Friday, August 20, 2010

Sometimes, love just ain't enough

Last week, I invited readers to ask questions.

I answered most in the comments, but one caught my eye from blog reader Alexa. She asked:

If you believe in your book, but you've gotten a lot of rejections, at what point do you say, "It's not them, it's me" and revise or scrap the manuscript?

I told her I needed to mull it over, and that’s what I’ve been doing. Mulling. Did you know mulling involves copious amounts of Sauvignon Blanc?

After a full week of careful contemplation, here’s my answer:

It depends.

Don’t you hate that? And don’t you hate that I feel compelled to constantly remind you “every author’s journey is different, and you can’t judge yourself by someone else’s experience.”

Now that we got that out of the way, I’ll tell you my experience. And I’ll tell you the two things that can help you figure out the answer to that question for yourself.

In the last eight years, I’ve written nine full manuscripts and six partials. With every single one, I believed I had a shot at publication.

But the first thing that helps me determine if I’m right or I’m delusional is perspective – that is, input from people who are not emotionally tied to the story.

I get that from my two critique partners (writers themselves) and three beta readers (masters at spotting “issues”).

When I finished writing MAKING WAVES two years ago, I thought it was pretty solid. Then I handed it off to those guys.

They trashed it.

I thought my heroine was quirky. They thought she was immature and weird.

When I reread it, I had to admit they had a point. I revised the hell out of the story, adding scenes, tweaking descriptions, and working to make the heroine more sympathetic. The book eventually sold as part of my three-book deal with Sourcebooks, and it’s scheduled as my debut next August.

But that’s only half the story

Because recently, I opened MAKING WAVES for the first time in over a year. It’s due on my editor’s desk soon, and I wanted to do some final polishing.

And that’s when I got the second thing on my list – perspective. (For a writer, I suck at coming up with new words.)

But now I’m talking about the perspective you get when you take a break from your own work. When you set it aside, ignore it for awhile, and write a new manuscript or two.

This time around, I realized I hadn’t gone far enough rehabbing my heroine. Despite my critique partners’ feedback that first time, deep down I thought, “they just don’t get her.”

But with two years of distance between my brain and the original writing, I was able to separate myself from what I meant to write and what I actually wrote. I made new tweaks, added 5,000 words to the story, and am preparing to send it to my editor.

I’m sure she’ll have changes of her own. It’s possible she’ll insist my heroine would be more compelling with a third arm (in which case I will politely ask if she prefers it to protrude from her forehead or her stomach).

Does that answer your question? Not totally, right? Because it comes from the obnoxious, happily-ever-after perspective of an author who sold the novel.

So let me confess something:

While I adore MAKING WAVES with every fiber of my being, and I’m thrilled it’s being published, it’s not my favorite book I’ve written.

That honor belongs to a book I wrote in 2006 – the one that originally snagged offers of representation from four agents. Two of those agents shopped it to editors, and maybe a dozen of those editors professed to love it.

But the book never sold.

Was it me? Was it them? Was it aliens?

I honestly don’t know.

I still believe in that book. So does my brilliant and talented agent, Michelle Wolfson.

But we’ve both come to accept that the time isn't right for it.

You can work hard to get the perspective of others and the perspective of distance. That’s a crucial part of figuring out if your manuscript has problems.

But sadly, that’s not always enough.

And as gut-wrenching as it is, a smart writer learns how to move on, write something new, and set the beloved project on the back burner with the heat on low.

Have I depressed you all now? I feel like I should tell a penis joke to lighten the mood. Anyone know a good one?

30 comments :

Patty Blount said...

Great advice, as always, Tawna. My favorite work remains my first finished novel. But a few agents told me my MC was "unsympathetic" and like you, I shrugged and told myself they just didn't understand her.

It's been years since I finished that story. I blew the dust off it recently and for the first time, could see how the grieving mother I thought I'd developed could be perceived as a total bitch.

I've been revising "POSTPARTUM DECEPTION" whenever I need a break from SEND. I think it's great therapy to put projects on the back burner, as you said.

Perspective. Yep!

Elizabeth Ryann said...

I don't have any penis jokes, but I do have a potty joke:

Q: What did one toilet say to the other?
A: You look flushed.

You're welcome! And thanks for the perspective.

Sierra Godfrey said...

There's no depression here from your post. There's only the reality that we all must face if we're serious about having a long-term writing career: if you want to improve and write a socks-knocking book, you have to spend TIME on it-- and for most of us, that means years, with the reworking and perspective that you mention worked in.

I love two novels I wrote early on-- LOVE LOVE LOVE them, want to live in them, etc. But are they good? No, they're crap, and I've moved on. I have to.

Lynn Colt said...

It's hard to move on from a project, and it's hard to admit that the character we love so much isn't hitting other people as sympathetic. I run into this problem too, and once had an entire rewrite sent back to me by my critique partner with the comment "What did you do to (main character)?? Now she's a total bitch!) Lol.

Perspective is key. Thanks for the post!

Linda G. said...

So a guy walks into a bar on Halloween with a spud attached to the front of his belt.

"What are you supposed to be?" asks the bartender.

"I'm a banana republic. Can't you see my dick-tater?"

(I know. *groan* There, I did it for you.)

Brandi G. said...

Not depressing. Just realistic. I've recently come to terms that my first novel might not be publishable as it is. It might need some major tweaking. It might need to be scrapped totally, but I still have a soft spot for it.

Melissa Gill said...

Tawna-Sorry no penis jokes. I thought about googling one, but since I'm at the work...

Anyway, great post. I think that everyone who writes a story is so anxious to see it in print that they rush the whole process. I would say to any author who's getting rejections, to keep revising. (Me included)

It's hard to take that step back. You read the books that say, revise, put it in the drawer, write something else, then review again, and you say Pshaw. I'm not doing that, I'm forging ahead. But it won't get you there any faster to send out a half baked MS.

Jessica Lemmon said...

Great advice! I appreciate the perspective as an only once rejected, 4 books completed girl, myself.

I don't have a penis joke per se, but I do have one nearby that, erm, region...

Pirate walks into a bar with the ship's wheel attached to his pants, orders a drink. Next day, same thing, day after that, same thing.

Finally the bartender has to ask, "Don't you get tired of wearing that everywhere you go?"

"Aye," says the pirate, "it's driving me nuts."

Candyland said...

Well yeah. I little depressed here. I think Ill go back and re-read the lost rings post.

Pamala Knight said...

I vote for Jessica's pirate as the joke of the day. LOL!

Your post is both wise and timely. I'm already seeing how my heroine is different in book 2 than I originally wrote her in book one. So, of course I'm revising book one and worry that I'll never get an agent, let alone sell it. But, I'll keep trying because your story gives me hope. Also, did you know that NYT Bestseller Cherry Adair wrote seventeen books before she sold her first? Yeah, so I'll go cry in the corner here with my measly two and a half ;-)

And... you wrote:

"Pamala, do I get a superhero cape & mask now?"

Um..sure but what you and Pythagoras do in the privacy of your garage, er, home is your business. *grins*

Thanks for the inspiration and awesome post.

Bonnie C said...

Excellent advice. We can all use a judicious dose of perspective, preferably with a nice Merlot and cheese tray.

A few months ago I finally laid my first finished ms to rest. We're both relieved, I think. I'd drug it out and dusted it off every couple of months over the last 2-3 years trying to figure out how to "fix" it. I'd even drug it through Lucy March's Revision workshop and thought I FINALLY had a handle on it.

But as I started revising (again!) I figured out I just didn't want to tell this story anymore. That no matter that it was my first baby, and as such would always hold a special place in my heart, it was time to move on and do something else, hopefully making way less mistakes.

April said...

Great advice Tawna. I've been struggling with the same thing myself. Taking time away to get a new perspective always helps. It's hard to decide when to let it go and move on, but just because you move on doesn't mean you can't go back later.

April

abby mumford said...

i'm waiting for the perspective to hit and i'm waiting for the critique partners to fall in line..... and so all that waiting leaves me to wonder, do i keep going? do i switch gears? do i switch manuscripts?

lots to ponder. thank you!

elizabethreinhardt said...

Excellent advice! I've been writing (and writing and writing) and I've learned two really important things. The first is that writing takes a lot of practice and love; if I don't want to do it most days and do it well, I should definitely choose a different career path. The second is that it's just as important to keep up with reading. That is definitely where I get my perspective; when I read what other authors are doing and how they're doing it, I can look at my work wtih a much more critical eye. Great blog post! Thanks Alexa, too! Excellent question!

Jeannie said...

Great advice as always, Tawna. I have a book that didn't sell the first go round. I had an agent, we've parted ways and I'm back in the hunt with another book. Perseverance, right?

Now here's a joke for you:

A handsome young lad went into the hospital for some minor surgery, and the day after the procedure a friend stopped by to see how the guy was doing. His friend was amazed at the number of nurses who entered the room in short intervals with refreshments, offers to fluff his pillows, make the bed, give back rubs, etc. "Why all the attention?" the friend asked, "You look fine to me."

"I know!" grinned the patient. "But the nurses kind of formed a little fan club when they all heard that my circumcision required twenty-seven stitches."

Alexa O said...

Aw, shucks! This is exciting!

I think "it depends" is probably the only answer anyone can give, which is what's so annoying for all of us who have a book we haven't sold yet.

I love your strategies for gaining perspective and also Elizabeth's (i.e. reading published work).

I find it interesting that most of us need to get that first novel out of their system before we are going to write something that sells.

Did I say interesting? I meant depressing!

Tawna Fenske said...

Patty, plenty of authors DO sell first or second novels, but I've gotta be honest -- even though I loved my first couple novels when I wrote them and thought they were works of wonder, I am so, SOOO glad now that they never saw the light of day. It's a tough thing to wrap your brain around in the beginning, but getting a few novels under your belt really does give you a perspective you can't possibly have at the start.

Elizabeth, groooooan. That's the sort of joke Pythagoras will love, so thank you.

Sierra, sounds like you have a pretty healthy attitude there! It took me awhile to recognize that my first novel should never see the light of day, and my second (while better) is still nothing like what I write now. Hell, even though the third one actually sold (that's the one Harlequin/Silhouette bought before canceling the line) I'm really, truly glad it never hit shelves. I could never have imagined myself saying that five years ago, but now it's the truth -- my writing is much better now, and I'm glad that will be readers' first impression of me.

Lynn, different characters rub people different ways, so it's also good to get multiple reads on a book. If one out of five readers has a problem with my heroine, I'm not horribly alarmed. If two or three say the same thing, damn right I pay attention.

Linda G, thank you for giving me the best Halloween costume idea I've had in years.

Brandi G, once you get that second novel under your belt, I'll be really interested to hear how (or if) your perspective changes. Please come back and tell me!

Melissa, writing is such an involved process that it's tough for people to look at a finished manuscript and think, "it's not getting published? My time was wasted." But it WASN'T wasted, because you sometimes have to write those first couple mediocre books to get to the really good stuff.

Jessica, oh God, I wonder if there's a way I could still work that into MAKING WAVES? It sure fits the theme!

Candyland, try the "dirty things in my garage" post if the ring one doesn't work. That should make you smile :)

Pamala, that's great to hear about Cherry Adair. I'm seeing a lot of writers lately who are willing to share their stories about how many rejections they racked up in their early days, and that makes me happy. When you first start out, it's easy to look at those at the top and think, "she makes it look so easy." But nine times out of ten, she went through a whole lot of agony in the beginning to actually make it that far. Something to keep in mind...

Bonnie, I'm signed up for Lucy March's revision class next month! Would love to hear how you liked it and if you have any tips.

April, you wrote: "just because you move on doesn't mean you can't go back later." EXACTLY! Amen to that.

Abby, are you searching for critique partners, or just waiting for input from the ones you have? If you're searching, I know some of the ladies here have said they're looking. You could also try the forums at absolutewrite. For what it's worth, it's always smart to start something new. That's part of gaining the perspective you need to make progress the next time around.

elizabethreinhardt, I agree with you a million percent on the importance of reading. Too many writers forget that it's really the best way to study craft!

Jeannie, snort! Love the joke! BTW, my mom called me this morning and she was cracking up over that link you posted yesterday.

Alexa, thanks for asking the question! It definitely gave me a lot to ponder this last week, and I'm still not sure I really captured what I wanted to say. Maybe I'll revisit it another time :)

Thanks for reading, guys! Great discussion here!

Tawna

writermomof5 said...

Great advice, Tawna.

That's the thing in publishing, there are very few hard and fast every-single-time-do-this rules.

I have an early manuscript that is my 'baby'; I've let it sit for several years. I'm just now thinking of going back and revisiting it... maybe, just maybe, its time has come.

Jeannie said...

Tawna, Glad your mom liked the weblink. I guess appreciation of dirty humor runs in the family.

Jemi Fraser said...

This is a really hard question - good answer :)

The Zuccini said...

I've been lurking but this post has inspired me to comment. I know all about perspective (glances at manuscripts under the bed and blushes.)

But what do you do when you don't have those special readers?

Every author I read about seems to rely on these people and I don't know where they come from. I have plenty of people in my life and they're really good when I need to rally after a bad round of critiques. But they wouldn't tell me a problem if I could drive a semi through it.

Critique groups are great, but its kind of pot luck in many ways.

Kathryn Magendie said...

Over here from Sharla's place . . .

*deletes stupid joke she makes up about a penis walking into a bar and asking for a beer and something about head in it . . . * laughing...

All this is true - the perspective thing esp - I've heard from so many writers (had been there myself) "they just don't get me/it/characters/story" - but that's the whole point - if your readers aren't getting it, who cares if the author gets it -it's the readers who have the final word.

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Jan Markley said...

I think it also depends on the type of rejection - I talk about this on my blog - if you are getting form letters from editors and agents with check off the box reasons why they are rejecting it, or long editorial letters with requests to re-submit. If you are getting the former, then get some perspective and do some rewriting, if you are getting the latter, then keep rewriting you're probably getting closer ;-j

KO said...

This is incredibly helpful, thanks!

PK Hrezo said...

I totally agree with you. I thought my first ms was going to be a smashing success..... now, two years and three mss later, I've got that 20/20 hindsight showing me how bad it really is. But I still love that story, and vow to someday make it readable.
It's amazing how much we grow as writers when we keep at it. And the best advice you gave, was to move on to the next project. We have to learn to set them aside, and best way to do that is with a new story. :)

Meghan Ward said...

A penis walked into a bar ... oh, never mind.

"And as gut-wrenching as it is, a smart writer learns how to move on, write something new, and set the beloved project on the back burner with the heat on low."

This is so true. I think too many people (including myself) get overly attached to a manuscript and revise revise revise instead of moving on to write the next book (It could be that the next one sells first, and then the first book.) I'm amazed that you've written nine books and six partials in eight years. That's extremely prolific! I've been writing the SAME book for seven years. Maybe that's why you're published and I'm not :)

Tawna Fenske said...

writermomof5, I always find it really fascinating to go back and revisit my earlier manuscripts after a few years have passed. There are several that made me shudder and weep and thank my lucky stars no one ever saw them.

Jeannie, the apple certainly didn't fall far from the tree in our family!

Jemi, thanks! The answer certainly varies for everyone, but I tried to cover most of the bases.

The Zucchini, are you lacking CPs/readers entirely, or just good ones? I should probably devote a whole blog post to this since I've answered this question a million times in the comments, but absolutewrite has some great forums for finding critique partners. You can also find them by joining writers' groups for your genre (like RWA or SINC or whatever you're writing). I know there have even been a few who've connected in the comment trail on this blog. Good luck!

Kathryn, amen to this: "if your readers aren't getting it, who cares if the author gets it -it's the readers who have the final word."EXACTLY!

Jan, great point about the type of rejection you're getting. Nothing but form rejections probably does mean there's something "off." Good critiquers can help figure out what that is, and writing new material can help writers move past some of those rookie mistakes.

KO, glad you found it helpful!

PK Hrezo, I think that's the hardest thing in the world for new authors to come to terms with -- the idea that the first book or two they write might remain under the bed instead of landing on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. All I can say is that it gets easier and that it really doesn't sting too much once you get a few more books under your belt.

Meghan, I tend to write pretty fast, and it takes me a little over three months to complete a book. Even if you're not a fast writer though, I think it's crucial to move on and let those old projects marinate for awhile. It's the only way to really learn and grow as a writer.

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna

Lisa said...

The book I'm currently sending around is my first and I just have my fingers crossed that it's good enough. Like you said, it's hard to tell when you're so close to it. I obviously love it and would want to read it if it wasn't, but will anyone else?

Lisa said...

By the way, Tawna, I can't believe you can write a book in three months! Go you! I'm very jealous!