Saturday, August 18, 2012

"I Can Do Better Than That"

I consider myself a writer.  I know some prefer the term "aspiring writer", but I write.  That makes me a writer.  What I aspire to is to be an author, which I see as a person who makes their living from their writing.

In my quest to be an author, I have already written four complete novels (okay, two drafted and revised [and revised, and revised...] and two with full rough drafts).  The four books are all part of a series, so I've been submitting the first to agents for a couple of years now.  Still waiting to sell it, though.

Which brings me to the title of my post.  Best writing advice I ever got was from an article I wish I still had so I could properly site it.  (anyone that recognizes it, please leave a post in the Comments section)  The advice went something like this:

"The real writer's mantra is 'I can do better than that'.  When the writer looks at another work, even one of the great classics, they think 'I can do better than that'.  And when the writer look at their own work they should shake their head sheepishly and say 'I can do better than that'."

I've tried to keep that in mind, especially when doing my revisions, to think "I can do better than this."  So when I finished the rough draft of my first novel I set it aside for a bit and knocked around on some short stories.  When I came back to it, I knew I could do better, and I did.

Once I had it as good as I could get it on my own, I took it to my writer's group.  After over a year of reading chapters there, I went back and did another full revision.  Then I gave that full version to a few beta readers and did another revision based on their input.

At each stage, it was amazing what I missed, what I saw anew through fresh eyes.  And each time I could see the novel getting so much better.

So I sent it out into the world, trying to find an agent to love it as I did.  On my first round of queries, I actually got a request for a partial (50 pages) from a Dream Agent.  She rejected it, but I got a very encouraging letter (not just email) from her assistant.

So I revised again.  And, since I'd only gotten one request, I revised my query letter, too.  Actually, I ended up studying how to write query letters.  I found Query Shark very, very helpful (follow her advice and read the full archives from the beginning.  It really helps).

Since then I started to get at least one request for a full on each round of queries.  All of them said similar things: they liked the book, they just didn't love it, or at least not enough to rep it.

So I revised and revised my query letters.  I even looked for trends in who was requesting fulls.  The answers shouldn't have been surprising.  I found that all the ones who requested fulls had two things in common: 1) they were all very personalized queries, 2) they requested pages along with the query.

By very personalized I mean I did serious research and found one thing I could put in for why I wanted them in particular to rep me, or at least this book.  Something other than a stellar track record, or best selling clients or even a big agency.  Something unusual, probably not in their standard bio, or at least a new spin on it.  In  one case, it was something the agent had mentioned in one blog interview five years earlier when the interviewer asked for one thing about her that would surprise most people that knew her. 

I was happy to see my research paying off and figured that meant I could probably ditch the generic queries.  If I couldn't come up with one really good reason I wanted that particular agent, then maybe they weren't right for me.  (Okay, I do still send out some anyway when I really like the agent but can't find a way to say exactly why.)

And since pages seemed important, I figured I might need to revise my query a bit more.  But in the meantime, agents that wanted pages too went to the top of my list.

But what finally got to me was all those full requests that ended up still not loving it.  And they all liked it.  Some even seemed to love it, just "not enough" or "didn't love it as much as I'd hoped".  And all of them were very encouraging, not just to keep looking for the right agent for the work, but also to send them anything else I wrote.  Two were actually were almost insistent on seeing anything else I wrote.

Finally it dawned on me that maybe I needed to go back and look at the manuscript itself.  It's been over a year, maybe year and a half since I actually read through this thing.  Since I finished it, I've written the next three volumes in the series, expanding greatly on the overall story and getting much deeper into the characters.

That's why about a week ago I sat down with a hard copy of my novel and started reading it.  It took my until about page 20 to see why they were rejecting it.  By page 30 or so I knew where my central problem was: I'd made my MCs life too easy.  I let him get away with too much, too easily.  There just wasn't enough conflict, enough tension to really keep the story going.  The writing was generally pretty good, but it could be so much better.

I shook my head and said "I can do better than this".

But I'm not, yet.  I'm going through the whole book first, finding all the scenes that don''t work and marking them for revision.  Finding all the scenes that, no matter how beautifully written or whatever, add nothing to the story or bore me.  If they bore the writer, they must be hell on a reader.

I'm especially horrified at all the times I let my character drift into Mary Sue-land (though technically Marty Stu, since it's male, but I still prefer the Mary Sue label).  Things are unrealistically easy for him, he can do no wrong.  He overcomes obstacles too easily.  It just gets boring.

Now don't get me wrong, I still love the book.  Everyone that's read it likes it, feels there's some solid writing there.  And I agree.  But having this much distance from it, and all these other books written, I can see it as the promising amateur work it is.

So now I need to make it look like the polished professional work I used to think it was.  Maybe then the next agent will finally love it enough.

Anyone else out there with their own humorous or horror stories to share?  Feel free to share in the Comments.  I think the writing life is lonely and frustrating, but it's better when we know we're far from alone.

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