My client, whom I shall call Clarissa, first came to me about two years ago with an epic novel based on an extraordinary story that spanned several generations of her husband’s family. It was a giant, sprawling, heartwrenching story – somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 pages. My task at the time was to analyze the story – to let Clarissa know if it was ready to go out to agents, and if not, what might need to be done.
I read the book, and the answer was no: it was not ready to go out. Although the story was compelling and passionately told, it was filled with problems – a shifting point of view, an illogical chronology, a narrator with a self indulgent love of myths, a narrative that was at times plodding and characters motivated by things that were vague and not in any way alive on the page. I ripped it apart. I made more than 300 comments on those 400 pages, plus countless small edits, and handed Clarissa an 8 page summary of the problems I felt she needed to address. This is what a developmental edit entails – and many writers freak out when they receive the results of one. It means a lot of work, a lot of tossed-out pages, a lot of pain and angst as you face the weaknesses in your work head-on.
Undaunted, Clarissa went off and did the revision. Seven months later, she came back to me again with the finished manuscript – closer, now, to 600 pages -- except that it wasn’t finished. It still had problems, and Clarissa faced another big edit. She went off again and did the hard work she had to do. I should say here that Clarissa has many writer friends, and many people who advise and guide her, and she wasn’t simply blindly doing what I told her to do – that would have been silly. She was using all her resources, and bringing all her powers of discernment to bear on her book. She was doing what writers do, and I was just a part of the process.
Earlier this year, I helped Clarissa craft a query, which she sent out to a handful of agents -- all of whom rejected the book.
The rejections, however, were very instructive. Many of them loved the story, several of them gave suggestions for how Clarissa might fix some of the perceived problems, and three of the six asked if Clarissa would be willing to cut the book in half.
She wasn’t willing to cut it – at least not that much. So she kept editing and working and revising and tweaking, and addressing all of the comments she received on the book, and she kept sending out query letters. She trusted that her story was the length it needed to be, and that someone out there would some day fall in love with it.
A few weeks ago, Clarissa got a response from an agent who loved the book, had some specific, do-able and constructive suggestions for edits, wanted some judicious cutting to be done (but nothing drastic), and said that if Clarissa did these things, he would be delighted to sign her to try to sell her book.
There are times when doing what an agent asks in the hopes that he will like the result is not wise – but in our judgement, this time wasn’t one of them. So Clarissa came back to me with the agent’s notes and the manuscript, and we are engaged in yet another epic edit of this epic novel, guided by the wisdom of an agent who spent a great deal of time immersed in Clarissa's 600 pages and who clearly feels deeply for her story.
What exactly are we doing?
- Tightening up the narrative – making sure that every single thing that happens is there to serve the story.
- Focusing the spotlight on the protagonist – making sure that we always know where she stands and what she is feeling and what she wants and what is keeping her from getting it.
- Paying attention to transitions – making sure that there is a strong narrative flow from one chapter to the next, since the story moves through many years and many locations.
- Addressing the specific notes of the agent who so lovingly read and assessed the story – which amounts to about three pages of single-spaced directives.
Why wasn't this work done in the first edit or the second or the third? It was, at least to a point. We have been trying to address all these things all along. But writing takes time. Editing is an iterative process. Creativity is not linear.
What is this work like? Long, laborious, slow, frustrating, but also exhilarating as we work to make the story the best it can be.
The point of my telling you this is to show you that oftentimes success is a long time in coming. The idea of whipping out a book, sending off the pages and getting an instant YES is such a fallacy. Pasteur said that chance favors the prepared mind. Publishing favors the well-edited manuscript and the persistent author who refuses to give up.
I don’t yet know what will happen with Clarissa's novel, but I know that no matter what, Clarissa will know that she did everything she could in the service of her story. And I can promise her – and all of you who are out there toiling in the same way – that there is no better feeling.
So keep up the hard work! Good things await you.