Yes, getting that first book published hurts—like I can’t even tell you. But the good news is that all the hurt is worth it; in fact, it’s invaluable. It’s the hurt that counts. And if you haven’t been through the pain, then save yourself the postage.
novel Gigged was released in May 2010 (Flux).
He holds an MFA in Children’s Literature from
Hollins University and teaches English at a
high school in Atlanta.
1. THE GOAL IS NOT A GOOD STORY; IT’S A GREAT STORY
It’s all about getting a story ready to be looked at. In getting Gigged ready for an editor to see, it had been raked over and over. Sixty-five page chunks were hacked, the last thirty pages were rewritten six times. I agonized over lines, phrases, even single word choices. Chapters were shifted, characters reworked. I climbed into dark places that hit me so hard I took showers after writing certain chapters. But it was only afterward that I realized that what I was doing was getting the manuscript in the shape it needed to be in. While it was happening, I was simply in pursuit of authenticity—a story that only I could tell and tell it in a way that only I could do it.
I never wanted Gigged to be just a good story. Lots of good stories are out there. I wanted it to be an experience that would stick with the reader like pine sap—even force them to reread it. I had to get past writing with agents and editors in mind. Doing that, quite frankly, blinded me from the genuineness of my character’s story.
2. A STORY CAN EASILY GET WATERED DOWN
In 2004, an editor at Simon and Schuster’s Aladdin imprint showed some serious interest in a manuscript of mine. She went over the whole thing, wrote notes and comments in the margins. She sent me a long letter with her ideas and suggestions along with the manuscript, expressing her excitement in seeing the revised draft. As you can imagine, I was on the verge of bursting into flames. So, I worked like a crazy person, even calling in sick a couple of days just to work on revisions. I faithfully took all her suggestions into consideration and did everything I thought I needed to do to give her what she wanted. And in the end, I killed the manuscript.
In the pursuit of publication, I had lost the edge and atmosphere you can almost rub between your fingers—those characteristics that make a story worthy, in my opinion. The editor at Aladdin rightly passed.
Yeah, it hurt. But it was an experience I needed to have. It made me a better writer. Without it, I wouldn’t have been ready to write Gigged.
Even before I let an editor see Gigged, the manuscript had been hacked, stripped, dressed-up, set on fire (not really), cleaned and dirtied all over again. I couldn’t care about editors and agents, yet. It had to be just between me and J.T. (the narrator).
I crawled through it all with him, consistently focused on presenting his story in a way that only I would think to do it. It was something in the back of mind on every line. If the line wasn’t accomplishing something, if it didn’t ring true, it got cut. Nothing mattered to me more than doing right by the characters and giving readers what they deserve.
3. WE MUST BELIEVE GOOD WORK WILL FIND A HOME
Do the research. Work on that query letter. Go to conferences. Do all those things you need to do to put yourself in the right position. But all of that will be futile if your story isn’t ready to be looked at. At the end of the first conversation I had with my editor about acquiring Gigged, he asked me if I had anything else he could see. I had a completed manuscript and about fifty pages of something new. I said I’d get back with him.
I read enough of the completed manuscript to know that it wasn’t even close to being in the kind of shape it need to be in. So I worked on the new story. I got to page 130 and decided I had to start over. Ouch. It was the right decision, though. At least I think it was. I’m waiting to hear what my editor thinks.
To emphasize my Southern origins a bit here: Sometimes to get through the door you have to drag yourself through a keyhole. It’s tough but necessary. Your manuscript will be better for it. Someone will notice.
successful freelance writer Frances Spatz Leighton
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