ‘sorry, not for us’ rejection emails.

I kept going, still fairly selectively. But those rejections kept on coming. The current tally is 17 agent submissions and 13 rejection emails. Of the remaining four, three date back to February/March and can thus be regarded as time-expired, rejections by omission. (Happily, the majority of agents have proved to be more courteous than this.) To date one agent, in theory, still has my novel in review, but as this agent accepted it as a courtesy following a seminar, I’m not holding my breath.

There was the odd flicker of interest. Two agents requested the full manuscript on the back of my submission, prompting palpitations and a wave of misplaced optimism in yours truly. Their rejections followed in due course.

But here’s the thing. Pithy though their feedback was, those two agents made broadly similar observations in their rejection emails. Not only that, but a very welcome latecomer to the beta reader party (you know who you are…) and a much loved and valued writing buddy both offered more detailed critique which, blow me down, highlighted the exact same issues.

I went away for a few days last week with these critiques much on my mind. The original plan had been to spend a few days rereading my manuscript and sharpening up a few lines here and there. But I’d begun to realise the ‘problem’ with my story was more fundamental than scrapping yet more surplus adverbs (though the volume of those infectious little critters you have to steel yourself to eliminate across layers of editing is a revelation in itself).

As I grappled with my folder of curiously comparable critique, I confess I grew frustrated. Having been so close to my novel for four years, I just didn’t get it. Intellectually, I could grasp what they were saying were the shortcomings. But when it came to addressing them, I couldn’t see how without throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Worse still, I couldn’t see why my story seemed to need such fundamental changes. Cue a gnashing of teeth and much grizzling and pouting.

In the still of the night I lay awake, frustrated, fretful. True to form at around 4:00am, my brain at last began to shift into the right gear. I began to get my head around what they’d all been saying. I started to find my way from I can’t towards how can I?

In the morning I got to work, identifying sections which screamed out for more tension and scenes which demanded more mystery; I earmarked pages where the pace dipped, weighted by too much unnecessary detail; I hunted down paragraphs where the language had to be nipped-and-tucked to better fit the character.

I decided two of my main characters will undergo a name change; I’ve finally conceded they have too much of the stereotype about them, and it begins with their names. But that’s mind-bending for me, as I’ve lived with them for upwards of four years. Oh, and talking of characters, I’m introducing a new one.

If this all sounds like a major rewrite, I don’t want to mislead you. This is far more than the tweaking I’d originally planned, but it’s not a rewrite. The story is essentially all there and all the pieces matter. Everything fits together and the plot is – I still believe – strong. What I’m dealing with is tone and pace, adding suspense in places I hadn’t realised it was needed, keeping up the tension instead of allowing it to fade away, injecting moments of uncertainty, deleting yet more extraneous detail – that sort of thing. This means I’m back in murder your darlings territory – not just words and lines, but paragraphs, great chunking paragraphs, sometimes one after another – and it hurts. But I know what I’m doing and at last I can see why it’s needed.

So that’s my job for what remains of the summer – to carry on culling whilst I meld new and modified material seamlessly back into the story. Then the plan is to approach a few more agents in the autumn months. As to what happens after that… Well, without suggesting anything at all about my more grounded expectations for this part of the process, I’m booked into a ‘how to self-publish’ seminar towards the end of the year. So we’ll just have to see.

22 thoughts on “When will it ever end

    1. Thank you 🙂 I remain excited by the learning experience that comes with writing ones first novel – it’s been an insightful few days.

  1. HI Jools
    Sounds like you’ve two books happening here which is great! Something like Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, and The Writing of The Secret River. Different genre from yours. A couple of other thoughts. Facing up to the task of killing your darlings is tough. I’m doing the same with my memoir, at the same time taking it back to what I’m doing – sounds logical – but it’s really hard and I’m reminded of a quote by Steve Eggers “These things, details, stories, whatever, are like the skin shed by snakes” (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius). My supervisor assisted – she suggested I listen to Howard S Becker’s talk to graduate students. He suggests “remove all the identifying marks”, then ask what is the writing about. I think this can help all writers. In case you’re interested here’s the link to Becker. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aXU4m3UGoxk#t=190)
    I remember hearing you read pieces of your novel while we were both at the Circle of Misse writing retreat and thinking this story has legs!! Good luck!!! Margaret P

    1. Hi Margaret, and thanks for joining in 🙂
      Worryingly, I’m trying to write just one good book!! I’ve got to get tough with myself and eliminate what doesn’t fit with the psychological genre; much though I might love those excerpts, they don’t belong. I hope my story still has legs and isn’t so mashed-up by the rough-and-tumble of my learning experience that it it’s no longer a good read. I’ll watch your suggested link, thanks for sharing it, Margaret.

    1. Thanks, and good luck to you too. It’s a challenging process, no denying, but for those who get the deals, a very exciting and ultimately rewarding one. So say those new debut published authors at least. 🙂

  2. As I was reading I remembered a chap lecturing our writers group when he mentioned he rewrote his draft around 12 times. It took him two years to get it where it needed to be. I don’t think I would have the stuff to do that so best I do not attempt a book of my own. Keep at it luv it will happen for you.

    1. The thing is, once you realise you can make edits which will improve your book, you can’t not do them! And ignoring feedback from agents, however cursory – especially when two of them tell you the same thing – is just nuts!

  3. I have gone through the experience and few months back my first fiction book titled “makeup & breakup” got published. There are no secret formula, we have to keep trying and there is a time for every writer, and we cannot advance the publication of our book. We as writer are understandably restless, and eager to get it out into the world but it has to go through that tedious process and needs time consuming effort…patience and perseverance are the only friends during the process of publication…persistency pays and it pays handsomely!!!

    1. Persistence and patience – you’re so right! This is my first attempt at writing a novel, and I’m going though a steep learning curve. I’m enjoying the learning experience, although I’ve been through several crises of confidence. I think once I’ve completed this edit/revision, I will draw a line under this particular piece of work. If I can’t find an agent, I shall self-publish. Either way, I want to start something new, armed with everything I’ve learned.

  4. Editing can be so hard, especially taking out parts we, as the writer, think are imperative. So glad you are finding your way 🙂 And definitely self-publish if no one bites – “The Shack” was rejected by 26 different publishers before Young self-published & hit the NY Times best seller list. Whether you like the book or not, it’s a great inspiration to authors everywhere 🙂

    1. You’re right indeed. Persistence and attention to detail (as well as a thick skin) are all necessary attributes when it comes to trying to get published. My main problem at the moment is finding the time to finish the edits I know now my story needs. I’ll get there… I’ll get there.

  5. You will get there. So many authors just won’t accept criticism, and you have let it in and used it. And your book will be better, and so will you be as a writer. Can’t wait to see how you get on in the next round.

  6. Kudos. Finding the strength to face the challenge of gutting and re-stitching your work is not for the faint of heart. I struggle with the concept of ‘How can I tell when what I have written is no longer crap?’ every time I sit at my computer.

    1. Thank you! The thing to do is to share your work. Send it to people whom you trust for their honesty, then hold your breath. I guarantee, what you learn will be invaluable.

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