It’s Not You, It’s Just Lost in Translation…Breaking Up With My Third Manuscript

This morning brings Part 3 of “How I Learned to Break Up With My Manuscript.” (Part 1 and Part 2 at the links.)

I’m posting this series in part to respond to a comment my agent, Sandra Bond, made in one of our telephone conversations. She expressed a hope that I would share my full story with other authors, to help them understand that sometimes you have to let go of beloved stories on the road to publication, and that doing so does not make you a failure – it helps you become a success.

My third manuscript took two months to write and eight more months to polish. I had learned to “kill my babies.” I sharpened dialogue. I excised flabby prose. The completed manuscript came in at a lean, mean 92,000 words (on the money for a historical debut) and more than 30% of my queries prompted requests for partials – more than half of which led to full reads.

I was doing this. It was working.

Three years of toil had finally led to results. I had only one problem … no agent offered to sign me. (An aside: self-publishing is an option, and a valid road for those who elect to pursue it. My personal evaluation of the options, and my writing goals, made me choose the traditional path. My road is not for everyone, as others’ is not for me.)

Incidentally, I did query the agents who rejected my second novel with personalized offers to read my next manuscript. One requested the full manuscript. The other declined, stating that my subject matter wasn’t “marquee” enough to make a strong debut in the current market. I thanked her but privately disagreed.

Until the second agent said the same.

And a third.

And a fourth.

One snowflake doesn’t make a storm, but only a fool waits for an avalanche. I got the message. The writing is good, but the subject matter won’t make it.

Try again.

The lesson I learned from this manuscript was probably the hardest one to date. I had written a rollicking story, with a protagonist I thought my readers would love. I had funny dialogue, plenty of action, and a story that hadn’t been overdone in the marketplace – but in certain markets a novel has to be more than just “good” to launch an author’s career. It has to stand out like the North Star, beckoning readers to follow its glow.

The lesson this time was that sometimes good isn’t quite good enough. Your novel has to be better. Compelling enough for a stranger to look at the cover (and maybe a blurb) and NEED to bring it home.

My third novel didn’t meet that mark. That lesson took me months to understand, and even longer to accept. I had to find a more gripping subject, a protagonist that would leave the starting gate ahead of the competition and keep my readers’ attention until the entire race was run.

I won’t lie – I sulked a little. I sulked a lot. I moped and complained and whined – in private, where nobody else could hear me. I I drowned my sorrows in private pity-parties with lemon cupcakes. (mmm…cupcake…)

And then I put on my big-girl pants and found something else to write.

Round Four. Big topic. Famous protagonist. THE NOVEL THAT ATE MANHATTAN.

Only, in my case, it was more like The Novel That Time Forgot. A spoiler: the next one didn’t make it either. But the next one was a benchmark. It was the final failure – the novel that turned the tide.

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