Recently I learned the lesson that most authors have to learn. You may understand it intellectually, but this is one of those lessons that you physically have to learn, since it will cause pain and self-doubt in the short term. Here’s the lesson:
There comes a time when an author has to rip up his creation.
With apologies to Devo, I can hear a variation on their hit playing in my head:
When a problem comes along you must rip it
When something’s goin’ wrong you must rip it
Now rip it into shape, shape it up…
It’s not too late to rip it, rip it good
The case for me was the novel manuscript I wrote last year, titled “The Stable.” When I conceived the story, I had sharply focused visions of scenes that came to me almost complete. I wrote the first 95,000 word draft in a month and a half by rising early in the morning and working for an hour or two before going to work, and then writing again in the evening. Integral to the story I conceived was a present-day preface and afterword, while most of the story took place in 1957. It would reveal a secret history to a man about his grandparents.
Once I finished, I immediately began the editing process which tightened the story but kept the plot intact. When I was happy with the book, I began the querying process by attending a conference and pitching it to agents who attended. A couple wanted to hear more, but then passed on the project. In the spring of this year I sent out more queries via email. A couple agents asked for the manuscript, but after reading it they passed. The majority of them sent back form responses that it wasn’t the right project for them.
On one hand, you have to believe in your work. The publishing world is replete with stories of authors who faced multiple rejections only to have their novels become bestsellers once published. There’s even a website that lists who has faced rejection. For instance, it took 5 years for Agatha Christie to publish her first book. Louis L’Amour received 200 rejections before Bantam took a chance on him. Margaret Mitchell got 38 rejections for “Gone with the Wind.” It continues to this day. After failing to find an agent to represent him, Andy Weir, a software engineer and programmer, decided to self-published his novel. “The Martian” became a bestseller this year, was picked up by Crown Publishing, and will be made into a movie by Ridley Scott with Matt Damon in the lead role.
On the other hand, author and cardiologist D.P. Lyle rewrote his first novel 27 times, with four title changes and major shifts to the setting. The initial draft ran 130,000 words. In the end, “Stress Fracture” was 85,000 words long. The main character, Dub Walker, who has since starred in a series of novels, was not the main character in the first draft.
Recently I attended the Mystery Writers of America University held in Chicago. It’s a one-day intensive overview of mystery writing and the writing life, and had presentations by Sara Paretsky, Jess Lourey and Hank Phillippi Ryan, among others. One thing Ms. Ryan said jumped out at me: “When you think you’re ready to submit your manuscript, stop, because it’s probably not ready, and you don’t get second chance to make a first impression.” Along with that, my wife, who’s read my manuscript and whose opinion I value highly, suggested eliminating the present-day scenes. By that point, I was ready to listen. I sat down at my computer and deleted the preface and the afterword.
With them gone, I went back through the manuscript and did a major revamping of the main characters and the plot. Freed from its previous form, new plot points presented themselves to me that made for a better story. In the end the manuscript remained about the same length, even though I’d cut about 4000 words just by lobbing off those two sections, and in other places in the book I’d cut pages worth of writing. The changes vastly improved the story.
What will happen from here, I don’t know. Since I’ve struck out with dozens of agents with the earlier version of the manuscript, I don’t have the option of going back to them. Like Hank Phillippi Ryan said, no second chances for a first impression. So I’ve gone a different route and submitted the manuscript to the Minotaur/MWA First Mystery competition. That’s a long shot, granted, but if that doesn’t work I’m considering submitting to small presses, or if nothing else self-publishing. I’m also over 70 pages into my next manuscript. One thing all of the authors listed on the Literary Rejections website had in common: they kept going.