Monday, April 30, 2012

Spring Cleaning Old Manuscripts

My life for the last year and a half has been all about this very topic. Indeed, the reason I've put off writing this post is because I'm immersed in trying to clean/organize/wrestle into shape an old manuscript and make it all shiny and new.

It's hard! (said in a my best whiny-teen voice.)

Hard or not, I'm not getting away from it anytime soon. The thing is, Once Upon a Time (2004) I wrote a book. It was my third novel-length manuscript and my first non-mystery novel attempt. Sparked by an idle question while reading an Anne Boleyn novel (What if Anne had not miscarried her son in January 1536?) and stoked by several eerie experiences at Hampton Court Palace and the Tower of London later that year, I began writing an alternate-history in which Anne Boleyn's son is born and becomes king of England upon Henry VIII's death.

Writing that book was exhilarating. I adored the puzzle play of fitting real people into a time period that almost but didn't quite exist (What would have become of George Boleyn if he wasn't executed for sleeping with his sister? What of the Duke of Norfolk and Mary Tudor in a world where she never comes to the throne? How does Elizabeth walk through a world of security and yet become the wary, intelligent woman who would become queen in her own turn?) and I also loved the freedom of my completely-fictional characters.

In fact, while writing that book, I distinctly remember thinking, "This is the book that's going to sell."

Only it didn't. Didn't even get me an agent, though it did generate the most interest I'd had to date. And when life and teenagers and grave illness intervened, I set it aside and moved on. I wrote a book about a contemporary girl who goes back in time to Napoleon's era and meets a British spy. I love that book. It got me an agent, the fabulous Tamar Rydzinski at Laura Dail Literary. I was giddy with excitement as it went on submission to eighteen editors.

Eighteen editors who all said no. Some of them said lots and lots of nice things, but in the end No was the operative word.

Not wanting to lose my fabulous agent, I sent her my alternate-history Boleyn book. She loved it. She loved it so much she called me up after reading it in less than a week and asked me to . . . wait for it . . .

Turn it into three books.

It took me eight months to create that first repurposed book, using approximately half of the original manuscript (leaving the other half to divide into a proposed books two and three.) That book went on submission one year ago. And on June 1, that book (along with the sort-of written books two and three) sold at auction to Ballantine.

Worth doing? Absolutely. Still hard? Undoubtedly.

Here are the top three difficulties I've encountered in repurposing a previous manuscript:

1. Being willing to add stuff. Lots and lots of stuff. I kind of thought I had a great plot line before. But four hundred pages of manuscript does not make three complete novels. So there are new characters, and new conflicts, and a new stand-alone arc for each novel. (At least, I assume there is, I'm still trying to figure out what book two's arc is. Shhhh, don't tell.) Weaving that into a previous story so that it's seamless takes a lot of patience and tinkering.

2. Being willing to cut stuff. This is really hard. I mean, I already have to write a bunch of new stuff, how can I possibly get rid of anything I've already got? But sometimes it has to go. Sometimes that scene with the great dialogue just isn't going to fit in the repurposed story. Sometimes entire pages need to go (like the one to two page interludes before each chapter written in Elizabeth Tudor's first-person POV--I love those pages, but that structure doesn't work anymore. Maybe they can go on my author website. As soon as I get one.)

3. Being fearless. I've heard lots of horror stories about second books. I'm finding them to be true. Middles have always been my weakness in a manuscript--they meander and sag and generally flounder about looking for a purpose. Now I'm writing an entire middle book, culled from the middle (read: weakest) section of my original manuscript and some days I'm convinced it will never come together. Which isn't really an option, considering the contract I signed. So I write awful paragraph after awful paragraph and just now, in this last week, have I had a glimmer here and there of something worth writing. So I fearlessly write crap and trust it will come together.

And hopefully, I'll learn enough that I can repurpose some other manuscripts. I still adore my first two mysteries . . . if I can just figure out how to take my great characters and write a plot worthy of them . . .

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Throwing Out the Kitchen Sink

April's theme is house-keeping the writer's way here on the Cabinet, which some of you may think means no house-keeping at all! lol Thank goodness we're not talking about organizing your closet and decluttering your kitchen--my personal take on that sort of thing is leave it til the next move or the next flood, which I guess is one reason to be thankful I've always moved so much!

No, this theme deals with de-cluttering your writing life and tossing out those old habits that are standing in your way. Here we are in April, the fourth are those New Year's resolutions coming? Are your writing goals on track? If you suspect that your writing habits are hamstringing your progress, maybe we can help!

First up this month is knowing when to toss out old writing habits that aren't working--also known as being willing to write garbage. This is difficult as a beginning writer, but I think is even more challenging once a writer has been around the block a couple of times. You have a reputation to keep up--maybe even a readership that you don't want to disappoint. It might feel kinda like looking at your kitchen, and knowing that the flow from the sink to the cupboards to the table isn't working well, but also knowing that changing it all up will make a big mess and totally disrupt your life. And what if it doesn't work? You will have spent all this time, effort and energy in pursuit of a rapturously efficient and truly transcendent kitchen, only to end up with the same old boxy space where you hit your head on open cupboard doors every time you load the dishes. And that's assuming you can even find your sink.

Well, I can't tell you how to fix your kitchen (we established that I'm no expert there, right?) but I can tell you that being willing to shake up your writing habits may be the only way to progress. Of course, an increase in skill isn't likely to come without some less than graceful stumbles. You may feel like an idiot. Your writing group may think you've been body-snatched by an imposter, and your readers may abandon you. But how will you ever discover the beauty in your voice-driven story if you won't let go of plot and try pantsing it--at least for a few scenes? How will you hear the first-person character who is trying to reach you if you keep shoving him back into third person pov?

This last is my challenge right now--my latest middle grade project is first person pov, something I've never attempted before. It feels really weird sometimes--but other times it sings. And that's the thing--a transcendent kitchen may not be your goal or be worth the effort, but excellence in writing is. Go ahead, pull the dishes out, make a mess. Your writing is worth it.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

In Which We Pretend it is Still March

Because I didn't quite get this post up in time to complete our "March is Genre Month" theme. Big surprise :)

So one last shot for me to share a genre that I love, a genre I read the most in, a genre I've tried to write in but am stilling trying to get just right.


Want a definition? Ha! Any attempt to define mystery soon descends into squabbling about sub-genres and overlaps and whether terms such as cosy are pejorative and should be dispensed with entirely. So dispense immediately with the notion that I will be giving you the definitive post on mysteries--what I give you will be, like all my posts, only my own opinions heavily dependent on whatever mood I'm in at the moment.

As a senior in college, I took a seminar for my English major requirements called "The Mystery Novel." It is there that I gained the closest things to a lasting definition of mystery: that a crime, usually but not always murder, takes place in a community (be it country house or English village or police district), that the crime damages said community, and that justice acknowledges that truth is important in its own right and also to heal the community.

That is why I love mysteries: because they recognize that truth matters and so do individuals. No one's death is unimportant. Every death diminishes a community and until some sort of justice occurs the community cannot go forward.

Below are my own, incredibly biased and personal definitions of a handful of sub genres (with examples of writers I love).

COSY/TRADITIONAL: Is there anyone in the world who hasn't at least heard of Agatha Christie? She is the quintessential writer of this form, where the murder is usually bloodless and often completely off-stage and is investigated by amateurs (sure, Hercule Poirot was once a detective, but that was in Belgium and he is long-retired). Country houses, locked room puzzles,  and the gathering of suspects while the investigator recounts how the crime was committed are stereotypical aspects. Today's cosy mysteries often include crafts or recipes or some other theme (think Diane Mott Davidson or Carolyn Hart).

RECOMMENDATIONS: Agatha Christie herself (my favorites are AND THEN THERE WERE NONE  and the two that bookended Hercule Poirot's career, MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES & CURTAIN); Josephine Tey (BRAT FARRAR is a great case about identity); and my personal favorite of this era of Golden Age writers, Dorothy L. Sayers (GAUDY NIGHT is my favorite mystery novel ever--and there's not a single murder)

PRIVATE DETECTIVE: a professional who's not with the police. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are often the first writers to come to mind when thinking of the hardboiled detective on the mean streets of a big city. But there are plenty of writers today continuing this American tradition.

RECOMMENDATIONS: take a look at the first female writers to break into the male-dominated private eye world--Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, and Sue Grafton. Also Laura Lippman is a fabulous writer whose Tess Monaghan novels follow a Baltimore private detective.

POLICE PROCEDURAL: perhaps the most popular current sub genre, in which readers follow the members of the police in the investigation of a specific crime. The majority of my favorite current authors fall into this category and the best of these novels combine a good portrait of contemporary policing with great characterizations.

RECOMENDATIONS: Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe; Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley; Louise Penny's Armand Gamache; Deborah Crombie's Duncan Kincaid; Susan Hill's Simon Serailler.

HISTORICAL: after my last post, you knew that was coming, didn't you? My introduction to historical mysteries was in the afore-mentioned Mystery Novels seminar, when we were assigned ONE CORPSE TOO MANY by Ellis Peters. Set in 12th-century England, the detective in this medieval series is Brother Cadfael, a former Crusader who has settled into a Benedictine monastery. When I read that book, I thought, "I didn't know you could do this!" It was a revelation.

RECOMMENDATIONS: Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael; Ariana Franklin's MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH; C.J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake novels; Laurie R. King's Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes novels; Stephanie Barron's Jane Austen-as-investigator books; Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs.

I have been asked more than once "What do you see in books about death and misery?" (Okay, maybe it's not phrased quite that way, but that's usually what I hear--along with, "What is wrong with your messed-up mind?") Beyond all the psychological reasons that may or may not explain my penchant for darkness, I think the true reason is this: I believe in redemption. I believe every individual counts. I believe every act of violence diminishes the world as a whole and that striving to understand the motivations behind murder is a worthy goal.

Mystery novels tell me that murder is the aberration, that truth and justice count, and that some things are always worth standing against.