Saturday 18 August 2018

Waking a Goddess - by Lu Hersey

Most writers have unpublished manuscripts (or at least partial manuscripts) stashed away somewhere. These might be abandoned books written before a debut publication, or manuscripts publishers simply didn’t warm to for one reason or another.

There are probably thousands of sleeping books out there - buried in bottom drawers or deep in writers' laptops. One writer I know wrote 18 books before getting published – that’s not just the number of rejections, it’s the number of full manuscripts she wrote before one was finally accepted for publication. And I heard the wonderful Malorie Blackman say she wrote even more than that! We're talking about complete books. That never saw the light of day.

I only have two full sleeping manuscripts. For various reasons, neither has been out on general submission to publishers and I'd pushed them to one side to write something else. Then just recently, a character in one of the abandoned books started shouting at me. She’s a scary ancient Celtic goddess who appears back on earth to demand a blood sacrifice, and she was drumming her woad covered fingers on my writing desk so loudly, I had to take a look at her again.

The problem with that particular manuscript was it took me two years of painful, emotionally taxing work to write it and a publisher a few minutes to read 26 pages before asking if I had any other ideas. It hurt like I’d been stabbed in the chest – and the goddess has been sulking in otherworld (okay, somewhere in the laptop) ever since.

Until now. She got so loud, finally I had to heed her shrieking battle cry and try and get her out into the world.

So what’s it like taking a new look at something you were really proud of and thought was close to perfection a couple of years ago?

Ouch. It’s been quite an eye-opener.

Fortunately I still think the idea is good. But the execution? Oh dear.

It’s taken me two more full edits to unruffle the goddess’s feather headdress and get the manuscript to a point where it’s actually ready to go out on submission.

 For a start there was the incredible amount of surplus explaining to scrub out. Seems I suffer from a constant worry about how people get from one place to another –  when in reality nobody actually cares. The reader accepts they’re just there and if it isn’t important to the plot, it really doesn’t matter whether they walked, flew or caught a bus.

Then there was the Tupperware. Do teenagers care what their cake is kept in? I don’t think so. And do they really care about the type of chicken food the hero is feeding the hens? Are they really going to drink water when there’s cider available?

There were also important subplots I hadn’t developed properly. The kind that really help explain what happens at the end, but I’d left the reader to grasp the threads by telepathy alone.

And the number of typos? Don’t get me started…

So just in case you want to resurrect an earlier masterpiece, be warned. It might take longer than you think. But if you’ve got a character who starts haunting your dreams, an equivalent of the shouty goddess, it’s worth the pain just to get some peace.

Lu Hersey
t: @LuWrites


Jenny Alexander said...

I so related to this! I wrote a YA novel, Drift, nearly 15 years ago, my then agent sent it out, publishers liked it, one came very close, with several rounds of reading, but it didn't get a deal. It didn't go away, so I decided to try again about nearly 10 years later. I was expecting to have to do a bit of updating - maybe 2 weeks' work tops - but ended up doing a rewrite that took far longer than the original MS. Still - it had to be done, and I'm glad that I did it.

Joan Lennon said...

It's good to know we're getting better all the time at this writing lark, right? But, oh, yes, ouch, when revisiting "sleeping manuscripts" from back when. Some excellent stuff, yes, but oh my dear, what were we thinking when we thought they were done?! Thanks for this, Lu!

Penny Dolan said...

Such a great post, Lu, from the detail overload to the time it takes and to powerful emotions still behind that sleeping story. (There's a painful satisfaction in discovering that you're a rather better writer than you thought you were.)

Wishing your goddess glory and all she desires, as long as she's not looking at me.

Susan Price said...

Lu, you made me laugh when you mentioned all the exhaustive detailing of characters moving around -- I suffered from that too (and still do a bit, but recognise the need to rein it in.)
I was lucky in that I had a wonderful editor, the late Phyllis Hunt of Faber, who patiently pointed out that I didn't need to say that a character had got up, walked across the room, turned the handle of the door, gone out into the hall, glanced at the letter-box, remembered something they needed, caught the door before it swung shut... and on and on and on. Every single time any character moved at all.
I think it was because I saw everything so clearly, like a film running behind my eyes and had this compulsion to write down everything. But Phyllis, an editor, taught me to EDIT!

LuWrites said...

Thanks, everyone - so glad it's not just me! All your comments have given me hope that in the end my agent is sending out a far better manuscript than the one I thought was ready to go out two years ago - but really wasn't! And I don't think the shouty goddess will be looking at you, Penny. Or if she is, it won't be with a view to your potential as a blood sacrifice... :)

Rowena House said...

Good luck with the submission. I've not dared to look back at a sleeping story for fear of the howlers! Maybe one day. Go goddesses, everywhere.

Paul May said...

I really enjoyed your post, Lu. It's wonderful when all that work that had seemed wasted comes back to life. Mostly I take the typescript out of its folder and after initial excitement I realise just why I was forced to abandon it. But as for getting people from A to B in stories I'd like to mention that Lee Child has made a lot of money from doing exactly what Susan Price describes in her post. Except that when Jack Reacher turns the handle of a door Lee Child often tells us what kind of wood the door was made of, and what kind of handle it is, and what technique Reacher uses to turn it. And somehow, it works!

LuWrites said...

Thanks Paul - that's really interesting!! Maybe I need MORE detail about their travel arrangements... :)