Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Writer’s Craft and the Learning Curve

Elizabeth Zelvin

I’ve been writing my whole life, having first declared I “wanted to be a writer” at the age of seven and sticking to it through many years of rejections (eight or nine book length manuscripts in the drawer), false starts (like majoring in English and working as a textbook editor), and distractions (like selling life insurance—disastrous—and being a therapist—reasonably successful). As a shrink, I know that if we’re wise, we never stop learning. But having done as all top writers and writing teachers advise—read read read, write write write—for so many decades, I thought the learning curve would flatten out once my “mature” mystery manuscript, Death Will Get You Sober, had actually been accepted and published. Not so.

That first book has been out for a year. The second, Death Will Help You Leave Him, has been through the hands of an editor and copy editor, back to me, and off to production to become the “uncorrected proofs” that my publisher will send as advance review copies to the powerful “big four” of pre-publication reviewers. The third, after many revisions and three sets of comments by carefully selected critique partners, is in my agent’s hands, to be submitted to my editor. And as I struggle to choose between the two stories that might come next in the series and start to turn them into first-draft reality, I am bowled over by how the challenges keep coming, by the amount of craft it takes to turn out the third and fourth and fifth mystery in a series, and by how much more I have to learn.

Much of my learning has taken place the hard way, over time and by living with my mistakes. I’m not complaining about this. I’m a social worker by training, and a beloved boss of mine (a psychologist himself) once said that the only two words social workers ever say are “appropriate” and “process.” In retrospect, I can see that nothing is wasted.
And that knowledge helps me keep going through the next round of rejections, false starts, distractions, and mistakes.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Death Will Get You Sober. First draft completed 2002, accepted for publication 2006, published 2008
1. Don’t submit your first draft to agents—I was given this advice in 2002 but it took several years to sink in.
2. Kill your darlings—same as above.
3. Don’t quit five minutes before the miracle—after 125 agent queries and 35 publisher submissions with and without agents, I got a contract with St. Martin’s, where the manuscript had sat on an editor’s desk for 2 ½ years.
4. Rewrite the whole thing if you have to, if that’s the price of getting published—that’s how my recovering alcoholic Bruce got to be sole protagonist and my world-class codependent Barbara got demoted from co-protagonist to sidekick. In spite of a little feminist embarrassment, I’m so glad I agreed to do it. The result was a much better book.

Intended second manuscript in the series, title withheld. Revised several times. My agent loved it, my editor didn’t. It took me till 2009 to acquire enough craft to see what was wrong with it.

Death Will Help You Leave Him. Submitted March 2008, accepted November 2008, to be published October 2009. Having workshopped the first few chapters in 2006, I revised the first draft lightly. My editor liked it and made hardly any changes.

Next manuscript in the series, ready for submission. Writing the first draft was sheer torture, and I hated the result. For the first time, I couldn’t get away with no research. I had to talk to the police, pick strawberries, and go fishing, all lots more fun than I expected. Three hand picked critique partners helped me turn it into a manuscript I love.

Two candidates for follow-up to the last manuscript. I wrote 60 pages of Manuscript A and decided it wasn’t working. Not enough conflict, too large a pool of suspects. For the first time, I submitted an incomplete first draft to a critique partner. Her comments will help me write this book eventually if I decide to do it. But her key question was, “Is this a book you feel you have to write—if your publisher went bankrupt tomorrow, would you write it anyway?” I couldn’t say yes. But the next day, my thoughts about Manuscript B began to come together in my head. I could even see how much better it would be for the character and series arcs to make B the next one and A the one after that. I’m a little scared about my ability to write B—the stakes get so much higher once you’ve got a series going, especially in a bad economy—and I may have to try outlining for the first time. If so, it’ll be another vertical stretch in the learning curve. I’ll simply have to dig in my pitons and keep going.


Sandra Parshall said...

Do the outline, Liz! I've learned that I feel much more secure if I have a map of the road ahead. It doesn't preclude side trips or prevent you from changing directions if you find a better route. What always scares me is not knowing where a story is going. If I know my destination, I can enjoy the trip. (Okay, enough with the map references!)

Holly Y said...

Great post, Liz. I'm learning that the people who get really, really good at things are exceptional learners. Like Tiger Woods. He must be the best Golf Learner ever. He just keeps coming up with new refinements.

The best writers are ones who keep getting better, keep stretching toward a better read for readers, keep learning. I love learning from you about what's ahead on my own learning curve. :)

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks, Holly. I believe one of the big emotional tasks of maturity is becoming teachable. It's not something we ever do perfectly. :) Sandy, I've always been in the into-the-mist camp, so it's a big surprise even to consider outlining. It seems to be such an individual thing with writers. But when what you've been doing isn't working, as happened with those 60 pages of mine, the only option is to do something different. (Well, not the only option: I'm an excellent procrastinator.)

M. K. Clarke said...

Wonderful post, Liz! I'm halfway through my YA's first draft and my head's already spinning at the possibility of revisions--but i made myself accept that, if that's what it takes to get it a spine, so be it.

I'm quite amazed how some other pre-published writers only want the good notes about their works, and anything constructive offered to same works are received as bad b/c they're hung up over a "no." I'm learning that, though writing the first draft of this first book, the revision process could flow easier the second book/time around.

Thanks for the great insight! Keep 'em coming. :)


M. K. Clarke said...

Oh, P.S. on that outline: I don't follow one. Turns out, according to James Scott Bell's fine book on REVISION & SELF-EDITING, the first draft, by and large, IS one big outline. Nice to know, since I'm the kind of writer who does this damn craft by the sun's direction and sense of smell :).