Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Jumping the Gun

by Nancy Martin

As a teenager, I was a competitive swimmer---a pretty good one. I learned that getting off the starting block fast was crucial, that a long glide underwater often gave me an even greater head start, and that fast flip turns with a powerful push off the wall gave me a surprisingly advantage over swimmers who were more eager to start their exhausting kicking and stroking as quickly as possible.

One lesson learned early: Anticipating the starter's gun too much meant sometimes getting penalized for a false start. Two false starts, and you're disqualified.

Now I'm a writer, and I find myself thinking with surprising frequencey about those years I spent underwater. I learned a lot then.

I forgot one especially important lesson last week, and it came back to bite me in the proverbial butt.

Against my better judgment, I sent my manuscript to my editor. It was way too early to let anyone see it who's not related to me or not my critique partner. (Who is related to me by blood, if you count how much of each other's red corpuscles we've spilled over the years.) False start.

The draft was not ready for public consumption, but my editor insisted I send the manuscript. Something about needing it for the upcoming sales conference. So I caved.

Despite dangling more plot threads than a coat at the Salvation Army and employing prose more lifeless than the concrete statuary in my garden, I sent it off. Then I took an hour to go to the grocery store to re-stock the larder (we actually ate Five Guys hamburgers during Deadline Mandess, and although they're delicious, I could feel my liver afterwards) and then I got down to work on the re-write.

Which, for me, starts with printing out the ms, finding a comfy chair with a footstool and reading my work with a Bic XXL in one hand and a stack of Post-It notes in the other. First order of business: Make sure the story makes sense.

About ten pages in, I realized, hooboy, I am in trouble. There was a lot of work to be done. The story was unclear, the murder suspects all muddled together, and my protagonist's motivation for solving the crime just felt . . . dopey.

Over the weekend, I made it through half the manuscript--slashing weak prose and trying to clarify the subplots while cutting so much of the fat that I began to worry the pace might actually be too fast. On a tablet, I started a list of plot issues that needed to be addressed in later pages, and the list quickly reached two long columns. And I'd only read halfway through the manuscript!

Did I mention my editor planned to read the book over the weekend, too? So the whole time I was reading, I was also cringing. I imagined her dismay growing to exasperation and finally disgust.

This morning, her preliminary revision email arrived. What she doesn't hate, she's lukewarm about.

I think I got off easy. At least I wasn't disqualified.

I know better. If I wasn't 100% confident in every page, I should have continued to work on the book and endured her frustration about my delivery schedule.

Stephen King advocates putting the drafted manuscript into a drawer to "rest" for a minimum of six weeks before plunging into the re-write phase. I think he's absolutely right. Time gives a writer sufficient distance to honestly judge a manuscript, but six weeks in a luxury most of us don't have. I keep thinking of the tantalizingly fat on-delivery check that awaits me as soon as I send the finished product, so I'm lucky if I can wait a day before starting over.

Stephen King knows what he's talking about, of course. And that point is brought home to me every time I pick up his book ON WRITING because in the back he lists the best/most inspiring books he read during a three or four year period, and one of the books was written by my sister's husband, Bernard Lefkowitz. It took Bernie seven years to write the book King praises.

Yeah, I was in too much of a rush to send a book that wasn't truly finished. I should have remembered that it usually takes me another eight weeks after the draft is complete for me to clean up the book enough to send it.

Now I've lost my editor's confidence. And I cheated myself out of the happy phone call full of praise and ego-boosting strokes. Worst of all: I know how to fix it all, but I feel like a chump.

So it's revision time here. Mind you, I love the re-writing process. It's the time to polish prose, clarify the story, make each character count. Pump drama into every scene. Slip some humor onto every page. Good thing I enjoy this phase, because I'll be doing a lot of it in the coming weeks.

What's your best re-writing tip? Because I need to use them all!


Anonymous said...

I wish I HAD a good re-writing tip. I just go over and over the same pages, getting more obsessive-compulsive and making them worse.

My hats off to you, that you can actually enjoy this phase!

This morning I was reading an article on what creates best sellers and thinking of _Ordinary People_'s author Judith Guest and trying to read her second book. The first ten pages were a scene in a car, which were still extremely boring even though I'd driven that exact road many times as a teenager. Where was HER editor when she sent her draft in?

Joyce Tremel said...

Nancy, I LOVE rewriting. I have to force myself to keep writing and not go back and fix things. I have a self-imposed deadline of June 1 for my draft, and I know I won't be able to wait to start rewriting. Six weeks in a drawer? I'll be lucky if I can wait six days!

My process is similar to yours except the first time I go through it, in addition to the Post-Its, I make an Excel spreadsheet giving each chapter a tab. I jot down what's in each chapter. It makes it easy to see what needs work, what needs moved, etc. It's really helpful when you're like me and throw out the outline halfway through the book.

Anonymous said...


Your blog was such an informative peak for the unpublished among us. Thank you so much for sharing with us.

Hang in there. It is most difficult to be mad at yourself. Be kind to yourself.

Anonymous said...

I suppose you can't say "I told you so" to your agent. If she's a writer, too, she should understand she rushed you.

See you at Pennwriters.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Nancy. I think we all have experienced times when we should have stayed under water longer. It definitely takes you farther down the pool, as you mentioned, ahead of those who popped up and starting splashing around too early. Thanks for sharing the experience with us.

Good luck with the edits. You have perfected your process and it works so well for you. Can't wait to read it!

Anonymous said...

Well, you all are very kind. And I spent the day slogging through.....yes, Chapter One. That's where all the groundwork must be laid, huh?