Friday, 17 February 2012

Killing Your Darlings

I knew my first novel was a work of genius. It was obvious. So it was a bit disconcerting when my MA tutor suggested that, while writing it had been a good learning curve, it was time to put that book to one side and start another. Even more disconcerting was the experience of sending it out to agents. My sample chapters returned so fast the envelopes had scorch marks down the side.

I tried sending the novel to a book doctor. But when the report came they too didn't think it was a work of genius.  Humph - whoever wrote that report was clearly an idiot and their opinion was not worth considering. 

Rejection hurt.  A lot.  But above the pain of rejection I was genuinely baffled. How could they not spot the gloriously wonderfulness that was my novel?  I sulked. I sulked for six months. And through my grand sulking the notion gradually percolated - perhaps the novel wasn't so great after all.

I looked again at the book doctor's report. They'd seen a problem and suggested a solution that seemed complete madness. It was still a daft solution, in my opinion, but perhaps the problem they'd spotted concerning the four viewpoint characters had some validity. They wanted three of those viewpoints given more strength.  I knew that solution was wrong.  It was obviously wrong!  But how to deal with it?

I sulked a bit more. And then I came up with my own solution: what had been written from four viewpoints should be changed to a single viewpoint because, in truth, I was only interested in one of the stories I had interwoven. But that meant cutting about 50% of what I'd already written. I did some more sulking, and then went and sharpened my axe.

I lost 90% in the end, but once I'd made the decision to go for wholesale slaughter the process wasn't that bad. In fact, it was almost enjoyable. I knew the book wasn't a work of genius as if had been before, but I suspected I might have something publishable.  

The result? Well, when I sent the novel out again it took 36 hours from slipping the ms into the letterbox to have my first offer from an agent. Others followed, along with the publishing deal.  That book ended up being published around the world. 

Which only goes to show: sometimes mass murder is the right thing to do.

6 comments:

Giles Diggle said...

The other message here, is that when someone rejects your book, they are rejecting the novel, they are not rejecting you, even though it often feels like it.

It is possible to approach the same agents again with a different piece of work.

Philip C James said...

Giles makes a good point. Selling yourself rather than a product is so much harder partly because it's easy to take it personally when the offer is declined (a less perjorative word than rejected, I think).

A thoughtful post, Sarah. Have you thought of re-visiting the three threads now lying on the cutting room floor? Perhaps each deserves their own volume in an intertwined novel series?

Deborah (Debs) Carr said...

I'm about to commit murder in my mss too and looking forward to it.

Marcus Trower said...

What I find interesting is how often writers think their first book is a work of genius, or something approaching a work of genius, and that the whole world is going to change when it's published. I had a touch of that feeling before my first book was published, and I can see it - it strikes me as being a form of mania - in others around me who are working towards getting their first book published. This relates to a recent blog of yours about letters to agents and how they can make you cringe. The letters where the writer tells the agent that he or she would have to be an idiot to reject the submission; it's going to change the face of literature; etc.

Has anyone ever studied this mania that first-time writers often suffer from?

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

Absolutely!! We should all be accomplished murderers! But it is so hard to do away with them when we have sweated hundreds of hours with them??

Sarah Duncan said...

Giles - absolutely. It's always that bit of writing that's being rejected, not you personally.

Phil - oh no, I was never really interested in the other story lines, that's why it didn't work.

Debs - mass murder is just the ticket sometimes.

Marcus - that's an interesting point, I'd not thought of it like that. It also explains that awful feeling of let down when your first book comes out and the world carries on just as before. Perhaps it's not mania, just egotism to a gigantic degree!

Pat - that's why I say don't invest too much time in the first draft. It's much easier to chuck away work you haven't spent days toiling over.