Posted in Geek Out, Writing

The Road to a Completed Manuscript: 9 Years or 9 Days?

From my elementary school days when I tap-, tap-, tapped out one-paragraph stories on my mom’s typewriter in her office after school (to be fair, I think most of those “borrowed” characters from Nintendo games and cartoons such as Super Mario Bros. and Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom… And yes, the latter really was a game.) to my career as a freelance writer and editor post-college, writing has always been a vital part of my life.

I wrote short stories in middle school (which I took very seriously, oblivious to the fact that they would one day crack me up with their unintended ridiculousness) and worked on developing and strengthening my research and non-fiction writing in high school—which, thanks to a teacher’s encouraging and spot-on guidance, led to one of my research papers being published in The Concord Review while still a teen. I gained attention I found odd but welcome for my poetry in college—seeing as how I never once considered myself a poet—and I helped guide others to find their writing voices as a tutor in the college Writing Center. All in all, at every step of the way, I learned that writing is a process—and you have to have the strength to face rejection, to take an ax to your work and try again, to laugh at what you’ve written, to rejoice in praise, and to take well-intentioned criticism to heart (and to learn to not take flippant and perplexing criticism personally, particularly when the critic is your client).

Still, with all of the focus on writing in my daily life, I was making but baby steps toward what had been a long-time dream: to write fiction and maybe—just maybe—see books I’d written in bookstores someday. My love of reading began almost as soon as I’d learned to read, or perhaps sooner, if you counted bedtime stories, and my tastes as I grew older included everything from Austen to the Brontës to novelizations of Star Wars and comic book titles. (Try telling your high school English teacher when pressured to reveal it that the book you were currently reading was entitled X-Men Mutant Empire… It takes a bit of time to reestablish your “good student” cred.) But even now, as my twenties are fading away, I’d guess as least three in five books I read could be classified as YA.

So my goal became thus: not to kid myself into thinking I could write “the next great American novel,” but to hope that I could write a thrilling piece of YA that I would have enjoyed as a teen (and that I would enjoy even now). I finally sat down to start it sometime in 2003. I didn’t know where the story was going, but I had an image and a few chapters in mind. I actually consciously rejected the idea that romance would play anything but a small role in the tale—if it played a part at all. (My tastes for fictional romance are, I should think, a bit skewed compared to what I saw as the typical teen romance story of the time… An informal poll I conducted of other ladies with pubescent memories of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth may have found that film to be the culprit.) Whenever I could find the time and summon the drive over the next few months and years, I pounded out a few more words. Admittedly, both time and drive grew rather smaller and smaller as the years passed.

Sometime in 2007, I had a dream… And like countless other writers who found inspiration from the bizarre images stuck down deep in their subconscious, I used that dream to spin a story… Of sorts. I had a grand idea, involving two points of view, the first being the girl who narrated the stuff I’d written in the past four years. This time, though, a romance (of sorts) would play a crucial role… I was determined to bring the dream to the page. I tried working on it as often as I could, even forcing myself to write at least half an hour a day for a time, since I assumed I could always find at least that much time even during the busiest of days. Well, not always…

Over the next few years, I went through stick-to-half-hour-a-day spurts punctuated by months of neglecting-the-dream. I sent out the first five or so chapters to friends—look at me, I’m writing a novel!—long before the end of the thing was in sight. Somehow in that time I managed to write 120,000 words and… I felt I hadn’t even gotten to half of the full story, whatever that full story might have been. (Since I’m a “let the characters tell their stories” type of writer, I still had no clue!) In fact, I think the two different points of view with which I’d decided to write had made two completely different novels—seeing as how I’d barely gotten to the connecting thread I’d intended to use to hold it all together. A friend who was also hard at work writing all those years (she had, at least, finished five or six completed manuscripts in that same period) discovered something she shared with me, a fact that both of us had neglected to take into consideration: typical YA books were 45,000 to perhaps 80,000 words or so at tops. Even epic adult fantasies didn’t often get to 120,000+ words—and here I was, not even half finished!

I had no idea how I was going to extrapolate something actually readable from the mess I’d been adding to for years and years. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to save the thing, although there was a 40,000-word section of which I was particularly fond. So I started a new book, this time trying my hand at tackling the middle grade market. I fell back into the write-half-an-hour-a-day-then-stop-writing-for-months pattern.  (I actually still like the thing enough to want to finish it—but almost two years later, it’s only halfway done!)

Reading a couple of my friend’s finished manuscripts and watching her query her work reminded me of the few messes I had gathering digital dust on my computer. At about the same time, I saw a decrease in the usual amount of work I had and I thought it was time to start up my half-hour-a-day pledge again—on that middle grade work. I had no clue how to salvage the YA one.

And then I picked up a book I’d had on my shelf for over a year—a gift from that same fellow writer friend—in January of this year: The Hunger Games. I’d actually gotten a bit disenfranchised with YA at that point, tired of picking up book after book and thinking, “It’s all right…”, missing that can’t-put-it-down feeling I got with books like Harry Potter and some of the works of Diana Wynne Jones. But the feeling struck again with Hunger Games. I read the first book in less than a week (I wanted to read faster, but work had started to pick up again) and ran out to buy Catching Fire and Mockingjay, both of which I devoured over the next three days.

And when I was finished, I felt… empty. And I wanted so badly to get back to my goal of finishing a manuscript. And then it clicked, out of nowhere—the idea that could save the YA mess. I could keep those 40,000 words I loved (and happily chuck the 80,000 others)—why, I was practically done! I narrowed it down to one narrator, changed a few names (I actually gave my female protagonist a male nickname solely because I loved it so much… The name had actually belonged to a male in the discarded section.), and got started…

I wrote like I had never written before. I managed to devote eight to ten hours a day for nine days straight to writing as the ideas came pouring forth, sometimes writing as many as 10,000 words in a day, a feat that had taken months or years before. I had trouble sleeping—the ideas kept flowing into my head—and I’d take my laptop out for a few more hours to get the words out of my head. I lost my appetite (and if you knew me, you’d know how odd that was), I got a tiny bit snippy when pulled away, and I swear I lost weight… It wasn’t my best week, health-wise, but I never once looked at the writing as a chore. Hours flew by in what felt like seconds. For the most part, I kept figuring out the plot as I wrote, becoming as astonished as my characters with whatever new obstacle my brain came up with for them.

Nevertheless, it’s a good thing I had that comforting “Oh, you’ve written 40,000 words already!” thought to keep me going. Because when I actually opened the section I had intended to keep, well… I shuddered at how awkward some of it read back to me. Still, I loved some of the scenes and I knew how to fit them into my new plot, and so I did, pulling the skeleton of the scenes out and changing the dialogue and awkward phrases… In the end, perhaps 5000 words from the YA mess that had taken me years to write made it into the new draft. Thus, I’d written 53,000 words in nine days.

When I finally finished my first draft, I had—in addition to the relief that I could sleep and eat as usual at last—a few weeks of editing and then sending it out to beta readers and then editing again ahead of me. (That, and I needed to finally devote more time to other projects!) A month later (in the midst of querying—a tale for another entry), I even had to take out the old familiar digital ax and chop my beginning to pieces once more, a task that took me a slow and grueling three weeks and a number of thrown out attempts to finally get just right. The process added another 6000 words or so to the word count, although I think, all in all, I’d written more than that because I had to chop out a few thousand.

I finally had the completed manuscript, after nine years or after nine days, however you decide to look at it, that would eventually lead to an offer of representation…  And I hope to share more about that soon!


Author of YA speculative fiction and cozy paranormal mysteries.

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