About three years ago I submitted myself—willingly—to the rigorous process of the GrubStreet Novel Incubator Program. Like an MFA program condensed into a single year, the Novel Incubator has its ten students critique each other’s full-length manuscripts, and take their own manuscripts apart, then re-write and reassemble them into much better drafts. That year I spent nights immersed in this work, which included lively, enlightening discussions about what was and what wasn’t working in each manuscript.
This guest post is by Stephanie Gayle. Gayle is the author of Idyll Threats: A Thomas Lynch Novel (Seventh Street Books, 2015) and My Summer of Southern Discomfort (William Morrow, 2008).
By day she works at MIT’s Media Lab in Cambridge, MA.
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Three months and one more completed draft after the program ended, I sent the manuscript that had gone through the Incubator grinder to my agent. I explained to him that the manuscript he’d been expecting, called Idiot Genius, was still on the back burner. During that Incubator year, I just didn’t have time to work on both.
He really liked Idiot Genius and was ready to start pitching it after I made a few tweaks. I liked it too, and had invested three years in writing it. But after the Incubator, I realized that it had some fatal flaws I would never have seen had it not been for the priceless input of the program’s teachers and my peers.
Here are some of them:
- No signature. One of the first lessons from the Novel Incubator was about identifying our novel’s signature. What did our protagonist want, what obstacle was in her way, and how did she (or did she not) overcome it? I realized I wasn’t entirely sure what Idiot Genius’ protagonist, Callie, wanted. She had short terms goals: win a competition, become closer to people, but no overarching desire that united these goals. Crap.
- Tension was often stated, not shown. Callie often talked about stress. I needed to show her stressed, in scene.
- My backstory, which was critical to the novel, lacked depth. Callie had a dead twin, Jacob, who was at risk of being a generic pain point. My editing notes say, “Callie needs to think about Jacob more and those passages have to sing.”
- Not all scenes had something at stake. Every scene should show a character acting toward her desire. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!] Many scenes needed editing to insert that desire, or I needed to excise scenes lacking it from the book.
- The secondary characters were problematic. There were a lot of them and they risked bleeding into each other. I had to make them distinct.
- One important secondary character, Max, floated in and out of the manuscript. The reader might forget about him and then he’d sail back in. I needed to keep him more constant. That didn’t mean including him in every chapter. I just needed to be sure mentions or thoughts of him occurred regularly so when he appeared it didn’t feel surprising or jarring.
- Some of the climactic moments needed foreshadowing or to be slowed in time. Bombs are dramatic. But think how much more tension you get from a bomb when you see it being placed and the timer set, the bomb turned on. That was what I wanted from my climactic moments: the expectation before the boom.
I won’t lie and say I was delighted to realize my almost-ready-to-pitch novel wasn’t ready to send to editors. All of the errors I now saw, courtesy of the Novel Incubator, would require lots of time and effort to fix. But I was glad that I had the ability to spot such errors. That I was better able to determine when a manuscript was ‘ready.’
The proof of how critical those skills are: my latest novel, Idyll Threats, the one I’d labored over in my Incubator program, is coming out in September (Seventh Street Books) as the first in the Thomas Lynch mystery series.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.