Monday, May 07, 2007

Know When to Fold 'Em

In response to a recent post I wrote on whether or not to hire an editor, I received this email:

My quandary is that I have a thriller that has gotten extremely positive feedback by my writer's group (a harsh group of folks, some of them published) and two college professors (one of whom I was a student of and who is known to be brutal in his criticisms). Over and over again I have heard how good the book is (with one main criticism, which I mention below).

So . . . of course . . . the manuscript has been rejected over 100 times now. I get more than form letters most of the time (handwritten notes, advice, etc.), which is nice, but I'm getting hit for stuff that seems unfair (I am male and my main character is female and the novel is a thriller written from the first person perspective which I guess is a no-no, especially for a rookie novelist). One editor nibbled but did not bite.

The main criticism is that the first fifty pages (of 400) moves slowly, then the novel really takes off. I set up the entire novel that way (sigh) and tossing the first fifty pages impacts almost every single chapter thereafter. I have struggled for six months now on how to get my head around fixing the issue and I am plain stuck. Do you think an editor could help dig me out of this hole? If so, is there one you could recommend?

Publishing is not about selling a good book. Publishing is about selling a book that will sell, and rarely does that have to do entirely with how good the book is. Usually it has a lot more to do with how marketable it is. Sure that has a lot to do with how the book is written, but it also has a lot to do with plotting, characterization, and hook. In this case my recommendation is to put this book safely away under your bed and start over. You know what’s wrong with it, you know you probably can’t fix it (or you don’t want to), so move forward. Take what you know about this book and use it to write something else.



Josephine Damian said...

Jessica, better advice has never been given. It applies to many of us here as well.

Linda C. McCabe said...

I'll play Devil's Advocate here. Maybe what the writers needs is to create a different opening.

That might be by adding an exciting event that happens before the original chapter 1. Think of something that will be illustrative of the main character and put them into some peril, or embarrassing situation, *something* that is gripping and will get reader's attention.

Unfortunately the industry has gone away from people giving books 100 pages or so to "get into it" before deciding to stop reading.

In William Goldman's seminal book Adventures in the Screen Trade he discussed the movie "Harper" that he wrote with Paul Newman. They had finished the movie when the director decided that he needed an intro for the beginning credits to run. He wanted Goldman to come up with something before the movie started.

Not wanting to muck around with the set up for the storyline, he decided to show Harper waking up and making coffee.

It was a brilliant character piece because what could have been a simple boring scene brought the audience squarely into Harper's camp.

(I'm going from memory so, bear with me now.)

The camera focuses on the clock registering 05:58

Then it goes to Harper in bed with his eyes wide open.

He gets up and switches the alarm off before it rings.

He stretches and walks over bleary-eyed to the coffee pot. He fills the carafe with water and pours it inside. The used coffee filter from the day before is thrown into the trash.

He reaches into the cupboard for fresh coffee and realizes that there are no more filters. Harper starts searching cupboard doors, drawers, etc. No more filters.

He grimaces as his foot presses on the pedal of the trash can and looks inside. He pulls out the used filter and washes it out.

A pot of coffee is made.

He pours it and takes a taste.

THE BLACK HOLE OF CALCUTTA and spits it out.


Goldman said that when he watched the movie with an audience that they were quietly watching as Newman started the coffee making ritual, but at the point he looked into the waste bin there were titters. Then when he drank the cup and gave his "ohmigod is this disgusting" facial expression that the audience roared its approval.

After that, they firmly liked Harper as the main character. And all he did was try to have a cup o' joe in the morning.

If your story needs 50 pages to lay the groundwork for later plot points, you might also try to introduce more conflict between the characters. You can be slow, but don't let it be boring. That's the utter deathknell to drama.

I recommend that you read my favorite reference book which was written for actors, but I think gives just as much terrific advice for writers.

Audition: everything an actor needs to know to get the part by Michael Shurtleff.

Add conflict to any part in your story that is flat. As Shurtleff says, "Conflict is drama."

Linda McCabe

Anonymous said...

I agree with L.C. A literary novel might take its time, but how could you think that a thriller should start slowly?

Sometimes just a foreshadowing is enough to keep a reader going. "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Arelious Buendias remembered the long-ago day when his father took him to discover ice."

Laura K. Curtis said...

A couple of things, from experience:

First, go with Jessica's suggestion. I was just given--by three separate agents/editors at a conference--the same piece of advice on how to refocus a work so that it would be more marketable. That is, the work as it stood was fine, but not not appropriate for the market as it is today.

So I went home and tried to take the advice. After all, I worked hard on this thing and, like you, have gotten great critiques that have helped me fine tune it. But I didn't think about the market. Unlike you, my issue is not in the opening but, like you, it would require overhauling the whole book.

The attempt was a disaster. The characters wouldn't behave. One of the things I was attempting, because it would make implementing the other changes possible, was a switch from first to third person. I couldn't get past the first few pages.

So that's my experience and the first reason I'd recommend exactly what Jessica says.

The second is that if your story is really great and you are determined to whittle those first 50 pages down and reinsert the information elsewhere, you are going to need more than your basic editorial service. You will likely even need more than a line editor. You will need "heavy" or "structural" editing, and that's going to be very, very expensive. (At least as befits my budget!) A wonderful freelance editor I know has made a post here on reasons you don't need an editor and what a reputable one will cost you.

And once you're done, you may no longer like the story. You wrote the book as you wanted to see it, so you may find you don't like the suggestions the editor makes, or don't feel as if it's "yours" any longer, in which case you'll be out a lot of money and you'll still have a box under your bed.

Just my 3 cents (cost of living increase)--your mileage may vary.

Laura K. Curtis said...

Oh, and I forgot: If you don't yet own a copy of Chris Roerden's book Don't Murder Your Mystery, pick it up. If I hadn't been working, I'd have attended Malice just to vote for it; it's the most useful book I own.

Unlike most books on writing, Chris's doesn't give you some magical formula for writing a book. What she does is take you step by step through how to fix a manuscript that's already been written.

Anonymous said...

The beginning of a thriller has to explode. How to fix what's wrong? What about trying the advice from that book, The First Five Pages? I can't think of the author's name right now.

That said, also start something else.

Anonymous said...

Whether you try to revise this novel or not, I think moving on is excellent advice. Not easy--I know.

But after a few months have passed, after you've turned your attention to a new story, after you've read some excellent books, you'll gain much-needed objectivity. You may say, "Aha, now I get it. I need to speed things up." Or you may say, "Well, I still like it just fine, but I like my new book better."

Unknown said...

giving up on a baby is hard. But c'mon. A hundred rejections?
It only took me eighty nine, lol. And my baby is in the file cabinet. Maybe one day when I'm better, I'll fix it.

JDuncan said...

Ha! My current project out in query land is a paranormal suspense/thriller written by a male with a female protaganist. Do agents/editors really see that as an issue? That would be kind of sad if that were the case. I know there have been lots of novels written by men with female mc's, but is there an initial hesitation when seeing that? I actually like writing female protags.