What I Learned Re-Reading the First Manuscript I Queried

I’m going to be completely honest here. I’m not really referring to the first manuscript I ever queried. Because that one was ten years ago, and it was this crazy adult time-travel Christian romance that I didn’t even let anyone read before I queried it (I know! Rookie move!). I had no idea what I was doing, and so I don’t consider that for real. What I’m talking about here is one you can see here on my blog–THE MODERN CAVEBOY’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING BATS, BULLIES AND BILLIONAIRES.

I wrote this book like seven (or eight?) years ago now, and I started querying it on July 11, 2011. So when you see those milestone posts on my blog about how many years I’ve been querying, it’s this manuscript that started it all. The reason I’m re-reading it is because I’ve decided to self-publish a copy as a Christmas gift for my nine-year-old. I mean, it’s officially shelved for any real publishing purposes, but my son will love it.

I thought it would be interesting to share what I learned about my growth as a writer while reading this old manuscript. Overall, I still thought the story was fun, and I got a lot of things right, but the issues I spotted are issues many new writers encounter, even with the help of critique partners and beta readers. For most writers, it just takes time to learn the craft and trust your gut enough do what’s right for your manuscript (you’ll understand what I mean by that second part when you get to point number four). And for the lucky few who get published on that first manuscript, I salute you!

1. I hardly used any interiority.

There are action beats and dialogue tags, but if I really wanted to whip this manuscript into shape, I’d add a lot more thought from my main character. There’s some interiority (and if you don’t understand what I mean by that, check out Mary Kole’s post here), but I wanted so much more emotion and explanation from him.

2. So many questions!

When my main character does have interiority, he’s constantly asking questions. It’s okay to use questions sometimes, but in general it’s better to rephrase them into statements. They’re stronger and more active.

3. The story is so plot-focused there’s not much depth to the characters.

This goes along with the first point but also applies to the supporting characters. I gave each of the characters one or two things. The main character has an anger management problem. His sister is brainy. His best friend is bubbly and supportive. But other than that? There’s not much. I could’ve done so much more with it.

4. The early chapters are rushed.

I did some minor edits to the manuscript as I read through it–nothing major, just cleaning it up as I went. When I got to chapter six, I felt like the story had skipped way ahead. And I know why. I was new to working with readers for this manuscript, and the critique I received was to ruthlessly cut five chapters.

So, here’s the thing about that critique. I was new to critiques, and it sounded like good advice. In all actuality, the sentiment behind it–that I was starting in the wrong place and my pacing in the early chapters was too slow–was valid. However, in retrospect, just all-out cutting those chapters was not the right thing to do. As a more experienced writer, I’ve learned how to accept a critique, examine what the actual problem is, and find the right solution for my manuscript. Sometimes it’s exactly what the other writer has suggested, but often it’s an entirely different solution that I come up with–because I know my manuscript better than anyone. But as a new writer I didn’t understand that, and this manuscript suffered as a result. It wasn’t that other writer’s fault. She spotted the problem. I just didn’t apply the critique correctly.

My point with this is not to ignore critiques, just to incorporate them in a way that’s right for your manuscript. Because when it comes to pacing and story structure, you need to ensure your story makes sense and the reader feels grounded. As for my son? I’m sure he’ll just go with it :).

5. There’s too much summarizing.

There are a lot of passages where I summarize what happens instead of actively showing it, and that takes away from the experience. It still gets the point across, but I know it can be so much better. I think this is another area where as a more experienced writer I can tell the difference between when I should tell vs. when I should show.

6. Who’s talking??

This manuscript features three kids on an adventure, and in an effort to avoid too many saids, I apparently just deleted a bunch of dialogue tags. But as I was reading through, there were several times I wondered which character was supposed to be talking. If there are more than two characters, you need something, whether it’s a dialogue tag, an action beat, or an internal thought to signify who’s speaking. Even when I did have beats or tags, they were often after the dialogue when they should have been before. I did a lot of shifting for those. There’s not a set formula for this, but it does need to be clear who’s talking. I just try to find a good balance of tags, beats, and thoughts in a conversation.

Could I go back and fix these issues if I really wanted to? Sure. But as fun as it was to go back and read this manuscript, I don’t have any passion for it anymore, and that’s a necessary ingredient to whip a project into shape. So for now, I will just anticipate the joy on my son’s face when he opens his present.

Have you ever gone back and read your first project? If so, what did you learn about how your writing has improved?

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About Michelle I. Mason

I'm a full-time writer, focusing mainly on middle grade and young adult fiction with some freelance PR writing and editing on the side. I'm also a wife, mom, Christian, violinist, avid reader and St. Louis Cardinals fan. And I watch way too much TV.
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