It’s Not You … It’s Your Subplot: Breaking Up With My Second Manuscript

This morning I’m continuing the anti-Cinderella story of how I broke up with my early manuscripts. Yes, that’s plural. Although my ninja mystery series signed with the first agent I pitched it to (my first choice – Sandra Bond) and sold within two months of the date the agent sent out the proposal, in the interest of full disclosure I’m sharing the bumpier road that hides behind the carriages and glass slippers in that version of the tale.

(Part 1 of the story is here. Back yet? OK, moving on…)

My second full-length manuscript had stronger protagonists and introduced something the first one lacked – an actual subplot. In truth, it had more than one, and in that respect represented a real step forward. My characters were more three-dimensional, and some of the dialogue sequences had real depth.

I wrote. I edited. I polished. And finally, two years later, I found myself ready to enter the query wars with a “really good manuscript” on my hands. I drafted my query – which opened with precisely the kind of hideous hypothetical question that sends the Query Shark into a blood-rage.

I mailed and emailed queries. I waited, confident that this time I’d done it right. Out of 19 queries, I received three requests for partial reads …. and zero requests for the full. On balance, the results weren’t horrible – but they weren’t what I was hoping for.

Several of the rejections were standard forms, but quite a few contained personalized suggestions or comments. One agent actually emailed me to say that while this manuscript didn’t light her fire, she would love to see whatever I worked on next. Another one said “if you keep at this, I am confident you will sell something eventually.”

It didn’t take me as long to realize this manuscript wasn’t working. In fairness, the story didn’t have as wide an appeal as I knew a debut novel needed, and that probably made it easier to recognize when it was time to put it aside and move on. The pivotal moment, however, came when I received those personalized rejections. Both of the agents in question are very well known in the publishing world. I respected (and still respect) their opinions and their ability to judge both good writing and what will sell.

The first one was important because it left the door open. In the psychological sea of rejections, someone had thrown me a rope – but I had to drop the log I hung on to in order to grab it.

The second one delivered the message even more clearly – although I had to be able to read between the lines. “if you keep at this” is barely-concealed code for “but this one isn’t there yet.”

And if this one isn’t there yet…I have to write another one to get there.

The second 100,000 words taught me important lessons. I learned about subplots and character depth. I learned to write dialogue that did more than merely dump information into the reader’s eyes and ears. I also learned to read between the lines of a negative answer and see when it actually contained some positive feedback, too.

I had passed another milestone on the road to becoming a publishable writer.

But once again, it was time to break up with my manuscript. I mourned. I ate cupcakes. I read and researched…and found another story to tell.THIS TIME I GOT THIS, I told myself. THIS ONE WILL BE THE ONE.

Not so fast, there, kiddo…but that’s a story for another day.

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