After The Contract: A Manuscript Grows up

3

Posted by justinemusk | Posted in books, editing, editors, Fiction | Posted on 20-01-2008

by Justine Musk

1

My first novel BLOODANGEL sells well and I decide to write a sequel. This does not happen within the time frame my publisher would like (first I write another novel, a YA supernatural thriller called UNINVITED).

I submit a proposal and fifty pages. I am delighted to be in a position where I can sell a book I haven’t written yet. My agent reports that my editor likes it, except for one chapter that features a character modeled a little too obviously on a certain blonde socialite. I like that chapter – it cracks me up – but I see the problem: the tone gets a bit too satirical, belongs in a whole different kind of novel. I revise and hand it in. Nod of approval. Negotiations begin.

Editor floats out the first offer. Agent blows a raspberry, especially once she gets the sales numbers for BLOODANGEL. I am nervous. Editor comes back with a considerably higher offer, but they want a two book deal. Agent and I insist on a one book deal, because the money wasn’t good enough, I don’t want to be locked into anything and I’ve heard too many horror stories about the damage that can happen if your editor changes publishers and the new editor who inherits you doesn’t like or respond to your work. Roc also makes an offer for UNINVITED, which surprises me, but it ends up going to MTV Books (now an imprint at Simon & Schuster).

Back at Roc, my editor and I exchange notes about how glad we are to work with each other again. I mention my reluctance to take a two-book contract in case she does not remain at Roc. “Oh,” she emails breezily, “I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be here for a long time.”

2.

Of course, after the delight of a new contract wears off, I realize: I actually have to write the damn thing.

I complete a draft and hand it in. I have a bad, edgy feeling about it. I know in my gut it’s nowhere near as good as it needs to be. I ponder the creative process in general and where I might have gone wrong.

I get the publication dates for each book. UNINVITED is slated first, for fall 2007. The as-yet-untitled SEQUEL (which my editor cheekily calls “Bloodangel 2: Revenge of the Bloodangel”) comes out July 2008, nearly three years after its predecessor. I realize my publisher’s concern: with such a time lag between the two books, will readers still care? I discuss this with my husband, who is logical and rational to a fault and always chooses the blunt truth over sparing those silly things called ‘feelings’ (this used to bug the hell out of me, but over the years I’ve come to appreciate it). He suggests that the time lag might actually work to the book’s advantage: BLOODANGEL will have had longer to circulate, to get read and recommended to friends. I ask myself: if I loved a book, would the time lag affect my purchase of the sequel? My answer is immediate: Hell no. Meanwhile George R R Martin’s new book comes out, and despite the time lag between the books in his series, sales are definitely not a problem for him. I am not George R R Martin, but I take some cold comfort from that. I also make the firm decision that book 3 in my own little series – if indeed there is a book 3 – will come out much more closely on the heels of book 2.

3.

There is a long period in the publication process when absolutely nothing happens. It reminds me – and I note this on my blog – of standing in line at a bank. There are a number of manuscripts ahead of you. As each month ticks by, and another release date is met, the line shuffles forward and you get closer to the front, where your editor is hunched over her desk with her red pen and her massive thermos of coffee. Every so often she lifts her head and says, blearily, “Next.”

Meanwhile I am busy with rewrites for UNINVITED. Then I decide to go back and rewrite SEQUEL on my own, to ease some of the angst that just thinking about the book has been causing me. I send the new draft to my agent, who’s talking possible foreign sales. She reads it, and instead of sending it off to foreign subagents, says, “Let’s wait and see what [editor] has to say about it.”

I am not surprised. My sense of the book is that while much improved, it is still deeply problematic. I also begin to realize that in my eagerness to write a sequel I didn’t “honor my creative process” enough to let the story deepen and flesh itself out in my mind. Usually when I come to writing a novel, it’s been living in my head for months or years. Which was not the case here. I started writing it for the wrong reasons – I wanted that new book deal, I liked the idea of writing a sequel – and not because it was demanding, or even ready, to be written.

I wait for my editor’s editorial letter, looking forward to pinpointing what’s wrong and fixing the damn thing. Because I do think that somewhere in that mess is a really good story, and despite my difficulties with the manuscript I’m excited about its final shape.

Then I get the news.

My editor is leaving Roc. She’s taking a new job at a different publishing house.

4

I’m not just waiting for an editorial letter; I’m waiting for a new editor.

Weeks pass, then a few months, and the book remains without an editor. My agent sends me an email. Time is slipping by, she points out – it’s now spring 2007, and the pub date for SEQUEL is a little over a year away. In publishing terms, this is not long at all, especially when your manuscript is still as screwed-up as mine. My agent is polite and does not phrase it quite this way. What she does say is that she has some thoughts on the book, would I like to hear them or wait for the new editor’s comments?

I say, Bring it on.

So the editorial letter I receive for SEQUEL, pointing out flaws and problems and suggesting certain revisions, ends up coming not from any editor at all, but my agent.

It’s not quite as brutal as I expect.

The first quarter was good, she says, and got her excited. Then the book “kind of falls apart” from there. The plot is complicated and confusing and relies too much on characters speculating and explaining things to each other. Parts of the book feel like “cool set pieces” that don’t really move the story forward. And the characterization also suffers: the nuances of several of the characters, she says, “just get lost” in the second half.

Despite all this, she says she is “genuinely excited about the book” because she recognizes all the layers of conflict (she then lists them, just in case I doubt her). She also sees a possible new direction for the book, highlighting some dialogue between two characters that could open up a powerful storyline. Odd thing is – or maybe not so odd — I had had that same thought myself while writing that same scene. I’d sensed that perhaps the real story lay down that path instead of the one spelled out in my outline. But I had chosen to override that thought, that instinct, staying loyal to my outline instead.

That, I finally realize, was my mistake.

My other mistake lies in the outline itself. Everything hinges on plot events, plot points, “cool set pieces.” In my anxiety over what happens next I had forgotten to ask the true central question that should define any novel:

How do(es) my character(s) change, and why?

That one question brings the focus to where it should have been all along: on character. Which very quickly brings the real story into light. And it is completely different from my previous two drafts.
Damn.

I keep maybe thirty or forty pages, toss the rest, and begin again. I keep an eye on the deadline but also take the time to really sink into the writing. To give myself the mulling and dreaming time I’ve learned that I need — away from the laptop –so that I can return to the book with tweaked ideas, new ideas, better ideas. Despite the pressure and frustration of a new deadline, which I realize I am not going to meet, I am finally enjoying this work. I feel myself writing from a different place now, a deeper place, and some of the scenes leave me shaken. This is a good sign.

And now I have my title: LORD OF BONES.

5

I finally get a new editor. My agent knows her, approves, and seems relieved. My new editor was promoted in-house and remembers me, she says, from when I visited the publisher’s offices in summer 2005 and brought my editor a basket of gourmet chocolate which we shared with anyone who wandered past her open door.

I discuss with my agent and new editor that I am not doing a rewrite so much as a whole new book, and it’s taking me a lot longer than I anticipated (in fact, I will continue to grossly misjudge how quickly I can get this thing done). My editor proves very understanding, possibly because, as my agent points out, I’m in this situation partly because I spent so long without an editor at all.

My editor prepares for her first meeting with the art department to talk about the cover. For this meeting to be productive, however, she needs to have some idea of what the book is actually about. I hand in the first 180 pages and a synopsis. Both agent and editor say things like: fantastic, LOVE IT, superb.

My editor sends me a note asking for detailed physical descriptions of two of my characters. Apparently they’re going to be on the cover.

My editor waits for me to finish the book. She waits. She waits. Copyediting needs it by October, but she tells me she can hold them off until November.

I get it to her in December.

It’s not that I find it difficult to write this book; I don’t. I take a deep pleasure in this world, these characters. I want to meet my deadline, but I also want to give the story its due. So I follow the ebb and flow of the writing process, I let myself “write long”.

My editor finally gets a manuscript that’s 420,000 words. She is nonplussed. But I know the book is genuinely overlong, and it’s easy, now, to recognize the excess and a relief to carve it away. My editor very quickly gets another version that’s 15,000 words lighter. She is relieved.

6

My editor emails me a heads-up that she is overnighting the copyedited manuscript. She tells me gently but explicitly that she will absolutely need it back by Jan 23. There is no room for extensions on this, due to the extensions on extensions on extensions she has already given me. Whether she intended to or not.

This is my last chance to spend real time with the story. All its bones are set, and I cannot change them; but this time to get at the language, the details and inconsistencies, the line-by-line flaws, and I can still add bits of new material where new material is required. The next time I see the manuscript, it will be as pageproofs, where changes I can make will be limited to fixing typos.

To my surprise, the sequel to the sequel is already pushing at my mind, demanding to be written. (First, though, I want to finish a manuscript called SHADOW HILL, about halfway written and put aside to re/write LORD OF BONES.) My editor explains that because of the time lag between BLOODANGEL and LORD OF BONES, Roc won’t be able to make an offer until the presale orders for BONES come in, which will be in March or April. Hanging over this is the possibility that Roc won’t make an offer at all.

The book won’t come out until July 1, but by then so much of its fate will have been decided: the presale orders determine the initial print run, which determines the confidence Roc will have in the book and the support they’re likely to put behind it.

By then, I will be promoting BONES as much as I am able.

I will also be deeply involved with another novel. And it’s not just because writing is a compulsion and the publication process – despite its frustrations, long pauses and disappointments – is addictive, culminating in the incredible experience of being read by strangers who pay actual money for this thing that you made out of nothing. It’s also because the best way, possibly the only way, to recover from the novel you just published is to engage yourself in the next one.

—Justine Musk