Sunday, April 27, 2014

A few lessons learned

I've had perhaps the oddest road to querying but here I am, at last. I've also learned quite a few lessons along the way that I thought might be useful for the writerly folks who follow the blog. But first, the setup: how did I get here?

A couple of years ago I had finished my first ever manuscript. As I grabbed my laptop to begin researching the publishing industry and literary agents, I yelled to my husband to ask what his new video game was about, as I could hear it blaring two floors down. What I thought I heard was so exciting that I ran downstairs to check it out. To my dismay it was nothing to the effect of what I heard but it had planted a seed.

The more I tried to edit my first manuscript the more I cheated on it with the second. Worse still, I didn't know how I could write the second and yet there it was, always popping into my head. I'm not a teenager but more daunting, I'm not a boy and this voice was distinctively a teenage male. I've heard writers say that characters just "come to them" and never quite understood. Ideas came to me with partially crafted character prototypes that I would help carve out. But this was different. I tried to make my character younger as the general theme seemed like it could sell well as MG, but I couldn't age him down. I tried to make the character female and that really didn't work as the more I tried the louder and crisper Toby's voice became. So, finally, I decided to give in and just write him as I heard him.

Several months later I had finished my manuscript and my husband surprised me with a train ticket and a conference admission to the Backspace Writers Conference. I was thrilled. Over that week I had between typing "THE END" and the conference start, I frantically edited (which in hindsight really means proofread) and then packed up my things to go. And oh what a whirlwind that weekend turned out to be: My submission for a writing contest on Miss Snark's First Victim blog was selected and she told me my piece had a strong "voice," and then during agent workshops I had three full manuscript requests and a partial manuscript request. Fast forward a week and the partial request turned into a full request and the blog contest went from a partial request to a full request. So no sooner than two weeks after I had finished my MS I had five full manuscript requests. Wowser, I was certain this had to be it. I was getting an agent!!!!

I was wrong. One by one they all passed and all for slightly different reasons although one consistently positive comment was always about my voice and its sharpness. A fabulous agent even had me revise and resubmit but still a pass. All that hot air....gone.

I came up with different story ideas in the interim as I let Toby and his adventures take a breather, only I couldn't shake him. So, finally, I sat down to kill a whole army of darlings. And here's what I learned:

1. There can only be one plot. I know this sounds obvious but it wasn't for me. I had multiple things I wanted to accomplish and I thought they could all be done (I was wrong). What I learned in my dissection is that what I thought were subplots were really competing for THE plot. Once I made the executive decision of what THE plot was, anything that didn't support it had to go. Adios 40k words and multiple characters! (There's a RIP folder they're housed in.) This important step also opened up a lot of opportunities for me and shifted my novel much more securely into a spy thriller genre.

2. If it doesn't support the plot, let it go. Again, all things I know but can be difficult to implement. My training is in nonfiction and after time away from my novel I realized that every more nonfiction type moment (e.g. school) that I could relate to gained far more emphasis and words than necessary. Just because I could envision it and write it doesn't mean it belongs. Again, does it advance the core plot? If yes, move forward. If no, move back a space!

3. Suspense means sensory. This is my first foray into the suspense/thriller writing world and I had to take some time to study the components of what made this genre work. Just like in movies, suspenseful books tap into our senses. Sound and foreshadowing weather can go far in heightening the reader's experience. Don't rush through this but don't have it on high alert all the time. Find that balance of build up and reprieve. This also helps readers keep reading and rooting for your character.

4. Your MC may not be the main driver of the action. This one may be shocking but in my case I found it to be true. When I dissected my novel I realized that I had written it all as if Toby was the main point of action, as if he was driving the story because it was told in his point of view. Only, he wasn't. The protagonist was driving the action and those things that happened to Toby. This doesn't mean your story has to feel entirely reactionary but you should know everything your protagonist is doing when they're not there. This led to my etching an entire life of my protagonist from where he went to college and what he studied to how he was enlisted at a particular agency to what his game plan was for a take down and, thus, how each step of his activity played out and affected my MC. Sure, a lot of these details (most, really) don't make it into the manuscript but it's critical that I know this because in the end I have to know exactly WHY the protagonist is doing certain things, how he would really enact certain attacks, and what it is that he ultimately wants and, of course, why it's critical that he doesn't get it. This also resulted in a much tighter game of cat and mouse, resulted in my creating a double-agent, and altogether increasing the overall suspense.

And so, after a massive makeover with 62% new words and the rest edited text, a new genre, a new love story, a double agent, and more suspense, I'm finally taking this MS to the streets and embarking on my querying journey. My MS still has the same name but I know it's a different story--a better one and the one it should have been all along. This is writing, however: write, edit, rinse, repeat. The more we write, the more we learn, and the sharper we become.

I know it will be tough as querying always is (Can anyone say manic?) but I'm hopeful too. If nothing else, I'm glad I didn't give up on Toby because I've never had a character quite like him and I have so many additional ideas of where his journey takes him. I just hope now someone else feels the same.

What are some lessons you've learned along your writing journey?