Friday, November 16, 2018

My caterpillar manuscript can be a butterfly, right?

I've recently parted ways with my agent, and my current manuscript has been revised to the point it feels unsalvageable. As I've considered what to work on next, I keep feeling drawn back to a book that was on submission a few years ago. It was never bought, but I did receive some helpful editorial feedback that could make it 10x better. It's a historical fantasy, but I'm considering revising to make it an epic fantasy set in a world that I create as well as incorporating the editors' feedback.

If the manuscript has some of the same characters and plot elements, but a completely different setting, could it be queried as a new manuscript? Or would the fact that an earlier version had been submitted make it dead in the water? I do have a complete list of every editor the manuscript was submitted to, and I would of course be up front with agents I query. I guess my question is if it's possible to give an old manuscript new life, or if trying to resuscitate would be a waste of time.

There is no right answer to this, so it's a very interesting question.

When is a manuscript so refreshed it becomes new? That's always in the eye of the beholder. In this case the agent will be the beholder, but then the next beholders will be the editors.

You can't shop a refurbished ms that has been on sub without telling the agent.

You don't have to put it in the query, you don't even have to put it in the requested full, but you must tell her before it goes on sub, and I don't mean the day before either. I mean before you say yes to the dress, and sign with her.

The reason you must do this is because editors often DO remember projects they saw years ago. I've worked with some editors for more than a dozen years; if I send them something they've seen before without telling them, it could damage my standing with them.

They're not eager to read things twice any more than I am.

The more fundamental question though is this: if you refurbish Historical Now Epic, you will have spent time on a project that comes with baggage.

That time might be better spent working on something new.

I understand your reluctance to shelve a project that could be revitalized.

I'm not saying pull the plug on Historical Now Epic. Just consign it to the Ideas for the Next Book File.

If you shop a project that doesn't have baggage, your chances are better of getting an agent and a deal.

Time is a scarce, non-replenishable resource. Invest it in the doing the thing that is most likely to move you forward on your career path.

The question is not can the ms be shopped again, but do you want to spend your time refurbishing instead of writing something new.

I firmly believe that one essential part of the creative process is mystical. I think taking some time to ask the universe (in whatever form that takes) to guide you on this might help you see where you want to go.

A good long walk, looking at art, making pros and cons lists have all worked for me at one time or another.

Blog readers will no doubt have some insight on this question as well, so dig in to the comments.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

OP, ask yourself, (and be honest), why are you drawn back to the manuscript?
Is it because so much went into it, and it's difficult not to believe the bulk is done and revision an easier route?
Is it because the path of page 1 to 'the end' of something new is too formidable?

I'm not downplaying the effort of fluffing old bedding but sometimes crisp new sheets and blankets make for a better nights sleep.

Lennon Faris said...

Long drive with a great soundtrack playing. OH and make it a rainy day, and go on the highway. Something about zooming along with the music does it for me.

Just don't run off the road when you get to a good part. If you're as railroad-track-minded as me, get someone else to drive. They can't want to talk, though.

Best of luck, OP. I know exactly how you feel.

Colin Smith said...

Janet's advice here is, I think, hard but sound, Opie. Your first novel needs to be shiny new and present you at your best. Once you have an agent and a book deal behind you, you can start digging into the archives for novel number 2.

Let's imagine Janet takes you on as a client with a brand new project. She sells it to Penguin in a 7-figure deal. When the book becomes a world-wide best seller, Janet calls you from her Porsche while you're on vacation in the Bahamas to talk about book #2 (yeah, I know, book 2 talks probably happen a lot sooner... but hang with me). That's when you say, "I have this book that did go out on submission once..." "Now you're a publishing somebody," says Janet, "so let's give it whirl!" And whaddaya know. An editor at Penguin says, "Oh yes, I remember this." The chances the editor will say, "I like the changes you made. Sure, let's do it" are greater now because they already have a best seller from you than when you subbed as a first-timer.

So, to sum up, write something new. Put dearly beloved on the shelf for now. The shelf isn't the grave. It's not dead and buried, just waiting its turn. Your focus is on writing something that will establish you as a author with an agent and a publisher. Those shelf projects will have their day in the sun. Just not yet.

Make sense? That's how I see it anyway. All the very best to you! :)

Amy Johnson said...

This is a challenging one, OP. I understand there are good reasons for starting something new at this time. But I keep going back to where you wrote, "I keep feeling drawn back to a book that was on submission a few years ago." And I wonder if that feeling of yours may have something to do with this:

"I firmly believe that one essential part of the creative process is mystical. I think taking some time to ask the universe (in whatever form that takes) to guide you on this might help you see where you want to go."

E.M. Goldsmith said...

OP, I think this potential butterfly needs to go on the back burner for a spell. Write a brand new shiny book set in your new world, and then it will be easier to sell your original revamped labor of love after a debut that no editors have yet read. That is difficult, but from our queen's advice, I think it is the path of least resistance. Good luck.

Sarah said...

I worked on a ms for six years.

Then I hit the point where I knew the manuscript needed more, and I didn't know how to fix it. So I finally set it aside. I realized that the only reason I hadn't put it aside earlier was that I was frightened about starting something new.

Maybe that goes back to the mystical part that Janet was talking about.

There's the part of writing where you are drawn to stories that you must tell, and it's often right to chase those stories. But perhaps the flip side of that is that we can also be run by fear. We write safe. Shallow. Familiar. We stay with an okay story because we know it. Or we leave a story with potential because we're afraid to dig in.

I don't have specific advice because I don't know you. But I would say that you shouldn't let fear run you. It's an awful master, but it is a really good way of orienting yourself. Most of the time the best, the most breathtaking art will comes from those times when you turn and run towards what you fear.

Beth Carpenter said...

I sympathize with OP. I'm one of those writers who find the "shoveling sand to build sandcastles" an apt metaphor of the first draft. It's hard work for me, and not nearly as fun as the revising and editing parts, so of course if I could have a draft of a story I liked all shoveled and ready to go, I could have great fun building those castles right away.

But sooner or later, it's time to shovel sand. The good thing is that before you're published, you can work at whatever speed suits you. If you get a contract for a second book, there's a deadline. It might be nice to have a sandbox all ready to go when that time comes.

Sherry Howard said...

It’s hard to move on when you feel that tug! Good luck, OP, with whatever direction you take.

Melanie Savransky said...

My advice, OP, (and please take it with the requisite truck full of Morton's) is to think about something from the old MS that you love. Maybe it's a scene, a character, a plot twist, a witty line of dialog, etc. And transplant the Thing You Love Most into an entirely new Word doc and build a book from there. That way you're not starting from scratch, but you've freed up space to make something new.

(Alternately, there are ways of twisting tropes/characters to make variations on a theme. The shelves are full of published novels whose plots revolve around: "Oh look, Cousin Tallulabelle has come to visit. What are the odds she, too, will find love with a Viscount Werewolf?" But I think a new start is probably the safest approach.)

Best of luck!

John Davis Frain said...

Whether you choose the long walk, a drive on the highway, or a night in front of a fire ... you have to do one thing first. Come to it with an open mind.

Maybe you're not like me, but it sounds like you might be forcing a fit with your old, trusty, safe ms. New is scary and dark and difficult. That, alone, might make New the better path.

One other important point to remember--you're likely a much better writer today than you were three short/long years ago. I think you'll amaze yourself with something new. Give yourself a couple months with a new project, and then ask yourself which way you should proceed: continue with the shiny new thing or go back to the old safe thing.

Good luck and have fun with all of it.

Craig F said...

So, the caterpillar that is your manuscript went walkabout. Along the way it gathered and masticated some tasty morsels. Enough so that it pupated.

Now you are watching the chrysalis and wonder what kind of butterfly will emerge. The problem is that it doesn't look like the Monarch Pupae you remember from way back, at the dawn of memory.

This being the 21st century you could do all sorts of genomic surgery on it. You will still, way down, know that it is just a common clothes moth.

Write your Epic Fantasy. Use all those tasty tidbits and make it shine and launch to rival the sun. In truth, there have been a huge amount of historical fantasy written since Bill Caxton pumped out Le Mort D'Artur way back in 1485 and that book is still on that limited amount of shelf space in the dwindling amount of bookstores.

Yes, the brutal weather in Florida has broken, for a day or two. Y'all have a wonderful, safe and warm weekend. Also, be safe next week with Turkey, Duck, Goose or Tofurky day.

Barbara said...

My thought is, why can't you do both? If you put your caterpillar book on the shelf, what will happen to it? Absolutely nothing.

Why not start something shiny and new? And as you work on it, play with the older work, too. If it's new and revised, keep submitting it. Worst case scenario, nothing will happen with it, which is exactly what will happen to it on the shelf.

But . . . there is also the chance that it could get picked up. Why not take that chance? If you can work on two different mss at a time, why not?

Why does it have to be one book or the other? Take a chance. You might just end up with two sellable mss.

KDJames said...

OK, if there's one thing guarandamnteed to drag me out of lurkerdom, it's a writer saying something wrongheaded and self-defeating. There is no such thing as a "waste of time" when it comes to writing. There just isn't. Writing is like an apprenticeship that never ends. You can learn as much from something that ultimately doesn't work as you can from something brilliant. Probably more.

That said, I can't give you advice about what to do. What works for me is not going to work for anyone else. Hell, it might not even work for me at some point. But I can share some observations.

I see way too many writers who never get past their first ms (clearly, that's not you, but the sentiment might apply here). They work it to death, revising and futzing around, convinced it's the best, maybe only, thing they will ever write. It just needs a little more tweaking. That might be true. But it can also become a deadly trap of comfort and familiarity.

You recently parted ways with your agent and might be feeling a bit off-kilter and uncertain. It's natural to fall back on something for which you received that holy grail of helpful feedback. Revising from historical to epic fantasy seems (to me) like putting new clothes on an old doll. It might make all the difference, but it might just be the same old doll no one wants to play with anymore. Sure, setting and description are an important part of storytelling, but story is character(s).

You're a better writer now than when you wrote that ms. Much better. In fact, you might be on the brink of a creative breakthrough. That's scary. Trust yourself to do something new. Alternately, trust your experience and mastery are now sufficient to put a magical shine on something old.

You see how this advice thing can go either way? Whatever you decide, do keep writing. None of what you do is ever a waste. Best of luck to you.

Panda in Chief said...

Lots of good advice here, so why don't I propose something completely different. Actually a couple of people touched on this thought. Somebody once said (I'm thinking maybe it was Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird) that sometimes no matter how much you change something that doesn't work, it still doesn't work. But that sometimes, there is one sentence, one character, one thought that can be extracted with a pair of tweezers, that can be the basis of a whole new book.

It may be that you just need to read that old manuscript over, and realize it's not salvageable. Or maybe when you read it, you'll find that shining golden nugget that will become something totally different entirely.

Anyway, best of luck, OP!

Happy Thanksgiving time to all who swim on the reef. I might also point out that it is my birthday season, so I am having daily cuppycakes, for which I am thankful.

Cheers to all the other lurkers!

Kae Ridwyn said...

"Time is a scarce, non-replenishable resource."

I've never heard it quite that way before. LOVE it! Thanks, o QOTKU!