Monday, August 6, 2012

Manic Monday: The Bionic Manuscript

As I write this, I'm attending the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrator's (SCBWI) annual summer conference in Los Angeles. Three days filled with speeches, workshops, and  presentations by wonderful writers, book illustrators, editors and other book publishing people. Three days filled with inspiration, pep talks, advice on craft and storytelling, and rubbing elbows and breaking bread with kindred spirits.

And a time for a bit of reflection on my journey thus far. A time to reflect on the first two stages of becoming a writer.

Just three years ago, I sat at my first writer's conference. Wide eyed. Excited. Hopeful. 

I sat there with a great idea, boundless enthusiasm for the subject, and no one had yet said to me the dreaded two letter word: No.

I sat in a workshop today and was struck by the fact that in the last three years, I'd changed as a writer. I've written three manuscripts now and they've changed me as a writer. Here's what happened to make me see this.

The presenter at the workshop asked people to volunteer to tell the their story idea - the premise - the log line. The one to two sentence hook.

Many threw out their ideas. Most were so-so. Ideas that were a bit interesting, but not so compelling that you'd buy the book. There were a couple of ideas that were knock outs. When a person can put their idea succinctly into one sentence, AND hook you with it, you know they're on the right track. 

There was one young lady, that rambled on for a while about her idea, losing me after about ten words. The presenter gave her a few pointers as to why the concept wasn't yet compelling. But the nascent writer persisted, saying something that made me both cringe and feel envious. She said something to the effect that she could see her story in her head and couldn't wait to see it made into a movie because she thinks it would make a great movie.
Joy! Rapture! I have the best story idea ever and soon I will be lavished with praise and a
six figure advance and a movie deal.
This newbie writer is at the stage where her idea is, still, very fresh and thrilling to her. It's probably all she thinks about. And her story idea is a movie, in her own head. To this writer, she likes the story idea so much, how can anyone else not like it? How could they possibly resist the chance to not only publish the story, but make it into a film?

I cringed because I have seen many editors and agents say that this is exactly the kind of thing that if they hear in a query letter, that they'll reject the writer's work immediately. Every writer thinks their idea is good. Every writer has a friend or family member that thinks their story is the best story since the Bible. Every writer thinks their story would make a great movie. It's cringe worthy because it's not only cliche, but because it sounds both boastful and out of touch with reality.

I cringed for that writer that she'll likely continue to say things like that until someone either smacks her silly and tells her to stop, or until she's rejected about a million times and either stops writing altogether or tries something new, just to see what happens.

But I envied her too. I envied her because I remember feeling that way with my first story idea. So full of the story, all the time. It was all I could think of. And I was so hopeful. Had not yet had my writer self bashed about a bit.

Don't get me wrong. It's good to be hopeful. It's not naive to believe in your story. Cynicism does not for good writing make.

But once a writer has completed that first story, she must move on to the next one. And a first story is a bit like your first car. Remember your first car? Of course you do. You remember how it smelled. My first car was old and smelled of dirty leather and oil and that musty old car smell. You remember the make, model and paint color. And you remember how it felt to drive it. Mine was old and crappy and prone to stalling in the middle of the road but oh, how I loved the freedom of  my own wheels. My first car was old and cheap and shabby and should have been at the scrap yard, but it was my first and it was new and an adventure and thus memorable for me.

1976 Ford Mustang II Ghia
My first car, but picture it rusted and broken down on the side
of the road with smoke issuing from its hood.
I bet you don't have as many memories of your second car, even less of your third, and may not be able to remember at all some of the cars in the chain of cars you've owned. And I bet your more recent cars are finer ones than your first. Maybe now you can afford a sweeter ride, but your first is still special, even if it was a piece of shit car.

It's the same with a writer's stories. The first is new. It's fresh. It's exciting and thrilling because you've never done it before. Writing your first story is an adventure.

You finish the first one, maybe take a small break, then you push on to the next. If you're a professional (or aspire to be a professional) anyway, that's what you do. You move on. 

Maybe you'll get a publishing contract for the first one (may the odds be in your favor), but statistically speaking, probably not. You may write two, five or even seven or more novels before you find out how to come up with both a fresh concept and the writing craft to deliver it.

Once you've mined that first idea, fleshed it out, and delivered it to the world, it may be met with the same awe and wonder that you had when you wrote it. But unless you're a prodigy, born from your mother's womb with an extreme gift for writing that even the greats of literature have lacked, your idea will likely be met with . . . you guessed it: No.

Why? Because the new writer has, most of the time, not yet learned that there is a difference between having an idea and writing a novel. And because the nascent writer does not know the difference, they upchuck pages upon pages of backstory onto the page and then "tell" rather than "show" the reader their story.

I read a lot of self-published novels and most of them are built on a compelling idea or premise. A few deliver the promise of the premise through solid writing and are a good read.

But most fall short. I see what the author is trying to do. I see what got them excited about writing it. But it's not a good book.

Why? Because the writer has not yet learned how to write a novel, rather than "tell" a story. Telling a story and writing a novel are not the same thing.

The idea isn't enough.

This is important and bears repeating: The idea isn't enough.

The idea is necessary. Yes. You must have a compelling premise. You must.

But then you must deliver the promise of that premise by writing a compelling story that pulls the writer sentence by sentence, page by page, willingly and gladly along on the ride you created for them. The reader doesn't want to be "told" a story. They want to be shown characters overcoming obstacles, and growing and changing.

Three years ago, I came to this conference as much a newbie as there ever was. I paid extra to have a consultation with an agent about my work in progress, the work that would become Emily's House. The consultation was a fool's errand. There I was, submitting a piece of writing for critique on a story that I hadn't even fully written yet. How could I know how to write a novel, when I had not yet even completed one?

The agent who met with me was kind, and pointed out things she liked. But she also gently urged me to go to workshops and get into a critique group. And she never once commented on what a great premise I had or how cool my idea was. She couldn't even get to the idea for the lack of skill in the writing. Poor craft distracts from the idea.

"Learn about craft," she said. If she had said it to me straighter, she would have said: "The idea is not enough." 

I left that consult, made my way to my hotel room, closed the door, and cried. I cried, and cried and cried. She had said no. No to my big idea. No to my story. No.

That was three years ago. At the conference today, in his keynote address, author Dan Guttman (referring to a line from the movie A League of Their Own), said, "There's no crying in the world of writing."

I heard that advice today, not three years ago. And three years ago I cried. Hard.

I don't know if I agree with Dan. I think it's okay to cry, sometimes (but perhaps do it privately if you're really going to wail, so as to not draw a crowd). Sometimes, you need to let the tears roll.

But, and perhaps this is what Dan was really getting at, you dry your tears and you pull yourself up and you go at it again. And again. And again.

Back in 2009, I had a choice to make. Sit, cry and stop. Or stop crying, and start writing.

I chose the latter.

I spent another two years writing that novel. I tore it apart, rewrote, then tore at it some more. I went to classes and worked with editors on it. I learned and rewrote, then learned more and write it again.

The final product isn't perfect. If I wrote it today, I'd write it differently. But I finished it. I saw it through. I published and I'm proud of it and best of all, readers have enjoyed it too. Readers that would have never gotten to meet Emily and her pals if I'd given up back in 2009 just because I heard the word "no."

I finished it, published it and moved on to the next one.

I'm now revising my third novel. Each one gets less precious. It becomes easier to shoulder critique. Easier to hear "no." Not easy. Just easier.

I had a critique today with a well respected editor and I heard a yes and a no. She said "Yes" to my concept. Yea! My writing is stronger now, and I don't upchuck backstory for twenty pages anymore. I've learned how to show not tell (most of the time). So my storytelling was strong enough that she could see the forest through the trees and she liked the concept. Yes.

But the plot has some issues that need ironed out. It's  not there yet. So that's a no. For now. It's not ready and I know it. Back to work.

I left  the critique feeling glad that I didn't leave wanting to cry. But I also felt, for a bit, like "I can't do this. It's too much. It's too hard."

I believe this is a new stage in the writing journey for me. A stage well known by most writers who have pushed beyond the newbie phase. There comes a point where you know enough about storytelling to know that you have not hit the mark. Your draft is lacking. And you know enough to know that it's damned hard to do it better. And you worry, for a moment or maybe for weeks, that you don't have it in you.

You see, your expectations of yourself have become higher. You no longer rely on just the idea. The idea is fine, it's wonderful, it's what got you to the computer and put words on the page in the first place. But you know, now, that the idea alone isn't enough. And you worry that you don't have what it takes to pull off that wonderful idea you've had.

"Maybe it's just too hard for me," you say.

In this stage, you are the one saying no to yourself. You are the obstacle you need to overcome. You must wring that no from your head.

"The concept is good," she said. I'll take that. It will inspire me. Fuel me. Spur me on as I take that damnable manuscript apart, piece by piece, and rebuild it. I picture it now like the Bionic Man. Remember the beginning of that show? "Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. Better, stronger, faster."

That's my manuscript now. The bionic manuscript. It will be better, faster, stronger.

Stage two rockets released. What's the next stage?
Bionic Man Doll, circa 1970's
It's pretty creepy, isn't it?
Hopefully, my bionic manuscript
won't look like this!


  1. As Daddy, the shrink, would say, I've taken in and processed all your information. Fearfully, I'm left with this ...

    What if four novels in, I'm still the Bambi-eyed newbie, certain that not just one, but all of my titles are destined for celluloid? Plus, I just know if I can get my "Savannah of Williamsburg" series to Tim Burton and WDC, they'll just smack themselves in the head and say, "Jebus! How did we miss this?!" "The Darlings of Orange County"? Drew Barrymore and Tina Fey? Hello!!

    My first car was a gorgeous, sporty, shiny, tiny, black Honda CRXsi I named Gidget (because we went to the beach all the time and she carried my surfboard). Gidget was a Christmas gift. Every car thereafter has been, even if used and sickly at times, a glorious love affair and I can wax romantic about them all. I even find great storytelling fodder in the don't-open-the-glovebox-whilst-running-the-wisher-wiper and it-starts-everytime functionality of some of said-loves.

    My self-diagnosis, besides Jenna Maroney-styled narcissism? I'm suffering from what Jack Donaghy calls The Bubble: a type of beautiful denial that keeps up my belief and intrepid tenacity year after year. For a full year, I once thought I spoke perfect Mandarin.

    See you in Variety!!!

    Moi ;)

  2. I am a frequent visitor in your blogs, this post is very interesting and easy to read .... I hope to visit again


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