QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Don't play it again, Sam!

"Authors who love their books too much" isn't a topic you're going to see on a talk show, but I think we need to visit it.

You love your book. I love my books too. That's good and healthy because you and your story are going to spend in excess of a hundred hours together just writing the thing, and then you have to account for revisions, edits, discussion, and the sheer time you spend thinking about it while you're washing the dishes or driving the car. Some people in romantic relationships don't even spend that much time together.

And then you factor in the time spent querying plus the time spent angsting over the queries you just sent and the time writing the dreaded synopsis: it's a lot. At the end, it would be great if we all ended up with a published book, but sometimes that doesn't happen. You do everything as you ought, and the book goes nowhere. Either you don't clinch an agent or the agent doesn't broker a book deal. You and your book are left together, looking at one another. What's to be done?

Maybe you've learned a bit by this point, and you see where your story could be punched up a bit. Maybe your main character could be more active or your sentences shorter. Maybe all that backstory can go, and maybe the ending screams of deus-ex-machina and could have been better wrought. Maybe you rewrite.

Maybe the rewrite also goes nowhere.

And now you're tempted to rewrite a second time. Or a third time.

Allow me to step in please: don't do it.

It's okay to love your story. It's okay to lavish time on it to the extent that your family gets worried and your friends are sure you've lost your mind. To some extent that's normal and healthy for writers. What's not normal and healthy is to keep rewriting the same novel for twenty years. Or in some cases, the same two or three novels, cycling through the same rewriting/resubmitting process for decades. And in the most heartbreaking cases, writers have taken the work off submission, self-published, and then unpublished it and gone back on submission with the piece touched up and dusted off just a bit.

The hallmark of this kind of wheel-spinning is that the writer most often doesn't even have solid feedback on which to rewrite. S/he is just rewriting and revising every few years and hoping for better results.

I understand the urge. You worked hard and want it to succeed. But I've seen writers in some of my writing groups stuck in the same story for decades, hungering to bring them to the world and unsure why they're not getting anywhere no matter how often they work on the story again. It breaks my heart, so let's look at three reasons to move on.

1) After you've queried the thing twice, everyone has seen it, and now they're going to remember it. The first re-query might have been viewed with a charitable eye if you explained your extensive revisions. A second one won't be.

2) Agents and editors want a writer who can craft more than one story. A career isn't built on one excellent novel (To Kill A Mockingbird being the exception that proves the rule.)

3) You've probably outgrown that first novel, or even your first and second novels. Many times, there's a factor in your early work that renders the work unsellable and is simultaneously a factor you refuse to let go.

Let me expand on #3 for a moment. As a new writer, you knew what you liked to read, and you set out to create something just like it. But without the skills to do so, you cobbled together the story as best you could. Many times, that story is going to have some kind of major flaw that keeps it from fully inhabiting the world it could have. You set out the foundation of the story, but the foundation itself was limited.

Years later, maybe you have the skill to build mansions, but you can't build a mansion on the same foundation as a tool shed. Sometimes you've got to jettison that first story just to escape the boundaries you set for yourself.

Maybe you've developed the ability to write incredibly nuanced characters, but if the main character's motive is nothing more than simple revenge, the story may feel flat.

Maybe you can craft intricate and elegant sentences, but overlaying them one at a time is going to give your work a choppy feeling.

These are the reasons I've heard for continuing to rewrite/requery a novel seven or eight times:

1) I've put so much work into it already.

2) I know so much more than I did the first time around.

3) I'm afraid I'll never come up with anything this good ever again.

Do you hear one of your critique partners in this? Do you hear yourself? If so, be honest: have you outgrown your story like a little kid whose ankles and a good deal of his calves are sticking out beneath the bottom of his jeans? And isn't it really fear holding you back like an anchor, whereas if you cut the chain you could really fly and really see what you're made of?

Are you afraid that if you try again, you'll fail again, and it's just more comfortable to fail with what you already have in your hands than to maybe succeed with something entirely new?

Let me encourage you: set it aside. Lay out a new foundation, new characters, new motives. Bring your new skills to bear. Move forward. Love that old manuscript, but love it fondly the way you still feel kind of giddy about your first crush (even though you never so much as made eye contact).

You're not giving up on your old story by moving ahead. Rather, by moving ahead, you're not giving up on yourself.

Believe you have more than one or two stories in you. Explore and fall in love again with a new set of characters. It's never a failure as long as you've learned

1 comment:

Hope Clark said...

Hmmm, I tend to disagree. I rewrote my first novel many times before getting it right, winning contests, landing an agent, and getting published. When I couldn't sell it, I rewrote it. I dare say that it was rewritten (not just edited) at least eight times. I was learning. I was evolving. I was getting rejected and picking up the piece, learning from the experience. That's what we do with first books. Just saying.... www.chopeclark.com