When asked in an interview how you know when your manuscript is submission-ready, agent Eddie Schneider said, “If you’ve edited to the point where you feel like you’re just pushing words around and your eyes are going to melt out of your skull and pool between the lines, you’re getting close.”
That would be a pretty good description of the state I’m in with regards to most of the novel I’m polishing up (with the possible exception of the new material added to the last draft). There are sections of In the Shadow of the She-Wolf that I’ve poured over so many times I have them memorized. Although of course Mr. Schneider is right about the importance of thoroughly polishing a manuscript, I would never recommend that anyone put as many hours of their life into one book as I have with this one.
This book is one of the reasons I feel strongly about the importance of writing a novel fairly rapidly — at least, getting down the entire first draft within a few months, if possible. In fact, I might say the best scenario would be to write a complete draft in a month or so, and then to not look at it for six months, or even a year. That way you have both the cohesiveness in the creative process and the distance to look at it with true objectivity when you’re ready to revise.
In the case of She-Wolf, the first germinal draft actually was written in about a month — and I was quite pleased with my accomplishment at the time. I was seventeen going on eighteen, and it was my third attempt at a novel; I’d spent more than five years completing two drafts of the first one, and the second fizzled out shortly before I reached the end. So writing an entire novel in one month — even a short novel — seemed pretty cool to me. But after my happy little manuscript elicited some pretty strong criticism from the person who has since become my best (and pickiest) beta reader, it was obvious the book needed a lot more work to realize its potential, and the project was launched into a recurring cycle that became a drawn-out ordeal.
In short, my extensive experience with doing it ‘the wrong way’ comes from having worked on the same book on and off for a staggering number of years. One of the big problems with this, especially if you start the process at a tender age, is that your style is inevitably going to change as you mature as a writer. So if you were to keep taking out the same manuscript every two or three years and revising it to put it into your current style, you could — theoretically — spend your entire life writing only one book.
So I’ve decided that a writer has to be like a painter who may have gone through a stage where they were influenced by Impressionism, or Cubism, or had a ‘blue phase’ or a ‘floral phase’, but then moved on to working in a different style. That is, even if your earlier works are not the kind of thing you’d do now, you can be content with them, seeing them as representing that particular phase in your career, while going on to do something else.
And that’s what I’m trying to keep in mind as I do these final revisions — I need to think of it almost as if I were editing someone else’s book. I can polish it and make it the best it can be, but I need to respect — and not try to change — the style itself. If I don’t, I’ll keep rewriting it forever.
A much earlier draft of this novel was actually critiqued by Virginia Kidd (who was my dream agent when I first ventured into the world of querying, since she repped both of my favorite authors). I was in my twenties at the time, and it’s rather embarrassing to recall some of the more adolescent elements of the plot in that version. Not surprisingly, Ms. Kidd found enough serious problems with the manuscript — such as those shaky aspects of the plot — to conclude it wasn’t ready.
But she did something wonderful that agents rarely do today — she wrote a detailed summary of the entire novel, explaining what she did and didn’t like. And my embarrassment over the awkward bits in the manuscript was tempered by the fact that she practically gushed over the writing, and asked to see either a revision or my next work. (I suppose my greatest claim to fame is being able to say that Virginia Kidd said I was “very talented”. The underlining is hers, too. Thinking of that still gives me the warm fuzzies.)
Regrettably, though I had a lot of other things in progress, I had nothing else completed — and it was a couple of years later when I had the epiphany for how to completely rewrite the book. I’d like to think that Ms. Kidd would have liked the novel it eventually evolved into, as I believe I thoroughly addressed all the weaknesses she had concerns with, and the writing, being that much more mature, is even better.
The difficulty is that the big rewrite, which essentially changed it into a different book, added a significant over-arching plotline that gave the story far more depth — and length. By the time my most demanding beta said that it ‘felt like a real book’, it was more than twice the length preferred by most publishers today.
Splitting the novel into three volumes necessitated making additions to the first part — hence the new material that hasn’t been poured over countless times like the rest of it. As it’s a three-part novel, not a series, I would never use the boilerplate phrase ‘stand-alone book with series potential’, but volume one ends at a significant turning point in the protagonist’s life, with a corresponding sense of resolution; there’s clearly more to come, but no one’s left dangling from a cliff. And although I’m aware of the challenges of selling a three-volume novel, I think I have a lot of reasons to be proud of this book — in spite of its agonizingly long history. (Not to mention all those pages where my eyes have pooled between the lines . . . )