What to do with that Manuscript that’s under the bed

War and Peace, Re-write or Abandon?
War and Peace, Re-write or Abandon?

TMSO’s comments about her previous project on N. E. White have me thinking about my own previous novel. I’ve been torn on how much more revision it needs: another tweak or a complete re-work? A tweak feels like it might be insufficient and a complete re-work has been hard to stomach. But lately, I’m contemplating the latter. It was one thing to consider (and balk at) a complete re-write when I really wasn’t quite sure what I would do in that re-write. It’s another thing when, thanks to a writing course my wife is currently taking, I have some specific ideas that I think/hope will turn some weaknesses into strengths.

As I mentioned earlier, I have had it professionally critiqued. The feedback was good and overall encouraging but I’ve still been going back and forth on whether to spend more time on it. As currently written, it is about 98,000 words and in the first person with a climax that has the antagonist acting a bit crazy. And while the main character could appear in follow-on books, any sequel would be only loosely coupled. So, the book is short for a fantasy novel, has a POV that turns some people off, has a climax that will take enough care to get just right that it probably won’t work for a fair number of readers, and doesn’t have strong sequel potential. That’s not to say it couldn’t succeed but that’s a lot of barriers to overcome. Set against that, I really like the characters, premise and setting.

So what to do with it? It’s been through many major drafts and I’ve spent over a thousand hours on it. But that’s all “sunk work” and no excuse to put more into it if it doesn’t have a future. Enter Discovering Story Magic by Laura Baker on WriterUniv.com. My wife is taking the class now and is really liking it: it isn’t just abstract things to keep in mind, it’s actionable ideas for specific projects. DSM provides a model for how to link character’s, especially their flaws, to turning points and climax. For me, it’s a model that really connects. One of the resulting epiphanies is that given how Laura defines protagonist and antagonist, I really have it backwards in my current draft. If I turn the two around, no longer will she seem crazy at the end, and I now have good material for follow-on books should it do well enough to justify one. Plus if I convert it to 3rd person, I can better setup the relationship between the two characters thus dealing with a number of the other challenges in the manuscript.

I’m going to do at least one more draft on my current project first before returning to this other one and, who knows, I may change my mind again. But suddenly I’ve moved from waffling on my earlier project to excited by it, all because of a writing resource that opened my eyes to some useful, actionable solutions. It’s been quite enlightening and even if I don’t use the model for a re-write of the last book, it is already proving useful for my current project.

In the class, students apply this model to their current project. I was looking forward to taking the course as a first step on the re-write but, sadly, it won’t be offered again this year. It does look like there are a lot of other interesting courses on that site, though, so it might be worth a look.

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8 thoughts on “What to do with that Manuscript that’s under the bed

  1. Seems like the length would be an asset, at least. As an unpublished writer, I’m always being told that anything much over 100k words will be a hard sell, even in fantasy, for anyone who isn’t an established writer with a proven history of sales. Ditto for anything that’s not stand alone. Sounds like the novel has some potential. Is there anything to be gained by not querying it once you get it polished up?

    1. I’ve had some feedback its on the short side for a fantasy novel. Guess the advice varies but I’ve heard more like 110 to 150K for even a first time fantasy.

      I’ll have to think about it some more; I’ve got a bit more time to dither 🙂

      1. Now I’ve heard that 120k is the absolute upper end limit for a first time fantasy writer, but less is even better (and have heard that an agent would weep with joy if she gets a good one that’s actually less that 100k words). The reason given is that it costs a lot more “per word” to bind and distribute a book that’s longer, and editors are unwilling to risk taking on these additional costs with an unproven writer, especially since first novels don’t tend to make a lot of money, even when they’re quite good (because it takes a while for even a larger press to promote a new writer and build up a fan base). This article is the one I’m citing: http://theswivet.blogspot.com/2008/03/on-word-counts-and-novel-length.html

        Of course, there are exceptions, and sometimes longer first novels do get picked up in the genre. But I’m not sure you should worry too much about your novel being “too short.” You may find, in fact, that an agent might still find stuff to cut from it. I have a friend who recently got an agent for his novel, and they’re going through a round of revisions that will make it a tighter, better paced story that is a more appropriate length for its market (in his case, the agent wants to plug it as a mid-grade fantasy, but he originally envisioned it as YA).

        Also, a novel that stand alone really well but has the potential for a loosely tied sequel may be ideal, as it gives the publisher the option of having it be stand alone (but picking up another, unrelated novel from you later) or offering you a contract for a sequel as well. A novel that “has” to have a sequel to make sense (because it feels unfinished at the end) may not be such a great thing either, if it makes a publisher feel like they “have” to commit to more than one book.

        In the end, though, the decision to rewrite and query stems from you and how much you believe in your story. Sounds like you’ve gotten some encouraging feedback on it, so I’d say go for it 🙂

      2. I feel like the person at the far end of the “telephone” whisper game trying to get this word length thing right 🙂 I have had some say it is too short although, as an unpublished author, I also thought sub 100K would be a plus, not a minus. In the end, it isn’t the main reason for considering the re-write.

        Also agree stongly with the “stand alone but loosely tied sequel”. I don’t know how so many novels get published from unknown authors that are part 1 of an N part novel but they do. I don’t like that as a reader, though: why invest so much in an unproven author (and worse, have to wait so long for the actual climax of the book, plus hope the author can actually pull off a climax, since book 1 is mostly premise in such cases). As currently written, though, the two main characters don’t make a good base for a follow-on but with the revision I’m thinking of, one would do quite nicely.

        Of course, it has not been lost on me that this might just be an elaborate way for me to avoid commiting the book 🙂 But I think there’s more to it- right now, my male readers like it from a fair amount to a lot but my female readers are more neutral-to-liking it. I don’t think I can materially change that with a tweak and there are more women readers then men so… might make sense to re-write it or abandon it.

  2. I’m glad you are considering re-writing it.

    Though I have decided to shelf my project, my writing coach was adamant that I didn’t. She said the only way to get it publish-ready was to re-write it – no matter how many times it took.

    And I know she’s right. I just don’t *feel* like doing that now. And it was probably the same for you when you got the critique back. As you said, you’ve put thousands of hours into it, and then you find out you need to put another thousand? It can be daunting. I’m glad the course your wife is taking gave you new skills and knowledge to tame that beast!

    I would take the course (or other courses), but I think the goal for me this year is to focus on distancing myself from my novel by writing other stuff. Which is going well right now. I wrote a terrible flash fiction piece (but it was fun!), am almost done with a magical realism short story, and have the bones for another short story I am really excited about (a young princess and a dragon). I also have an outline for another novel that I want to get into during NaNoWriMo this year. I guess the mantra ‘just keep writing’ really is a valuable piece of advice.

    Good luck with the draft on your current novel. 🙂

    1. Thanks! The decision to re-write is a personal one. Whatever coaches may tell you, if you just don’t have the stomach for ripping up a beloved project anymore, it is best to at least set it aside for a while.

      Initially what was daunting for me was the sense it needed at least a fair amount of work and some ideas of what needed to be corrected but no good idea on how to correct it. Seeing some solutions that fixed several issues changed it from a foot-dragging, “people say I should fix this but I dunno” to “this will be fun.” It means, essentially a whole new first draft but I’ve got write a whole new first draft of something after the current project, and this is still a story I want to tell.

      It’s probably foolish of me, but one of the other impediments to spending more time on it has been that in the current form, I didn’t see much sequel potential. I don’t write part 1 of N-part books, they are all stand-alone novels, but especially after pitching the book, it seemed that the possibility of a sequel was attractive to agents and the lack of one, another mark against the concept. So, I was reluctant to spend more time on a story that was a one-shot, especially early in my writing career. Even if I self-publish, it seems it wouldn’t hurt for readers who liked a first book to be able to find a few follow-ons.

      However, I think I see the way to fix the relationship issues, make the ending more satisfying, and by shifting the protagonist, allow a sequel that builds on the first book. I don’t plan to write the sequel unless the first one gathers some interest but at least option is there.

      As for timing, working on another project has helped enormously by providing some distance and a touch of objectivity (can we writers ever be truly objective about our own works :))

      1. Yeah, getting that objectivity is very hard. And then, even though it is *your* opinion – it is only *one* opinion. Others might like it! Or not… Ug! Frustrating.

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