Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go in.
- Napoleon

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Applying Lessons Learned

I've been at this writing thing for a little over four years now. (Seriously writing, I mean.) In fact, we're fast approaching the four-year anniversary of the completion of Spectacle.

Or I should say, what I thought was the completion of that book.

Looking over the first draft... :shudder: Glancing over the subsequent drafts... :cringe:

Yesterday I got a line on a potential publisher for the manuscript. Which explains why I'm looking over something I haven't touched in over a year. It also explains why I have a new progress meter over there --->.

Now sometime a while back, I renamed Spectacle. That was part of a learned lesson. I love the title Spectacle, but it doesn't really make a boatload of sense to anyone but me. It's new name is Fear Itself. (Yes, as in 'the only thing we have to fear is fear itself' - which is a quote I think from Teddy Roosevelt... or maybe it was FDR.)

Lesson: Even though the publisher is probably going to change it anyway, your title still has to be grabby enough to attract the attention of an agent/editor.

So as I'm re-reading Spectacle to get it ready to really be Fear Itself, I'm noticing a whole chunk of things I would never do now. For instance, extra words. Way too many extra words. Yesterday I snipped out almost 300 from the first three chapters. Now please understand that when I first finished Spectacle it topped the scales at 147K. After a few edits, it was 137K and I was happy with that. (I didn't know any better.) My first queries were for the book at that length. Needless to say, I didn't get any requests for partial. In fact, one agent - I forget who - wrote directly on my query letter. TOO LONG!! <--- just like that. (I should be glad it wasn't in red ink, I guess.) Lesson: Even though you think your masterpiece is perfect at well over a hundred thousand words, most manuscripts fall between 80-100K. This means even if every word is perfectly placed (which mine weren't), the agent is going to have a tough time selling it.

Lesson: Many words can be cut right out of a manuscript without changing the tone, the voice or the overall impact.

First thing I did after I learned the above lesson was to ruthlessly snip almost every instance of the word THAT. Most times we put it in there because it feels comfortable; not because it's really necessary. (On the other hand, it is sometimes necessary, so don't be too brutal.) You'd be surprised how many words that took care of.

The next thing I did was to root through the text to see if there were any unnecessary scenes. Oh boy, were there. This leads to the next...

Lesson: If it doesn't move the story forward, it shouldn't be in there.

This is an alternate form of the writerly phrase 'Kill your darlings' - which I'm not really a big fan of. (If I killed all my darlings, I'd be left with Chapter headings and page numbers. All my scenes are darlings to me.) I chopped every piece of backstory that wasn't crucial to the story, or so I thought, but I'll get to that in a minute. Chopping unnecessary scenes and snipping unnecessary words got me down to 113K. Twenty-four thousand words... Wackity wack. I'm sure on this read-through I'm going to find many more words that I should've cut years ago.

Live and learn.

All of these lessons I've learned over the past four years. Some of them took longer to actually sink in than others, but I think they're ingrained enough now that my more recent manuscripts don't have the same problems Spectacle did. (And apparently still does.)

I still love Spectacle. Reading just the first three chapters yesterday showed me why I love it. The writing is good (if cluttered), the characters are my friends, the story is sound (even if the premise is a little out there). All I need to do is clean her up a bit, and send her back out into the world - before the submission period closes.

Anyway, I'm still learning. I'm still improving my craft. My stories are getting tighter and the writing is better because of it. I guess what I need to do now is re-read my older manuscripts and do some cleaning.

I'm sure there are other writing lessons I'm forgetting about. Have you learned any lessons during the course of your writing career that you'd like to share?


No comments: