My current project is a 130,000-word fantasy novel that has basically been complete, in some form, for a few years. I’m currently plowing through the third fairly major rewrite. The first constituted rewriting about 25% of the material and adding another 20% or so to the original draft. The second time, I rewrote a good 50 – 75%, mostly in the form of spot edits. This time, it’s mostly moving things around. After some deep soul searching I have elected to remove the prologue, relating the relevant information through scattered flashbacks instead so that the novel will begin with action and the inciting incident right up front.
For those of you who aren’t writers, this is how books are written: they’re rewritten. Some famous writer once said that “writing is rewriting.” I forget if it was William Faulkner or Kinky Friedman.
My first attempt to try and sell it was in 2004. The book was about five years old at that point, and I had finally polished it to the point where I really considered it finished. I submitted to about eight publishers, and within three months I received seven rejections. I gave up on the eight. Then, almost a full year from my original submission, I heard from the eight. It was a bite.
The e-mail was from the acquisitions editor at a relatively small publisher that did mostly romance novels but some spec fic. [I can’t decide if it would be inappropriate to give the name, so I’m leaving it out] It was a rejection, but came with some very positive feedback. She loved the story, loved the characters, but pointed out some serious flaws in my writing – especially my use of habit words and phrases. She asked me to revise the manuscript and resubmit it.
I was delighted by the response, which in my mind was basically a yes, but I didn’t know what she was talking about. I asked my brother to proofread the manuscript. In the first chapter, I used the adjective “dark” over thirty times. No joke. Thirty. It was on the first page five times.
That was the impetus behind rewrite one, which took me approximately two years to complete. Part of that was ‘life intervening’ with a time consuming day job and a couple of moves, but most of it was laziness. In the course of that time I asked two more people to read the manuscript and comment. By the time I’d finished that rewrite, the book just felt uneven. Two years of revisions meant that my voice and my pace were wildly different from one part to another. Before I sent it out to be considered again, I decided to read through the whole thing and do a thorough rewrite.
I thought up a method for revision that I will probably use on all future manuscripts. For about two weeks, I sat in my bed each evening and read the book out loud to myself, at a pace I would have used to read it to someone else. Anything that tripped on the tongue or just sounded garbled or awkward got marked for revision. Very little of the book was untouched this time, but I went quickly. I was eager to start sending submissions. I’d started reading a few blogs by literary agents, which made them seem suddenly human. I figured for sure this would be a sale.
I sent a few queries, but I had doubts almost immediately. There were little things I could add to bring life to the characters. There were places I felt my characters didn’t quite act like real people would in their situations. And then there was the prologue.
Ah, the prologue. A cardinal sin according to almost every ‘how to get published’ book and blog, and yet so many of us write them. It’s just so damned hard to resist! We all figure “my prologue is necessary. I’m the exception.”
Rejection. Again. I got one reqeust for a partial from Kristin Nelson, blogger behind the really excellent Pub Rants, which was tremendously helpful in crafting my query. I was especially thrilled because I think very highly of Kristin. Then my partial got rejected fast. Really fast. Like, one day later fast.
I got a little disheartened, but there was a lesson here. My query had resulted in a partial request, which meant the blurb was good. The problem was the writing itself – and, in all likelihood, with the very first word in that partial. Prologue.
I took a little time off from the book. I gave it some serious thought. I remembered that the book had been prologue-free, many many drafts ago. At some point I made the decision to start with a prologue so that my readers would see my characters as children and get attached to them. It was a manipulative trick. A Hollywood trick. Worse, it started the book slow. There was action in the prologue itself, but it wasn’t key to the main plot. It put almost forty pages between my reader and the inciting incident.
I really didn’t want to do another rewrite. I have a second novel that I’m more than one hundred pages into at this point. That’s where my mind was focused.
Still, I kept thinking, the book would be better without a prologue. More importantly, the partial would be better. My book would start with the burglary of a baronial palace instead of four pages of landscape description.
So I made the hard decision. I killed the prologue. I’m splitting up the background information and distributing it through the rest of the book. It’s going to involve a bit of new writing and a lot of revising. I’ve been at it about two months, with greater intensity than I normally focus on a revision, and I’m guessing it will be another four to six weeks before it’s finished. All that new writing has to season a bit before I go back and polish it, after all.
On the other hand, once this is done the book really will be the best work that I can do. No doubts – at least, none as large as removing the first chapter. My hope is that it will be good enough to sell. We’ll see. If it does, it will be because I buckled down and made the hard changes. There were a few stages there where I could have gotten angry or frustrated, decided that the agent or editor didn’t appreciate my work, or that the whole idea of being judged on a query letter and ten to thirty pages is absurd and the whole industry is broken.
Instead I went back and did the hard assessment. Hopefully, that will get me where I want to be.