It’s Not You, It’s the Choices You’re Making … Breaking Up With My Fourth Manuscript

This morning I’m finishing my series on lessons learned from breaking up with my trunk manuscripts. (Installments one, two, and three at the links.)

A famous (and variously attributed) writing quote says “the first half-million words are practice.” After writing half a million in four years, I’m both pleased and sorry to tell you the quote is true – and my fourth unpublished manuscript proved it to me.

The fourth novel (still straight historical fiction) had everything the previous manuscripts lacked – a marquee protagonist, plenty of action, a strong supporting cast and even a killer logline. I drafted and polished and killed the darlings that threatened to purple my prose.

I had acquired a pair of solid peer editors (one after the failure of manuscript 1 and the other during the drafting of manuscript 3) and they, too, thought my writing had finally hit the mark.

But the manuscript didn’t sell. To be honest, I didn’t actually try all that hard.  I submitted it to a handful of agents (ten to be exact), of whom half requested a partial read. Unfortunately, every one returned the same comment: the writing is fluid, I love the voice, but the plot doesn’t add enough to the canon to make this work a success.

In other words: you’ve finally learned how to write – now tell us a story we haven’t heard.

Incidentally…I thought that was what I had done.

If writing had only been a dream or something I aspired to, I might have quit. The word even entered my mind. But – fortunately or unfortunately – that choice wasn’t mine to make. I have self-identified as a writer since before I even knew what a writer was. At five, I copied books with construction paper and crayons. At seven, I told myself stories while weeding the garden. At fourteen, I turned an English short-story assignment into a full-length (85,000 word) manuscript.

How does a person quit her calling?

Short answer: she can’t, and she doesn’t. Quitting was never an option – but that knowledge did make me angry. Reasonably so. The prospect of going through life with a trail of shattered and dying manuscripts in my wake was not exactly the writing career I hoped for.

And after a few days of self-indulgent moping, I pushed myself up, brushed off the frustration and made a decision.

If I was put on this earth to write a mountain of unpublished manuscripts and to die without seeing a single one in print, I would do it.

But I wouldn’t go down without a fight. I would work on craft. I would improve. I would become the very best writer of unpublishable manuscripts I could be. This didn’t mean I’d resigned myself to failure – far from it – but I had turned an important corner. I had realized that my identity as a writer was based upon writing and my need to write.

Shakespeare was actually right – the word’s the thing.

About a week after this revelation, I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror getting ready for work when I a voice in my head said:

Most ninjas commit murders. Hiro Hattori solves them.

One thought. One moment’s inspiration – and everything changed. A historical novelist became a mystery author – and the final trunk manuscript made its way to the trunk.

The transformation wasn’t instantaneous, and writing the first SHINOBI novel took time – but that’s a story for another day.

2 thoughts on “It’s Not You, It’s the Choices You’re Making … Breaking Up With My Fourth Manuscript

  • March 13, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    And what a novel SHINOBI is! Oh, you readers don’t know the treat you’re in for! Muaahhahhhaaah (evil laugh)

    I’m a little scared thinking about writing half a million worthless, horrible words. I’m in the camp of writing a novel “right” the first time must be accomplished before throwing it under a bush and setting the whole damn thing on fire. We’ll see if I can pull it off…

    • March 14, 2012 at 11:08 am

      As far as I’m concerned, rewriting gets credit toward the half million. I also think it is possible to get a novel right the first time. Once I realized what genre I was supposed to be writing in, that’s exactly what happened to me. I just wrote four in the wrong genre before I realized I was a mystery writer, not a pure historical novelist.

Comments are closed.