HowTo

Words for Writers: Bidding Farewell

This weekend, I am in mourning.

Time of birth had been somewhere in the spring of 2007; the time of death was around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, July 26th 2012 while hunched over my much-dog eared and highlighted copy of Jane Austen for Dummies.

Yes, that was the moment that I realized that the manuscript I had been working on for nearly five years was dead. And just like for every other death I’ve had the misfortune of experiencing, the swift realization was followed by an even swifter sucker punch to the gut.

That was it. It was over.

I curled over the book, pressed my forehead against the spine, and cried.

Because this manuscript? This novel I’d written and was fact-checking with Dummies? That manuscript was unsalvageable.

What happened?

Well, this book was meant to be one of those kinds of books that is a revisionist history without changing any history whatsoever. The steel frame of 100% historical accurate events was the mold, and the story itself was melted plastic that I had pushed through the cracks to ooze out the bottom. It was meant to be one of those books that you read for the fictional story, and then when looked up the historical persons and events, realized it was completely plausible that the story had happened, even if there was time travel and science fiction.

Only the frame, I realized, was the wrong shape. I had messed up somewhere four years ago, messed up again on both research trips to England; I had gotten one itty bitty number wrong (1805 instead of 1804) and it had shattered the plastic of my story. There was no way to take the steel frame away and reposition the plastic segments without cracking the whole book apart.

The book was dead.

Now, before you try to tell me that there’s always a way to shift things and muddle, please understand that I filled a whole notebook and several hours worth of conversations with friends and fellow writers. And there are cheats, there are always cheats, but I didn’t want to cheat.

The whole point of this book is that there weren’t going to be any cheats. It was going to be all right and plausible and yet completely fantastic and impossible.

So getting this one thing wrong, this one major thing, completely destroyed the rest of the novel. The time line was thrown entirely out of whack, and no matter how much tetris or jenga I play with the plot, I cannot make the shattered pieces of plastic fit the frame any more.

This was especially hurtful and frustrating to me as I had already had a discussion with my agent about the book and he had said that while it was a fine manuscript, he wasn’t interested in shopping it. I wasn’t trying to revise it to make him change his mind, but because I thought the story was still worth fighting for, still worth improving, and that if the book was in great shape I could put it away for a while until someone asked me if I had a romance novel to shop.

I had also mentioned it to some important folks in NYC whose interest had been piqued, so I felt like I was not only witnessing the death of my novel, but that I was in some way betraying the confidence these other people had in my work. That I had let them down.

That, I think, was the worst part of it of all.

I felt like a miserable, utter failure. I still do, a little.

So what now? What does one do now, when something you’ve worked so hard on suddenly becomes non-viable? How do you, as an author, handle actually giving up on a story?

The first thing I did was open a very good bottle of wine, sit out on my deck, and brood. I filled notebooks with possible cheats, but disliked every single one of them. I called my ever faithful beta reader and hashed it out with her, and we came to the same conclusion: unsalvageable. I spoke to an author friend: unsalvageable.

I am frankly still flailing emotionally. I had two very rough nights, one filled with horrendous nightmares about how none of the books I ever produce again will be good and that I’ve used up my life’s allotment of ideas.

The only way, it seemed, to be able to get over this decision to bury the book was to treat it like an actual person who had passed away. After all, we writers really do emotionally connect with our novels as if they were people. We cherish the characters and the worlds, we take pride in the moments and fight with the errors. We spend years thinking about, thinking through, thinking around our books.

Books take up real estate – emotionally, mentally, physically.

To have to give up a book is, very much, no different from having to safe farewell forever to a loved one.

To that end, here is the Kubler-Ross model of the Five Stages of Grief:

Denial – like me, you’ll probably be stunned and horrified when you realize that this book is done. It is gone, and not in a good way, where it’s heading off to an agent or editor. It will never be read, it will never be cherished, and it will never leave your home. You’ll rage, you’ll wail, you’ll have a very tough few nights.

Anger – and then you’ll be mad. Angry that you screwed up the research so very badly, angry at your beta readers when they told you that it was a good book (even though it’s not their fault that it’s not working, and they may have genuinely enjoyed it; that’s why it’s called irrational anger), angry at the book for not being better, angry at the world for forcing you to give up.

Bargaining – then you’ll start to try to find away around it. Changing plot points, switching characters, telling the book from a different POV or starting period, anything, anything to not have to give up on it.

Depression – but of course, none of that will work. Because if it worked, then it wouldn’t be a dead book, would it? So you’ll cry. You’ll hurt. You’ll feel terrible and probably walk around like a zombie. People will say, “it’s just a book” and you’ll hate them a little bit for not understanding. It wasn’t a book, it was a tiny spark of life and you are the one who had to smother that flame.

Acceptance – In the end, it will suck and it will hurt, but you will come to the realization that putting the book away will be good for you and your career. The book just isn’t working, just isn’t good enough, and to focus on something that is working, you have to sacrifice this one. It will be okay. Your world didn’t end because you had to let go. It’s just fine. You will always hold a warm spot in your heart for that book, those characters, that world, and in the end, at least you hold it.

In the end, I’m sad to see this story get put away in the box under my bed labelled “morgue”.  But I also feel lighter, because truthfully, this book wasn’t working. It never really was working. I got some fabulous feedback from some fantastic beta readers (James Bow among them; what a swell guy! Especially since he’s pretty much the antithesis of this book’s target demographic and apparently loved it.) but I never really could seem to get it to work.

The characters were never quite on (though I loved my version of Captain Francis Austen), the plot contrivances never quite natural enough. It was like the plastic fit, but not comfortably.

So what now?  Now, the book goes away, possibly forever. Maybe in a few years I’ll dig the research out again and start from scratch, re-read the whole set of articles and texts that inspired the novel to begin with and try to make a go of writing a whole new book.

In the meantime, I will mine the corpse for great scenes, imagery, and lines to feed my new manuscripts. I started a brand new novel a few days ago, and I think I can use some of the scenes from the dead book in this one.

Possibly, if someone invites me to an appropriately-themed anthology, I will revive the concept as a short story.

For now, I will make my farewells and move on to other projects.

And who knows, perhaps, just perhaps in a few years, I might release the original novel as a freebie for a laugh. “It’s a good book,” I’ll say. “Shame that it’s dead. Enjoy the zombie goodness.”

I am still in a rough place. I am not over this book, not yet. I don’t know when I will be. But I know that it was a far braver, harder thing to do to acknowledge to myself that the book wasn’t working, couldn’t work, and to accept that and put it away. Far, far better than flogging a book that no one could ever accept or sell, a book that I insisted to myself, to my agent, to editors and publishers and the reading public was good when it wasn’t, it simply just wasn’t.

And it’s tough. And it sucks. But in the end, it will make you feel better, feel proud, and feel ready for the next hurdle of being a professional writer.

Words from Other Writers On Mourning Your Book:

I asked: How do you deal with realising your book is dead? When should you abandon a book?

Nikki Faith Fuller‏ (@Myth_Girl): When you no longer feel like you *have* to do it. And it’s not an abandoning, but a letting to 🙂

August C. Bourré‏ (@FishSauce): Never abandon anything forever. Bits can be used, or it can take a new shape, but don’t see that as abandoning.

Gethin Jones (‏@gethinmorgan): When it stops being fun!

Fingers Delaurus: Look at George Lucas. Ponder. THAT should motivate to lock the thing away when your editor says it’s done 🙂

Victoria De Capua Campbell: Take a holiday. Distance.

Adam Shaftoe: Strip it for short story fodder.  Remember that this will not be the last thing you will ever write. Find a take away from the experience that will let you improve on the next project.

K.W. Ramsey‏ (@KWRamsey): It’s never abandoned. It’s just put on the back burner until the answer appears or I die, whichever comes first

Gillian Leitch‏ (@gilliandoctor): From the ashes something beautiful will come out- lost, but not forgotten, and lessons learned.

Rob St-Martin When opening the file (or notebook or whatever) doesn’t excite me, drains me dry just thinking about it, and I dread the sight of it, it’s time to stuff it in the archives and move on. Whatever good that can be salvaged from it will be, one day. Just not right away. Time will offer the emotional distance required to deal with it.

Derwin Mak Similar to what Rob says: when it isn’t fun to work on the story anymore. However, exhaustion doesn’t equal fun. On both my novels, there were times when I was exhausted, but I was still enjoying it.  As to what to do with it later, parts of it can wind up in future stories.

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

JM FreyWords for Writers: Bidding Farewell
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Words for Writers: Don’t Stop. Don’t Ever Stop.

Writing is a hard, hard thing. It is a solitary thing. It is a thing where all of the work is done in places that are unseen, so the value of said work is sometimes forgotten. People can pick up a book and have no thought at all for the hours, tears, papercuts, giggles, and long, back-pain inducing hours it took to create it.

They have no concept of the blurring vision, the PTSD fear of the red pen, the simple joy in the way your agent holds your hand when you’re freaking out over an offer, and the sheer thrill of seeing your book clutched close by someone reading it on the subway. People forget that while they can consume a novel in a weekend, that was probably four years of your life, where you were probably obsessively thinking about it every time you got the chance.

So when I get mail like this, it pleases me to no end, because this tells me that all those hours, those tears, those paper cuts, those aches, those giggles and those obsessions are known, appreciated, and respected. Also, because mail like this is also great advice for ALL writers, I have been given permission to share it:

Congratulations times a thousand on publishing your debut novel. That’s beautiful, wonderful, amazing. You did it. You damn well did it. I don’t know you, but I know that writing’s hard, it’s always hard to do this thing in silence and on your own, so congratulations on damn well doing it. Whew. I hope you’re writing book two/three/four now. Right now. Good lord, full steam ahead JM, full steam ahead.

I understand what it takes to get where you are: Not stopping. Everyone wants to have written; few want to write. That you already have so many books lined up—I cheer louder! That’s the other thing few get: Don’t stop don’t stop don’t stop. If not this book then the next one, if not that one then the one after…simply don’t stop writing and you’ll get there.

(These kind words and excellent advice come from Atlinmerrick)

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

 

JM FreyWords for Writers: Don’t Stop. Don’t Ever Stop.
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Words for Writers: Killing Your Babies

Coined by Ernest Hemmingway, the phrase “to kill your babies” is not about infanticide, but about editing.

Tumblr Question: If you’d be so inclined to discuss the matter, I wouldn’t mind seeing you address the writing concept of what I refer to as Killing Your Babies. The next step after learning all the rules, and structure and tradition and accepted theories and habits, and knowing when to tear the rule books up. Just tossing that one out there. : )

Right. Okay. This is a hard one.  Especially if we’re talking about your first novel.

Simply, “Killing Your Babies” refers to having to edit out something you love in order to make the story/book/script better. It utterly, completely sucks. It is, quite frankly, one of the hardest things to do as a professional writer.  When you write, you will inevitably get attached to an idea, or a character, or a concept, or a line – and generally, like any proud parent, you will cling tooth and nail to that thing you love, and will do anything to keep it in the story.

For me it’s the last one – I get so attached to specific phrases, and I do anything in my power to keep them.

(Gabrielle Harbowy has actually told me that I crow over them like Peter Pan – “Oh, the cleverness of me!” – and that it’s difficult to get me to cut them. She says it’s one of my biggest flaws, and I consciously make an effort to not be Peter-Pan-like whenever I get my edits and revisions back.)

It’s bugging hard, killing your baby. Removing something from a book is emotionally draining. You mourn for what has to go, you bargain to keep it in, you rail and you get angry that nobody understands why it should stay. It’s got such a visceral phrasing for a reason – because you behave and you feel as if you actually are killing a helpless infant. And you mourn it as if it were an actual death.

But in the end, the aim of a writer is to create a script/novel that is a cohesive whole with nothing superfluous.

Knowing whether you should remove it is another matter entirely. It’s really hard to figure out which of your babies you should be killing, if any at all.

Generally, I find that if more than one beta reader comments about it, then it’s a good indication that, no matter how much I love it, it doesn’t need to be there or is actively impairing the quality of the manuscript.  If more than one reader says “Why is this character here?” or “this scene is the way of the plot” or “why do you need this concept?”, then it’s an indicator that the stuff that’s getting the negative attention needs to be addressed.

Sometimes, I force myself to sit back and ask, out loud, “Is this self-indulgent?” If the answer is yes, then out it comes. Or I’ll ask, “Is this impeding the pace of the narrative? Is it keeping my hero from being the hero? Or my villain from being the villain? Is it absolutely necessary for the reader to know this, or can they understand the world/narrative just fine without it?” If I answer yes, out it comes.

But killing babies is an intensely personal process, and I can’t offer pithy advice or hard-and-fast-rules on how to deal with it. All I can say, really, is… deal with it.

If you want to be a professional writer – novelist, academic, screenwriter, etc. – part of that is learning to suck it up and do whatever it takes to make your story the best it can be. Part of that is learning how to take criticisms and look at them with a level head and make a choice. (And that’s hard, I won’t pretend it’s not. I’ve had to email my agent and apologize for my overly emotional reply more than once).

Sometimes it means arguing with your agent/editor about choices, and defending yours; sometimes it means accepting that you wrote too much, or didn’t explain it well enough, or that you need to delete a character, or that, something you love has to go.

The thing with a story is that there is always so much more in your head than what you can cram onto a page. There are scenes, little moments, backstories, world building, characters, and conversations that you think are stunningly important and fascinating. You wouldn`t have written your book (or screenplay, or comic, etc) if you didn’t.

But it can’t possibly all fit on the page. Not if you are going to tell a good story, and that is the key thing to remember. That, in the end, you are telling a story. A single, vital, living story. It might have subplots and twists, but in the end it all braids together to become one story and it is that story that you have to serve.

I will repeat: it sucks.

Nobody wants to kill their babies. But in the end, you owe it to your work – your world, your characters – to give it the best presentation you can.

And if you really, really love what you’ve cut, keep it in a morgue file/box, and save it for another project, where it might work better.

I’ve already given a case study about having to pull an entire character out of a WIP, and the angst it caused, so I decided to poll my writer friends to see if they had any advice or stories to share.

Here is some more advice from other writers:

Julie Czerneda, author of The Species Imperative series:

Doesn’t bother me at all. I’m ruthless. I delete. Paragraphs, scenes, chapters, plot threads, characters. Highlight, delete. I refuse to look back or regret or save. I think it’s my training from non-fiction, in part, and being an editor as well. If A doesn’t work, wipe the slate and try B. Faster and cleaner. When something’s right, I can tell because it survives me, but if a phrase or cool bit tries to persist beyond its expiry, I’m suspicious of its motives. Off with its head!

That being said, this is how I behave during my own revision process. If my editor finds something that will be a problem for a reader in the draft I submit, almost always it’s not a question of something needing to go, but of something missing. I didn’t include a step or reveal a point or set up an emotional payoff properly. I tend to err on the side of oooh, I’m being mysterious.

The bottomline? There’s always a better way to write something, and never enough time to explore all the possibilities. Perfection is a direction, not a goal. If pruning makes the work better, and it usually does, keep the clippers close at hand.

From Jason Leaver, Writer/Creator of the smash-hit webseries Out With Dad:
When I write a screenplay I always let go of the practicality of production. Just write from my heart and worry about the rest later. “Later” have a nasty habit of catching up – and sometimes you’re forced to make harsh revisions based on the practicality of production, budget, logistics or even technical limitations.

The project I’m in development on right now has core concept that I’m IN LOVE WITH. I’d go so far as saying it is the heart of the project. However, this piece of the complicated puzzle that is production-hell, has been vetoed by my producers. I hate them for it, yet I can’t deny they’re right. It is simply outside the scope of feasibility. The compromise we have is good. One day I may even see it as an improvement. For now though, it feels like this project has been downgraded. That downgraded feeling will probably last right up until we get into production.

From Laurie Channer, author of Godblog:
Yes, you sometimes have to kill your babies, or chop off their cute little fingers.  But just because you love it doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for the piece.  But you’re a writer, and you go confidently knowing someday you can cannibalize those orphan bits (mixing my metaphor here somewhat) into something else that you’ll write.  That lovely moment, or killer piece of dialogue or entire scene can be dredged back up and tweaked into something new you’re doing.  And then that’s one less thing that you have to make up.

From August C. Bourre of Vestige Book Reviews:
The more you do it, the easier it gets. And most important: learn to tell between what you like & what’s good. Not always the same.

Derwin Mak, Aurora Award winning author of The Moon Under Her Feet:
A story should be more than the sum of its parts. Therefore, if there’s an idea, character, subplot, paragraph, description, or sentence that doesn’t work well with the rest of the story, you have to get rid of it, no matter how interesting or well-written it is on its own. You can save it for use in another story later, but your priority is to make your current story the best it can be.

Ira Nayman, author of the Alternate Reality Information Network series:

  1. Look at every opportunity to rewrite as a new opportunity to exercise your creativity.If you think of rewriting as a chore, like doing the dishes or declawing the rhinoceros, you are guaranteed to hate the process. If, on the other hand, you approach it with the same attitude that you approach your first drafts, you will find it much easier (and actually fun, as hard as that may be to believe). Consider writing a story answering a series of “What happens next?” questions. When you’re writing your first draft, you’re asking the questions yourself. When rewriting, the questions are being asked by the editor. Ultimately, no matter who asks the questions, your job is to make the story the best that it can be.
  2. Write a lot.If it takes you ten years to write a single short story, you will be crushed if an editor suggests you change a single word. If, in those 10 years, you have written a couple dozen short stories, a few novellas and a novel or two – and you are constantly circulating them until they find their publisher – you will be less emotionally invested in any individual work. Not only will this make it easier for you to rewrite, but it takes the sting out of outright rejection.
  3. Keep in mind that in our digital age, nothing is etched in stone.If, after rewriting a story at the behest of an editor, you still feel that your original version was better, wait until the rights revert back to you and publish your original version on your Web site. In fact, you can have fun with this: post both versions and ask your readers which they prefer (as long as you’re willing to accept the possibility that they will choose the edited version…)

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

 

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Words for Writers: A bit of advice for NaNoWriMo

Logo for National Novel Writing Month

NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – is almost here! Across the interwebs, writers of every age, genre, creed (pantsers vs. plotters), and experience levels are revving up to participate.

As veteran of NaNo (have been doing it since 2003, won all times but 3, and in my defense, I was writing thesises or MA school applications), I  have been asked a few times if I have any advice for the newbies.

Yes, I do.

Remember, as wonderful and fantastic as NaNoWriMo is – 50K of a first draft is not a novel.

The average commercial novel is between 80-120K. That means that what you have at the end of NaNo is a very, very good start. You have half a novel, and only the first draft thereof. But it is not done. (Have pity on agents and slush-readers! Don’t send it out on December 1st!)

A novel is not a novel until it has been edited, polished, revised, beta’d, red-penned, and re-re-re-rewritten. Your NaNo is brain vomit and it needs to be tidied before it can be a novel.

But what you DO have is the foundation on which to lay an entire, fantastic novel, a DAMN good start, and brand new set of work habits to add to your tool kit. You have experience, an idea of what your novel can grow into, and enthusiasm. You have a new community of peers to support you, critique you, and help you. You have the glowing knowledge that you did it, that you’ve made it this far… and frankly, getting to 50k on a first draft is the hardest part. It’s all downhill from here. What is another 30-50K on a novel that you’ve already done 50k on? What is, as my agent says to me, “a few more months spent dialing it in?”

And I don’t say any of this to be mean or to put you off NaNo; quite the opposite!

I say this so that you come into NaNoWriMo with a clear understanding of what it is EXACTLY that you are creating and that it will be, in all honestly, a bit crap.

And you know what?

THAT IS FANTASTIC. ALLOW YOURSELF TO BE A BIT CRAP.

The truth of the matter is… first drafts are always a bit crap. In fact, first drafts are meant to be a bit crap. That’s the nature of first drafts.

And the reason you allow your first draft to be a bit crap is because the important part of creating a first draft is not to write a polished, perfect, incredible novel. The point of a first draft is to get the STORY onto the PAGE. All the magic of tone and form and style happens in editing. But all the magic of running and jumping and loving and hating and living and dying and killing and screaming and kissing … that happens in the first draft. And it is supposed to sweep you away and plunge you into your world and make your chest ache and your stomach twist and your eyes swim and your mouth grin.

And you can’t do that if you’re self-censoring every time you pick up the metaphorical (or not) pen.

So allow your first draft to be a bit crap.

Because fearing to write because you’re going to be a bad writer is silly; if you hate everything you put on the page, if your inner editor cringes at each typo, then how will any of it get ONTO the page?

Embrace that your NaNo is going to be a bit crap and use that as permission to keep writing. Think: “Oh, well, this scene is a bit crap. But that’s okay, because I can edit later! LATER! For now I will follow my fingers and my imagination wherever they shall lead and it will be GLORIOUS.”

So there it is. There’s my advice for NaNo.

BE GLORIOUSLY, WONDERFULLY, UNASHAMEDLY A BIT CRAP.

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

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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.

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

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