Thursday, July 18, 2013

Cautionary Crimsonstreaking: Don't submit until you're ready

Note: the following is re-posted from a guest post on Candlemark & Gleam's website

Don’t submit your stories before they’re ready… or before you’re ready.

Just… don’t.

I originally wrote I, Crimsonstreak in 2007. Back then, the book had no appendices and consisted of about 50,000 words. The basic framework of the story—an imprisoned superhero busts out of prison to find his father in charge of a fascist world government—was there. From a very basic structural standpoint, many elements of the original draft are recognizable when compared to the published version.

Over a period of four years, from 2007 to 2011, I whipped it into shape, polishing things, adding scenes, tweaking dialogue, etc. I even queried agents. I laugh at that now—Crimsonstreak wasn’t ready. There are no fast tracks to publication, even if you’re the Fastest Man on Earth.

By 2009, I came to my senses and stopped querying. I realized the book wasn’t ready. More importantly, I wasn’t ready. You see, young writers tend to think their first book is absolute gold. They think someone should recognize their talent and dispatch a dump truck full of money to their driveway. I was young, I was creative, and I thought that’s how it would work. Looking back, I now know that’s a clear indication of how ready I wasn’t.

Truly, Crimsonstreak didn’t start to take shape in its current form until late 2010. I set fire to the manuscript and made radical changes. More importantly, I sent it to a beta reader, a ruthless colleague who isn’t afraid to use phrases like “this doesn’t work” and “that doesn’t make sense” and “where in the hell is the character arc here, Adams?” and “you realize this whiny Warren Kensington IV character is terrible, don’t you?” We bounced ideas back and forth. I made more changes.

Our conversations were pivotal. Whiny Warren Kensington IV became a stronger character. The legacies of Crimsonstreak, his parents, and the Crusading Comet became intertwined. I found a way to introduce tension among Warren, Morty, and Chris—tension that was far more personal than it was in prior drafts.

I sank four years into Crimsonstreak. After giving it another three months, I felt it was as good as it was going to get.

I sent it to Candlemark & Gleam in the summer of 2011. Make no mistake: this was Crimsonstreak’s last stand. Had there not been a request for the full manuscript, Crimsonstreak and company would likely be sitting on my hard drive as “crimsonstreakcometrevision.doc.” I would’ve moved on.

To my utter delight, Kate Sullivan saw potential and requested the full manuscript. We made more changes—if there’s anything you need to understand about writing, it’s that there are always changes. Overall, though, the published version of I, Crimsonstreak isn’t much different from the version submitted in May 2011.

On the other hand, it’s worlds apart from the 2007 version with the file name “Hero.doc.”

Now here’s the funny thing. While a young writer gets a little full of himself or herself for no reason, an “experienced” writer does, too. When I started writing the sequel, I produced a first draft, showed it to my beta reader, made some revisions, and then sent it off.

II Crimsonstreak was not ready. There’s no way I should’ve sent the book away. I had character arc problems, I had an excess of plot aerobics, I had an “ending” that relied too heavily on shock with no real resolution or reflection.

I know that now. I should’ve known it then. Maybe, deep down, I did, but thought my newly acquired skills as Published Author would override any issues with the book.

It doesn’t work like that.

The development cycle for the sequel was much shorter. This isn’t to say you can’t write a good book in a short amount of time. It’s certainly possible, and some authors can pull it off. I wasn’t that guy yet. I just thought I was.

I concocted this story about multiple realities and rival factions. I forged ahead with an outline that touched upon basic plotting, character arcs, and scenes. Then I went to work. A thousand words a day. Then, 2,000 words a day. Sometimes even 5,000 words a day. First draft. Boom. Done.

Back up the dump truck full of money.

My “outline” was a couple of pages written in my trusty “idea notebook.” It didn’t actually outline anything. I was planning a road trip that marked the start and end points without considering things like road construction, speed limits, rest stops, or scenic routes.

Even worse, I made a major change without re-plotting the story. The result was a muddled mess. Characters’ goals were unclear. The motivation of the villains was unclear. Jaci Graves, a terrific character, got pulled into “token love interest” territory, a role that she would absolutely punch me in the jaw for assigning her.

My beta reader brought up these issues. I “fixed” them. Even though I needed to do more work, I sent II Crimsonstreak to C&G. Part of it was eagerness—I wanted Kate to read the story. Part of it was stubbornness—I didn’t want to miss a self-imposed deadline. Part of it was brashness—I figured the book’s strengths and my strengths as an author would carry it through.

I was partially right about the last part, but not because of the book.

If II Crimsonstreak had been the first thing I’d ever sent to C&G, it would’ve been rejected. However, Kate and I had a good, collaborative relationship from when we polished Crimsonstreak, so she had confidence that I could take that mess and turn it into a good book.

Revisions lasted three more months as I waded through notes and added new touches. I scrapped some self-indulgent passages, streamlined the plot, wrote an actual ending (well… kind of), and developed clearer character arcs.

It all worked out in the end, but I learned some valuable lessons along the way—proving that Published Author doesn’t know anything.

Let’s use some bullet points to hit my main ideas:

  • Don’t submit anything before you’re truly ready; for the most part, you get one shot
  • Outlines are good and can focus you; they don’t have to be super-detailed chapter-by-chapter summaries, but they should have some substance
  • If you make a major plot or character change, adjust your outline so you have a good idea where that change will take you; you’ll burden yourself with a lot of work otherwise
  • In some ways, the second book is harder than the first; development time will be shorter, you may be overconfident, and the resulting novel could very well get messy
  • Revisions are a major part of the process; you don’t have to like them, but you sure as heck had better get used to them if you want to put out a good book
  • Building a good relationship with an editor and working hard for them will buy you some goodwill when your novel doesn’t quite turn out as well as you’d hoped
  • Do not turn Jaci Graves into a token love interest; she will punch you in the jaw