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Words for Writers: Unhooking, Tough Choices, and Raising Your Manuscript Up Right

So today, I want to talk a bit about tough choices.

I’m sure you’ve heard the metaphor before, but writing a book is a lot like giving birth. Things gestate, come together, split apart, subdivide in your mind from concepts to characters, from outlines into plots into scenes. You must go through the neck-wrist-back-ache of several thousand hours of keyboard-assisted labour.  And then, after months of carrying this writhing, living, wonderful thing around inside of you, suddenly there is a tiny, perfect creature in your hands, staring at the world with wide-eyed wonder and enchanting everyone you show it to.

Only this little thing, as much as you love it, as much as you think it’s incredible, is totally dependent on you raising it up right. Editing, revising, considering critique – this is like teaching your baby manuscript how to eat solid food, to sleep through the night, how to walk on its own.  When it can stand alone, when it can answer any question put to it intelligently and listen to it when you tell it to do something, then it’s time to pack your MS off to college to succeed or fail with agents in the query process on its own merit. As much as you want to stand behind your baby’s shoulder and take the pop quizzes for it, it has to make the grade alone.

And when your MS has graduated, when it’s off in the real world on submission to publishers, it is job seeking. Its marks from college, the letter of support from its professors and its slick pitch are a CV that has to stand in for the candidate before the publisher ever sees the book. And when the book gets the job, when it gets picked up, it enters the publisher’s editing process, the job training. When it’s ready, when it’s mature and representing it’s employer in the work force, published and on the shelves, you can be proud. You raised your little manuscript right and it is out there right now, courting the perfect reader, curling up with him or her in a cozy coffee shop, spawning adorable little thought-lings in his or her minds, seeding the next generation of book-parents, happily going about the gloriously intimate business of making you a grandparent.

Sometimes, though, your manuscript might have a terrible twos, or a teenaged rebellion. It might drop out of college, tell you it hates you, and resist all attempts at corrective behavior. And what do you do when your manuscript just isn’t cooperating?

Several years ago, when I was in university, my grandfather was quite ill, I’d had a horrible row with my friends, I was being emotionally bullied by someone in my program, and I was feeling cripplingly insecure, I did the one thing I never thought I would have to do – I went to see a shrink.

My family was all quite well adjusted, there was no history of mental illness in my immediate gene pool, and I had a good support network at school. Why, I always wondered, would I ever need to see a psychotherapist?

I am glad I did though. She helped me get my head back on straight, was a neutral party when I told her about my problems who didn’t leap to defend other friends when I complained, and taught me how to grieve – something I don’t think we’re very good at in this century.

But the most important thing she ever taught me was how to “unhook”.

Imagine, she said, that your body is covered with fishhooks. Some only dig into your skin a little – those are the people you know from work, the acquaintances that you don’t mind seeing at the pub but would never call to hang out otherwise. The little people dangling like charms off the end of the hook are quite light. Then there are medium sized hooks – these are your closer friends, your pie-in-the-sky fantasies, your distant family, yoru career aspirations.  They’re a bit heavier, but that’s okay, you can bear them easily. Now imagine big hooks, fat hooks, dug far into your flesh.  Some of them are light, they don’t hurt you… in fact, their pull and tug is reassuring, pleasureable. Those are your family, your best friends, the creative project you adore, the dreams you cherish. But there are other giant hooks, and they’re too heavy. They rip your skin. They hurt. They make you bleed. Those are the people who exhaust and frustrate you, the ones who cling and demand and want you to fix all their problems FOR them, the ones who don’t care how much pain they’re causing. Those are the dead dreams and the dead-end job.

Now, she said. Close your eyes. Pick up the biggest, most painful hook that is dragging at you, ripping into your core. Carefully wriggle it out of your skin. Drop it to the floor. Let it go. Let that person go. Let that annoyance, that aggravation vanish. And here, my dear, is the most important thing for you to remember – don’t ever add more hooks to your skin than you can bare. Adding more hooks will never make the heavy ones feel light.  It is better to strip away than to add.

Better to strip away than to add.

This is important advice that I have held on to. That therapist was a lifeline in a hellish part of my youth, and her advice remains with me today. I am very cautious about who and what I let hook into my skin, who I let pull and who I cherish when I see the charm dangling from the line. And I’ve learned to be ruthless about who and what I unhook.

I nearly unhooked this whole manuscript.  I had worked so hard at raising it up right, but it was being obstinate, loud and angry. My manuscript had become an obese, screaming teenager.  It was behaving a lot like this:

And I’ve tried everything. Bribes. More scenes, more character development, more conflict. I made my main character’s best friend turn bitchy, added an entire new race of beings, layered urban legends and fairy tales onto the world. I paid attention to it and lavished love on it, and it slapped me. I did everything I could, and while it was making the manuscript rounder, thicker, plumper… it wasn’t  making it grow up.

I was indulging it instead of fixing it.

Filled with worry, I had a long conversation with Evan, my agent, and every piece of advice, every suggestion he offered made me more miserable. It was all good, it was all right advice, and if my manuscript had been inclined towards corrective behavior, it might have worked.  But even applying these edits, I couldn’t seem to get my fat, lazy manuscript to start playing outdoors and eating his vegetables. It was all Moreness advice.

I was really ready to unhook it and let go. Evan convinced me not to with a very nice list of what he did like in the book, what was working, and it helped me see the positive, wonderful side of my manuscript, made me remember the chubby, laughing baby under the churlish teen.

And, a few days later, I realized that what the manuscript needed was not More, but Less.

I remembered my therapist’s advice – unhook.

But what had to go? Or worse, who? What wasn’t so vital to the story that the story wouldn’t suffer when it was taken away?

I couldn’t choose. Which element? Which character? Which chapter and all the  following scenes connected to it? My heart broke.

Then I remembered that Evan had confessed that he was less than enamored of one of my characters, especially with his role and dialogue patterns in this book.

I liked this character. He was smart-mouthed, a good shot, and trying to explain his existance was the impetus for a lot of the worldbuilding I’d done.  He was fun to write and great to make the reader mistrust. But, in the end, I realized, he was an indulgence.

He was taking the role of hero away from my MC, doing the things that she should be doing. He was taking the role of the villain away, too, being threatening when fear of the villain should have been paramount, instead of worry about him.

He was, in every sense, in the way of the plot.

Nothing could happen around him because he would prevent/solve the problem before my MC could or my villain arrived. He was a black hole – he sucked up the momentum, the motivation, adn the reasoning in my world, and he was sucking up my time and energy and focus, too.

I still like this character. But, for the MS to thrive and mature, he had to be unhooked.

And that was one of the toughest choices I have had to make. It feels a little bit like killing a kitten. It feels a lot like betraying the friend on whom this character was based. It is terrifying and it hurts.  I mean, what if the whole plot disintegrates without him there to hold up part of the frame? What if cutting him out destroys the fun in the novel, and it becomes too serious for itself? What if taking him away makes the whole novel crumble?

But unhooking the burden of this character and his motivations from the manuscript has made both the MS and I stand a little straighter, walk a little lighter, smile a little more. Because, even though it took hours and hours of talking through motivations and action points and scenes with an author friend… the plot is better. The characters’ motivations are clearer. My hero is a hero.

It’s like… a pyramid that had one too many sides. The structure was actually made weaker by having too many supporting struts, sharing out the weight between them, allowing for cracks.

Now, the villain has matured and grown into his own, spreading like squid-ink into the places that this character has vacated – an honest, ever-present threat, now. The heroine has something tangible to fight against.  The stakes have been raised, and all the Moreness that I added to complicate/explain/fill out the manuscript can be pared back, turned around, and slimmed down. My best friend character doesn’t have to be bitchy anymore, because with this extra character gone, my MC has reason to stay her friend. My MC will have to do the stalking, fighting, and shooting for herself. She will have to defend her choices, and angst over the hard ones, instead of someone letting her do it all for her.

In short, my baby manuscript is growing up.

And the character that I cut? He’s hanging out in the wings, waiting for his turn to take the stage. Because the truth is, he was getting just a little cramped, all jammed into that manuscript, cheek-by-jowl and doing very little. He strolled on out of there happy as you please.  He’s got breathing room now. He’s pushing his shoulders back and grinning his white grin at me, glittering tarnished-penny eyes saying, silently, Oh yes. You and I both know that I was meant for the sequel, anyway.  There wasn’t enough room to maneuver over there. Let me have my space here.

His hooks are still in my skin, but it doesn’t hurt anymore, because he’s finally hanging in the right place. And he is watching, plotting, planning, as another baby manuscript starts to gestate in my mind, waiting for the right moment for that world to be complete enough for him to step inside and become a part of it.

*

For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Leah Petersen September 22, 2011, 8:33 pm

    What a great post. Entertaining AND informative. Timely for me too, as I have a new first draft I need to carve into some semblance of not-sucking.

    🙂

  • JM Frey September 22, 2011, 8:52 pm

    Thanks, Leah.

    I’m glad you found something to take away from the post.

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