Learning the craft, part three

Don’t submit your beloved manuscript too early.

Sky Hole 2x

This is part three of a three-part series on the major lessons I learned while writing Shepherd: A Memoir, which is scheduled to be published in Spring 2014.

There’s such a high in completing a book’s first draft. A whole manuscript. In You’ve Got a Book in You: A Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams, Elizabeth Sims nails it:

To write a book is to open and give yourself to a world thirsty for authenticity. Writing a book is a heroic act, and it is an accomplishment no one can take away from you. When you come to THE END you will know a wealth of things about your subject, about writing, and about yourself. You will be a deeper, richer, more complete person.

The tough love part for me resided in a simple question. Do you want to publish it? Your baby? You don’t have to—but I wanted to. And so I learned that if you think your book is ready, it isn’t. You must know it’s ready. That took more work, in my case. Six drafts over seven years.

A rookie mistake, which also afflicts writers at every level, is sending off a manuscript too early. It’s hard to see your own work. But I can now see my un-admitted doubts when I began to submit what I probably was calling the third draft of my memoir.

Freckles sez, "Get help—don't be baaaad!".

Freckles sez, “Get help—don’t be baaaad!”

I’ve read that Philip Roth sent his novel drafts to five people, and I like to imagine who they were: three wickedly good fellow novelists; a sensible and erudite lay reader; and, what the heck, a Rabbi. Every writer needs a writing posse. At some point, however, your chief deputies can fail you if they too have read the work, or its pieces, so long that they’re blind to its faults. Plus, they want your and its success. I was fortunate that an editor, in a roundabout way, kindly directed me—actually he bluntly called my book “plodding”—to obtain the services of a developmental editor.

So after I got professional help I began writing a new version that truly was new, the fourth draft, and about a year later I had it, another baby whale, the manuscript having returned again to its original length of 500 pages. Eventually I cut it to a svelte 360, and broke up a chapter on my father and dispersed him throughout the book. Where he should have been all along—as an MFA mentor had mentioned the better part of a decade before. I went through the book a couple more times, smoothing sentences, looking at persona, and clarifying timeline.

Finally I knew my memoir was ready, and thankfully hadn’t burned too many bridges with my early efforts. That’s the problem with submitting a book before it’s ready, not just initial rejection but permanent rejection. It’s natural for neophytes to think, “This may need some work, but they’ll see it’s a diamond in the rough. They’ll want to work with me.” Nope. Not unless you are named Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. There are too many other manuscripts that are ready, clamoring for editors’ and publishers’ attentions. They’ll cross you off and move on.

Now, finally bearing a book contract, here I am, this putative font of wisdom who’s really just trying to advise himself. Trying to codify what I fear I’ll forget. And while I hunger for another project, for that addictive immersive quest for authenticity that puts you in a new zone, at the same time I must fear it. Or something. I think it’s fear of failure that produces resistance, but I’m not sure. I seem to wish I could skip the struggle, the time, it takes to enter fully a project. As if on cue, I stumbled the other day across this:

I realized that this was going to take time and patience, which I didn’t have much of. It took me only 15, 20 years to develop some patience, and it was a struggle. It was the same with my reading. I had the desire to learn, but I didn’t have the patience. I wanted to tear that page up, because I didn’t have the patience to even contemplate those words. I was in a hurry to run away from the suffering that was required to sit still.—Harvey Keitel

So start, slowly. Time is going to pass anyway. Night is falling. Accept suffering, but try to enjoy the process. Because it’s all process on the writer’s way, the writer’s path.

This and the previous three posts have run, in slightly different form, as a single guest post at Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.


Filed under editing, memoir, MY LIFE, revision

20 responses to “Learning the craft, part three

  1. I wonder if there’s a writer who HAS NOT submitted a manuscript too early? I would like to meet him/her! I actually submitted my first draft. What was I thinking? In my defense, I had been in contact with an editor and had verbally met with her several times. She wanted to see the manuscript. Her assessment was kind and constructive, and it started to lead me in the right direction. I was lucky in that she was willing to look at it again. Her press ended up not taking the later version, but it found a home shortly after that.

    This is where an MFA probably would have benefited me. Someone there surely would have told me to not submit a first draft (at least I hope!).

    • Good point, Rachael. But it didn’t prevent me! Actually my MFA program assumed that most students wouldn’t get their theses published; they were just learning documents.

  2. I know what you mean about having a hard time waiting, Richard! I feel difficulty waiting to hear the next segment of what you have to tell us about what you’ve learned by writing. I’ve had to accept that you’ll come into my e-mail inbox, about once a week, and I’ll get the next installment, much looked forward to, to find out all the things I needed to know years ago. Keep writing and guiding your readers–you always have a lot to say. Maybe your next project could be a sort of back story to what went on while you were writing, or an Anne Lamott style continuation of theme. Or just more you! That would be pleasant too.

  3. Photos close to home

    Earlier this week my son informed me that he wants to be a writer and that he is going to major in English with emphasis in creative writing. After the panic subsided, I directed him to various websites. Your’s was included in the list. Now I’m going to go hyperventilate for a while.

    • Ha! Well, it’s a good major. If someone wants it, it is almost by definition. Creative writing of course improves one’s writing and makes one a great reader. Those skills are portable. A lot of our students here double major in something else, with psychology being really popular.

      • I agree wholeheartedly with your many fans who call this an excellent, honest series, Richard. And I’m looking forward to reading your memoir. Congratulations.

        Curious what you, as a writing teacher, think of this idea for undergraduates who have been bitten by that infectious writing-bug and want to major in Creative Writing: Let’s just tell them the truth (which I know you’re already doing)–that it takes most of us mere mortals a decade or two or three, to write our first publishable creative manuscript, but it’s infinitely rewarding in payback of quality-of-life (the self-examined life and so on…). The writing skills they develop will make them an even more valuable potential employee in any field (to answer those adverts that demand “excellent written and oral communication skills,” which often translates into a management position and higher pay). And also advise them, that unless they are independently wealthy or have an indulgent rich aunt, they should double major in something that holds decent job-potential (sorry, but I pretty sure a B.A. in psychology increases one’s job-potential about the same as a B.A. in English)–something like accounting, nursing, information technology, sustainable agri-business or even respiratory therapy or retail merchandising. (Barbara Kingsolver majored in science, and insists that her science background kept the money coming in while she worked on developing her creative writing voice).

        And after graduation, (and during summer vacations) writers should get a job that will feed and shelter them.

        Of course, all this assumes that they are the kind of people who love to write more than they love to watch television and equally as much as they love to hang out with friends. And they’ll work on their writing while their coworkers are “vegging” and partying. And maybe they’ll also work on a low-residency MFA if they can afford it.

        If they don’t have the fortitude to work that hard, perhaps they also don’t have what it takes to work through the nitty-gritty details required to create a polished manuscript. I don’t think it’s discouraging to tell people the truth–it’s empowering for people who want to live a real life. The truth enables us to more wisely decide between what will take us closer to our goals, and what will sidetrack us from them.

      • Excellent advice, Tracy Lee. I think it is wise to emphasize that ANYONE can DO this—I am living proof—but it takes effort and long-term commitment. An “early” book, one a writer publishes around the age of 30, actually began in all likelihood when she was 20. Even after making my living with words for almost three decades, it still took me seven years. Which does argue for a decent day job, as you mention.

  4. Congratulations, Richard, on the contract! Your book as you describe it sounds so rich and interesting. I really like the title. — And also, thanks for the three posts on what you’ve learned and your ongoing shared learning at this blog. I just read V.S. Naipaul’s “Prologue to an Autobiography” (in “Finding the Centre”) and found one pearl after another to underline and think on and the following seems to be what I hear you saying in all above. “However creatively one travels, however deep an experience in childhood or middle age, it takes thought (a sifting of impulses, ideas and references that become more multifarious as one grows older) to understand what one has lived through or where one has been.” You’ve given a lot of “thought” and I suspect it will tell!
    Very best wishes in the next stage of this book.

    • Thank you, Dora. Naipaul’s book sounds fantastic. The good thing about my book taking me so long is it did evolve and I could have, funnel, and weigh insights. Very heady at times.

  5. What a great series, Richard! I hope it goes on and on–into a book!

  6. I’ve enjoyed these past few posts about the journey of your book from the excitement of possibilities and your first draft back at Goucher College eight years ago (is it really that long?) to a final sweat-stained manuscript years later. Richard, you’re absolutely right about process being the writer’s path…it’s more about the journey of writing than holding that magic rectangle of words at the end. For me, that journey of research, words, and chapters is paramount and by the time any of my books is released out into the world to assume its new life apart from me, I’ve already moved on to the next writing project and the next journey…

  7. Richard, I just saw this! Congratulations on your forthcoming book. I’m glad you found some resonance in ‘You’ve Got a Book in You’, and thank you for sharing with your readers.

  8. I agree with Paulette, it’s a wonderful series.

    Thought about you when I flew back from Kentucky last night from and sat next to a man from Bourbon County who had spent the last 6 weeks lambing. So, of course, I told him about your forthcoming memoir, and he had me write down the title for him.

  9. Two recommendations for your reading pleasure, since you always add so much to mine: Hilary Mantel in the New York Times was great on Learning the Craft: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/19/books/review/hilary-mantel-by-the-book.html?pagewanted=2&_r=2&smid=tw-share

    And a memoir that includes sheep: Marilyn McEntyre’s review on Goodreads reminded me to tell you about it. I enjoyed meeting O’Reilly in person and need to add her book to my list of recommended memoirs.http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/106757.The_Barn_at_the_End_of_the_World