Don’t give up: Lessons for discouraged writers from the Tucson book festival

Progress on my novel has been slow lately. Who am I kidding? Progress on whatever fiction I’m writing is always slow. (Except during NaNoWriMo, when I’ve produced quantities of highly questionable prose at a breakneck pace.) I look around my critique group and my online writers’ groups, and my friends are finishing projects, getting agents interested in their novels, getting short stories published, having their plays produced… I’m thrilled for them but sometimes it makes me wonder if I belong in such exalted company.

And then – I went to the 2017 Tucson Festival of Books and I came away totally invigorated, inspired, and encouraged.

Shannon Messenger: 20 drafts

The author of the Keeper of the Lost Cities middle grade series and the Sky Fall young adult series spoke on 20 Ways Not to Write Your First Book. What writer could resist that session title? They had to turn people away at the door because the room was too full.

The published version of her first Keeper novel is the 20th draft she wrote. Here’s the publisher Simon and Schuster’s website for the series now:

Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 8.10.17 AM

She didn’t even finish the first 10 drafts – she got bored, and realized the reader would, too. She finally figured out that working from a too-rigid outline was the problem; she was too quick to talk herself out of writing a scene so she could cut to one that was on the outline. (Her background is in screenwriting.) When she finished draft #11, she started working with a critique partner, who pointed out that her third-person narration needed to include Sophie’s internal monologue. The reader wants to know what she’s thinking and feeling so they can make an emotional connection and care about the character. With draft #13, she felt she was ready to start querying agents.

She landed a contract with her dream agent, who was looking for just this kind of book, but required revisions before she would start shopping the book. Shannon showed us the email – 4 pages, single spaced, 10-point font, including “the writing isn’t as strong in chapters 3-11 as it is in the rest of the book.” Little things like that. Holes in her world building. It took her a couple more drafts to satisfy the agent, and then the novel started going out to publishers.

The first editor who read it loved the book, but nobody else in the publishing house did, and they rejected it, as did 7 other publishers. All of them said the book was unmarketable: her main character was too mature for a middle grade series, but too young for YA, and some things in her book were considered “too JK Rowling”. She rewrote it to address the comments in the rejection letters. Her agent sent her a 13-page email this time: in her revisions, she’d managed to take out everything that made the book good.

She actually drafted her I-give-up email but didn’t send it. Instead, she burrowed back in and revised the novel yet again. This time, it sold, although it took from November to April for the agent to sell it. Draft #19 was to address 4 pages of feedback from the publisher’s editor, and #20 was minor polishing to get it ready for publication.

  • People think you either can write or you can’t – that it’s some magical talent you may or may not be born with. Not true! The torturous process taught her how to write a book. Time and perseverance is the difference between an aspiring writer and a published author.Her subsequent books didn’t take anywhere near 20 drafts to finish, although they did take at least two or three.
  • Do your homework on agents. Shannon worked in the film industry long enough to know that not every agent will be a good fit for you. Her agent was known to be an “editorial agent” who would give a lot of feedback, which was part of the appeal.
  • A good editor helps you write the book you thought you wrote the first time. You have to learn when to dig in your heels and when to make changes. For her, it comes down to “do I like the revised version?”
  • The first draft is dumping the sand in the sandbox, and the revisions are building the castle. 

Shannon Messenger’s 9th book is coming out in November 2017.

Charles Johnson: 6 years

The National Book Award winner for Middle Passage and former director of the creative writing program at the University of Washington – a man with a mindbendingly Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 9.09.49 AMimpressive list of accomplishments and awards (read his bio on Amazon) – spoke on The Art and Craft of Storytelling. Charles Johnson is my new hero, and I’m seriously considering following him around the country in a VW microbus. You can get a flavor of his conversation by listening to him in this recording from the Diane Rehm show.
Middle Passage 
took six years to write. He wrote the first draft in two years, barreling forward based on his outline, but the second idea that he needed to make it really work wasn’t there. The book is about a mutiny on a slave ship, and the second idea was that the crew also mutinied. It just took time to identify the “clean through line” for the book.

More recently, he wrote a novel, Dreamer, about Martin Luther King, starting with the idea that maybe King had a double to stand in for him, and maybe that’s who was assassinated. Before he even started to write, he spent an entire year reading everything he could about King, until he felt he knew him inside out and could write authentically.

Nathan Hill: 10 years

The author of the book I saw front and center in every bookstore I entered last year, The Nix, took 10 years to write it.

Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 9.35.19 AMHe turned the corner when he quit trying to write for publication and wrote his own truth, what he wanted to read. His book debuted at #5 on the New York Times bestseller list.

The author was on a panel about Satire and Dysfunction. My favorite comment in the session was a quote from Flannery O’Connor, who said that if you survived adolescence you have enough material for a lifetime of novels.

Keep on writing

I guess I was particularly attuned to this message at this year’s festival. In a panel discussion on Setting as Character, Dawn Tripp (author of Georgia) said she’d spent 5 years converting a 122-page poem into a novel that was universally rejected but taught her how to write; and Brunonia Barry (author of The Lace Reader) admitted that it wasn’t only research that made her latest book take 5 years to write.

I came home ready to dive back into the third major rewrite of my mystery novel. How about you? What are your tricks to keep you motivated when it seems like it’s taking forever? Please share them in the comments.

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