writer attempting real life in the middle of everybody else's vacation

First books are rarely first rodeos

on September 6, 2012

An author’s first manuscript almost never becomes his or her first book (especially if the goal is traditional publication). And if it does, the finished product probably barely resembles the early drafts. If an author tells you otherwise, that person is a freak talent or a fat liar. I didn’t make that up, either–it’s a scientific fact on which ten out of ten publishing professionals agree. It’s also in the Bible, if you read it just so, and are open to seeing things that aren’t there.

I started my first manuscript in 2005. I worked with it, on and off, for about six years, I think. Hey, cut me some slack. I was busy running away to an island and getting divorced and getting married and getting more kids and working some other jobs, including a different writing gig.

During that time, I got a few rejections (eight hundred million), and everything changed about my manuscript. Everything. Even then, and even though my agent liked it enough to take me on, it still needed work. We went through a couple of rounds of revisions, then Linda sent it back with some additional thoughts.

But between rounds, something fantastic and magical happened. I wrote another manuscript. And this time, it kind of fell out of me. I liked it so much that I sent my agent a note that looked something like this:

Linda didn’t kill me, but she did tell me to quit whining and acting so dopey. And to never show my handwriting to anybody else or I’ll never be taken seriously as an adult (wait, that was my mother).

She read the new story and agreed that, already in the first draft, the second manuscript feels stronger. Tighter. Better. During our meeting about it, I took copious notes on her specific suggested changes:

ACTUAL NOTES. But don’t worry, I have everything she told me RIGHT UP HERE
*taps head containing huge brain*

I’m glad I trusted my gut on this. I’m trusting Linda’s guts too. I mean, I’ve only got one shot as a debut author and I don’t want to eff it up. So, yay for six years of wasted time! I mean learning!

And I haven’t given up on the first manuscript. For real. I just need to rewrite it, one more time, after not looking at it for like ten years. Just kidding. A little.*

Also, writers, if you haven’t read Cheryl Klein’s SECOND SIGHT, you should. She’s smart and funny. Mostly smart. And/or check this out: www.chavelaque.blogspot.com/2012/08/theory-klein-pyramid-of-literary-quality.html (apologies, as always, for my inability to make a pretty link).

Am I right about first manuscripts? Did your very first manuscript turn into your first book? Or will it? What keeps you hopeful? Why do we torture ourselves this way? Why are we here?

*Not kidding at all

18 responses to “First books are rarely first rodeos

  1. God, you’re hysterically funny. (I mean you, Rhonda, not God, though you actually did make me laugh by mentioning His book, which I bet wasn’t his manuscript either.)

    Answer to your question: did your first manuscript turn into your first book? A: Nope. Kitty litter. As did the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th.

    Now, off to check out the pyramid of Klein.

  2. Wow. Go you! And thanks for letting us see your note. And your notes. Professionalism is so important.

    I wrote my first manuscript some time in the early 1980s, and if you don’t believe me, I have a folder full of encouraging rejection letters to prove it. I’m really hoping that the statute of limitations on it hasn’t run out.

    Going to go look at that Cheryl Klein link now.

  3. markowrn@bellsouth.net says:

    Publish already please–cant wait!
    Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

  4. Ismael NIeves says:

    Rhonda hang in there. It will all be worth it in the end!

  5. Emily says:

    Ha ha ha! I love this post out loud! Out loud! I’m at work taking a break from writing very serious bank things and I laughed out loud and then said (out loud) “I love this post!”

    My first manuscript was basically me writing a story wherein my main character got to hook up with another character who was eerily similar to a guy I had a HUGE crush on at the time. Of course, the manuscript was awful. Five years later (two spent dreaming and sighing + three spent writing and re-writing and and and) my manuscript is wholly unrecognizable. Thank God.

    By the way, your handwriting is terrifyingly close to mine. I have panic attacks any time I have to hand write a card. (And don’t get me started on yearbooks.)

  6. I’m so glad you took such great notes. Can you copy me on them? 😛

  7. As I ponder over writing my first manuscript… your story is equal parts frustrating & promising. I find the best lessons are taught through mistakes; even if it took years, they weren’t wasted. The joy of creativity pouring out of you is beyond satisfying. Best of luck to you as you complete this journey!

  8. Erik Larson says:

    My poor first manuscript has been written, trashed, rewritten, revised, slashed, expanded, re-rewritten, and I’m rewriting it again. I recently found a copy of the very first draft of it inside a dusty notebook inside a dusty tub inside my far-too-dusty garage. It’s just as terrible as I remembered it, just like my freshman picture inside my dusty high school yearbook that I also found in the garage. That second manuscript went together so much better.

  9. Rick Boettger says:

    My first ms was a therapeutic fictional novel about the first love that tore my heart out. I sent it only to Farrar Strauss without an agent. Got the rejection, and never did another thing with it. In fact, it is lost.

    Fifteen years later I wrote a non fiction book. Took a year. Dumped it, started over, second version only took six months. Went to a talk by a local mid sized publisher, showed it to him, and they accepted it, with an advance and publicity and all.

    After the year of interviews and all I wished I had written a third version. But there was no way for me to have known the faults in version two without all of the feedback I got from having it published. Another Catch-22.

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