Thursday, January 24, 2013

Reviving the Ailing Manuscript: When Is It Time to Let Go?

All writers have them: manuscripts in various stages of completion that may or may not ever see the light of day. I'm not talking about work that we've abandoned because life got in the way; I'm talking about work that just doesn't feel right.

I have a few of these books and I stare at the files and ask myself, what went wrong? And, can it be fixed?

Recently Marion Dane Bauer spoke to this topic in a series of excellent blog posts addressing her own failed picture book manuscript. She rightly states that picture books are such fragile things that it's nigh on impossible to resuscitate a failed picture book. But, she adds, it might be easier to bring a failed or failing novel back to life.

That notion pushed me to examine some of the reasons my own novels have "failed" or are failing, and whether I might be able to give them a second chance. Here are some of my observations in case they are useful to you:

  • If the reason for failure is due to weak characterization of protagonist or antagonist:

This may be resolvable. A deeper character analysis might reveal a backstory wound. A change in tone might bring a character's voice to light. A shift in point of view - from, say, third to first person - can often shift the character into gear. Taking the character outside her comfort zone - stressing her, putting her in harm's way - can often reveal the underpinnings of response. Forcing the character into doing something "out of character" can elicit deeper revelations and emotional reactions. 

If this is my problem, and I still love the story, I'll give it a second chance.

  • If the reason for failure is due to weaknesses in the plot:

This one is tougher for me and often depends upon where I am in the novel - first draft, second draft, etc. Do I have enough tension? Can I add or subtract scenes to increase the tension or reveal new things about my characters or the situation? Can I spin the plot in a new direction without trashing the story entirely?

But in that last question lies the difficulty. If my premise is weak, I'm in trouble. Or, rather my novel is in trouble. It's hard to shore up a weak premise. Sometimes I can spin the premise, turn it around and look at it from another direction; but sometimes...

And in the case of writing fantasy or science fiction (both of which I'm trying now), the premise is everything, in my view. And if the premise, however good, has been done to death in recent years (vampires, anyone?) then the novel will likely be viewed as derivative at best. Time to abandon. If the premise is unwieldy such that your reader cannot suspend disbelief, time to abandon, or at least set aside.

  • If the reason for failure is due to lack of heart:

Fatal. If I have lost the heart of my story - the love for the story above anything else, a belief in the power of that story, a feeling that it reveals my own heart and the underpinnings of the human experience - I'm done.

Here's what Marion had to say, and she's right: the deepest flaw that can inhabit any piece is a lack of genuine heart. I have to love the story to pieces to be able to write it. And I know that an editor, agent, and my readers will feel my lack of heart and respond with a "meh" if I don't give them my emotional all. (This is why I don't write assignment work, unless the assignment speaks to me.) 

We've all read books by authors we love that seem to be weak, or lost altogether; I imagine it's hard for an editor to put aside the work of a successful author. I would rather be my own arbiter of what I want to send out into the world. I have maybe half a dozen completed but flawed novels that will likely never see the light of day, that I've set aside, even when someone has asked for the work. 

But that's fine. I move on and write the next one, and the next and the next. As Marion says, the very act of writing feeds us...Success is only a happy byproduct, not the reason for our effort. 


Monday, January 14, 2013

Footsteps: Revision

A few weeks back I gave out some practical revision ideas, but today I want to examine a more nuanced way to look at revision.

My walk in the summer and fall.
Every day I try to take a walk. Usually I’m taking the same walk, retracing my footsteps. It’s a good walk, part exercise, part meditation; I use my walking time to let my brain ruminate on my current project, and more often than not, that rumination is fruitful.

In fact I find that I reach a breakthrough idea at about the same point every walk - that must be the place where my brain relaxes into my physical exertion and my internal editor goes on vacation, because I come up with my best ideas as I reach that rock, that tree.

Today, while walking this route, I could see the imprint of yesterday’s walk in the fresh snow. I put my foot in the same imprint at times; at times, I moved away for easier footing or a more direct route. Sometimes I moved even further, if I heard or saw something of interest that I could incorporate into my walk, weaving a deer sighting or a wolf track into the thread of this walk and into memory.

Winter dawn at my new Bozeman house...just because.
This is how I see revision. I walk in the footsteps of my previous work. Sometimes I work to make something more direct. Sometimes I clarify. And sometimes I find an entirely new thread, a new path, or a new and exciting interest.

I love revising, almost as much as I love walking. The generation of work is exciting, just as walking a new route can be a thrill. But walking the same route every day is a pleasure of a different kind – awakening my senses and sharpening my focus.

So I’m off to revise...right after my walk!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Upcoming Texas Tour

While I'm still digging myself out of boxes (too many books! Can someone have too many books? Yes, when that someone has to move them into a new home...) I thought I'd post information about my upcoming Texas book tour. I'm excited to get back to my for-awhile home state and see many great friends, so here's the itinerary. 

Tuesday, January 29th
7 pm
603 N. Lamar Blvd.
Austin, TX 78703-5413

Wednesday, January 30th
6:30 pm
Westbank Library
1309 Westbank Drive
Austin, TX 78746

Thursday, January 31st
Guest room at The Writing Barn
12-2 pm
Discussion / librarian book exchange
Austin Public Library

While in Austin, I'll be staying at The Writing Barn. I'm going to write a blog post about that experience when I return.

Friday, February 1 - Sunday, February 3

The MCBF should be an awesome weekend event, with many terrific authors in attendance. I'm thrilled to be involved. Panels will run all day Saturday, with time for attendees to meet their favorite authors.

Tuesday, February 5
6 PM
B&N College Station
Lone-Star Pavilion
711 Texas Avenue
College Station, TX 77840

Houston's Joy Preble (the Anastasia series) will join me for a booktalk in College Station.

I hope I get to see you in Texas!