It’s not You….It’s Your Imaginary Friends – Breaking Up With My First Manuscript

I recently posted about my mystery series, which sold in a three-book deal. In many ways, my experience with this series has been the Cinderella Story authors dream of – the first agent I pitched it to signed me as a client, and the series sold in less than five months. It’s the kind of story that alternately inspires others and turns them green with envy.

I know. I’ve been there.

But what that story doesn’t tell you is equally important. Important enough that I’m talking about it here.

This wasn’t my first rodeo.

Before I realized I should be writing mysteries, I wrote four other manuscripts in a different genre (five if you count the abysmal fantasy novel I penned in high school – but please don’t). Four hundred and fifty thousand words. Written and revised – five to seven drafts each.

I wrote them. I polished. I had my peer editors read them and offer comments, after which I revised again. I wrote queries. I had requests for partials and even some full reads.

And I had rejections. Not hundreds, but enough to tell me something wasn’t working. The purpose of this post (and the three that will follow) is to explain how I knew it was time to break up with each of those manuscripts – for their good and for mine – and free myself to write another, a process that ultimately brought me to publishable work.

My first manuscript placed in the finals of a major writing competition. It drew the attention of an agent who asked for the full. In fact, I received three requests for the manuscript before the relevant conference even ended. Two ended in email rejections. The third agent read the novel and called me on the telephone to explain why the novel had missed the mark and to offer suggestions as to how I could fix the multitude of problems my story contained. We talked for an hour  – sixty minutes of incredibly valuable time.

I listened to her critique. I thanked her. When the conversation was over I took a long, hard look at that manuscript and realized two very important things. First, her comments were absolutely right. And second – the harder lesson – that manuscript needed too much work to fix. The characters were weak and one-dimensional. The plot, though strong, was told from the wrong point of view. We won’t go into dialogue or subplots.

As first novels go, it was actually pretty solid – an agent with no reason to lie told me so. But as manuscripts go, it wasn’t publishable. I wasn’t ready. Not yet.

I fully intended to make the changes, rewrite the work, and resubmit as the agent invited me to do. Unfortunately, life intervened. The demands of work and family called me away from my manuscript. Three years passed. By the time I picked up the work again, I had already heard the siren song of a second novel – another story to tell.

The second tale had a stronger hook and a better point of view. My first manuscript seemed pale and weak by comparison, and writing a second novel seemed no harder than putting in the time to rewrite the first. After all, I could always edit the first one later, and then I’d have two manuscripts to sell.

I put that first manuscript into the virtual drawer and started the second, knowing this new endeavor would be the one that put me on the map.

That initial manuscript wasn’t a waste. It taught me important lessons I couldn’t have learned any other way.

I learned to write a full-length novel of 85,000 words. That, in itself, is a major victory.

I learned to listen to honest critique, even when it wasn’t full of praise. Had the words not come from an agent, I might not have listened or taken them seriously. As it was, I had no choice but to listen – this woman knew the business well, and when I took a step away from my writing even I could see she was right.

Which brings me to lesson 3: I learned that I am not perfect, but I can improve. A bad first novel isn’t a death sentence unless you allow it to be. It’s a learning tool. A scrimmage with the word-monsters that you will one day bring to heel.

Had I clung to that first story like a life raft, it would have hampered my progress and caused me to miss my real calling. But I let it go (at the time, intending to return, though I now recognize it for the quintain it actually was) and in doing so I became a better writer.

All things considered, I think that’s a pretty good set of lessons to take away from 85,000 words.

Just wait until you hear what the next ones taught me.

4 thoughts on “It’s not You….It’s Your Imaginary Friends – Breaking Up With My First Manuscript

  • February 23, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    Thanks for sharing your story, Susan and the lessons you learned – it reminds rest of us writers that success isn’t an overnight thing but a long arduous journey for everyone 🙂

    • February 23, 2012 at 2:57 pm

      Thanks Sulthana. It’s so true … writing sometimes feels like a game of “last man standing” – and fortitude is definitely a valuable skill. Thanks for stopping by and even more for the comment.

  • February 28, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    *Listens as the theme to Laverne & Shirley plays….”We’re gonna make our dreams come true….”

    You will get there sooner than you think…you are just too darn talented not to!

    • February 29, 2012 at 12:35 pm

      Thanks Wynd. I hope you and T love the book when it comes out. Hopefully I can actually get out to see you guys in the next couple of years too!

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