Monday, February 3, 2014

When Your Writing Journey Becomes the Plot of a Novel


Two years ago, Judy Mintz introduced me to Victoria J. Coe at the NESCBWI Conference. Months later, we wound up moving about four blocks away from one another in the same town as Judy. Vicki is a talented writer, treasured critique partner, and friend... and she's got one heck of a story. 


When Your Writing Journey Becomes the Plot of a Novel
By Victoria J. Coe

You’ve read it before – a determined heroine sets out on a quest, fails, tries again, fails harder, hits bottom, has an “Aha!” moment, overcomes her character flaw, tries a third time and ultimately succeeds… or becomes the victim of a tragedy. When I first wrote my middle grade novel, I thought – that is, I hoped – my happy ending would come at the end of Act 1. Ha! Who would want to read a story like that?
              I spent ten months writing and revising. My first readers, including my critique group, teacher and classmates at Grub Street Boston, and critiquers at New England SCBWI helped me work on a huge number of issues. Everyone agreed the character and voice were special. I began to believe.
            I researched agents, whipped up a query, and started sending out batches of ten. All in all, I queried 50 agents and got five full requests. The first four were kind enough to offer comments, but it was obvious my manuscript wasn’t a good fit.
            At the bottom of the alphabet, Marietta B. Zacker of the Nancy Gallt Literary Agency ended up in my fifth batch. After researching the authors and books she represents, reading her interviews, and learning how highly-regarded and overall impressive she is, I was ecstatic when she became my fifth full request. I held out hope.
            Less than a week later, Marietta sent me the longest, most exciting rejection ever. She gushed about the character and the voice. She used the word “love.” Clearly, there was a connection.
But, she also said the plot and story development needed work. She made suggestions. She said she’d be more than happy to read a revision. She offered to talk if I had questions.
            In further emails and a phone conversation, Marietta and I shared a vision of what the story could become. I was determined to rewrite the manuscript and blow her socks off.
We kept in touch as I rewrote. With the help of two SCBWI critique groups, I revised again. Five months later, we all agreed it was ready. I sent the new and improved manuscript back to Marietta with sky high hopes.
Waiting was torture. 
Then, almost two months later, the email came. And it was bad news.
She agreed I’d dug out a stronger plot. She praised the changes I’d made. But, she said the story still wasn’t working. She actually said it pained her to write the words that she had to pass.
Talk about feeling devastated. It was the best chance ever with the best agent ever and then it was over. Just like that. After all that work.
Numb, I had no idea how to react. But I knew I had to thank Marietta for her incredible generosity and encouragement. She kindly responded that she’d be open to future submissions. And she’d even read this same manuscript again should I decide to revise a third time.
Yeah, right. How could I revise if I didn’t know what wasn’t working? And if it wasn’t working for Marietta, the agent who loved my character and my voice, it wasn’t going to work for anyone. I had two choices: 1) Give up, or 2) Get professional help.

This part of the story is called the cliffhanger. 
Tune in next week to find out what happens!


Writers, what has made you shelve a novel? 
What has made you stick with a novel?

44 comments:

  1. Now that is fascinating. I'm not sure if I'd have the strength to revise yet again, but I am looking forward to the next part to see what happens.

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    1. Shelly, I know what you mean. When I've hit that wall where I'm not getting offers and I don't know what else can be done, I often shelve the book.

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  2. I know what happens and I'm excited to see what happens!
    Judy Mintz www.judymintz.com

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  3. Tough to hear no a second time, but that was really nice of her to work with you on it and offer suggestions. Can't wait to hear what happens next.

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  4. Oh, Victoria! How could you leave us hanging???? :) It's obvious 'your' story eventually ends up in a wonderful place. Thanks for sharing this. The writing world can leave us spinning at times, especially when we can't find an explanation. Glad you kept at it.

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  5. Wow, what a story! What a cliffhanger! I think the toughest part is when something doesn't work no one can figure out why. Looking forward to hearing about your happy ending :)

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  6. ooooh I smell a happy ending somewhere....

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  7. What?!? Since when do we get cliff hangers in blog posts? Gah! Not cool. Definitely not cool. *scheduling return visit now* ;)

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  8. I feel your pain! I endured TWO passes after an R&R with TWO different agents. However, the revisions I made helped the story shine for the agent I was *supposed* to end up with. Anxious to hear how your story ends!

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    1. Dianne, that must've been so tough. But now you're actually publishing!

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  9. Can't wait to hear the rest! I've been known to shelve works that no longer sing to me. Or sing horribly. =)

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  10. Hey, everybody! I want to offer major thanks to Theresa for hosting me on her blog this week. It's already been so much fun. Apologies for making us all wait until next week to find out what happens. But isn't that how it is when we hit a wall (as I did at this cliffhanger)? You want to move forward, you want to have that happy ending, but you... just... can't. ARGH!

    Thanks for sharing comments. Theresa has the best followers, right?

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  11. Very cruel of you to leave it there. I'll be back to find out what happened next for sure.

    mood
    Moody Writing

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  12. I have never shelved a novel. They're all still kicking. Sort of. They all need serious revisions, but I haven't given up on any of them yet.

    I bet this story has a happy ending.

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    1. Liz, I know what you mean. Of the manuscripts I've written, I think most of them could work with an overhaul. In fact, I overhauled one last year that got more interest than it did when I first queried it. A couple I think will never see the light of day again.

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  13. Professionals are there and they are good. I think writers can learn so much from consulting them. Great post!!!!

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  14. No, tell us!! Haha, what a great post and story. I can't wait to hear what happens next!

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  15. Oh you are mean, Theresa. I have been working on my first novel for 5 years. It will not leave me alone, I know, until it's finished.

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    1. Karen, I know someone else who has stuck with her novel for longer. I think there's nothing wrong with that approach either. Laurie Halse Anderson spent years on Speak, and that has been successful and had a huge impact on readers. My previous post tells about Rebecca Stead sticking with the same project until she got it right.

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  16. Awesome story. Can't wait to find out what happens. And I know what you mean about working on a novel forever. Thanks for sharing, Victoria.

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  17. I never fully shelve a novel - they're on a shelf, literally, but in plain sight, so I'm always thinking about them. I've just revised something I wrote 8 years ago :-)

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    1. Annalisa, I did something similar last year. Because I'm a stronger writer now, it felt like I was almost writing the book from scratch!

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  18. Oh, man! Seriously? You're going to leave us hanging for a week! If your novel gets readers turning pages the way this post does, I believe there will be a happy ending! Looking forward to next week! :)

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  19. Hi again, everybody! Thanks for sharing responses to Theresa's questions re: to shelve or not to shelve. Personally, I've shelved LOTS. For me, the decision is a firm: It depends. Some stories lack that certain something and at some point I realize they're never going to stand out enough to sell. Others I've lost interest in - which means if I'm not interested, nobody else is going to be! And then there are the ones where I know in my bones they have potential they just haven't reached. Always a tough decision, though. Sometimes my bones are wrong!

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  20. I'm definitely on the edge of my seat! I'm holding out hope that this ends well - really, really well. And I love that you spell your name the same way I do! Hi, Theresa. *waves*

    -Vicki

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  21. Theresa, thanks for the intro to Victoria! Victoria, it's great to meet you! I must return next week to see what happened. :)

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  22. What a story. I know you had to be hurting Victoria. I hope the ending has a happy tune. :-) As to shelving, I haven't yet. But I'm sure there will come a time when I will.

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  23. I can't wait to read the next part. That's great to get a positive, supportive rejection. I've received some of those that were great motivators.

    I've actually been rewriting some shelved novels. I use the parts I like best and shuck the rest.

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  24. I feel your pain!! Looking forward to finding out what happens next.

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  25. Sorry for the cliffhanger, everyone. That was my idea--not Vicki's. I think her story is interesting because she built a relationship with an agent, which many of us are intimidated to do. Even with the long period of time between revisions, Vicki still kept in touch with Marietta. I think we can all learn from that.

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  26. Seriously, it's not fair you left us hanging!!! LOL But yeah, I know the feeling, after all that revision work. How frustrating to be SO close. But just know your novel is better (it is, right? do you agree?) and so it really wasn't a wasted opportunity. Fun to hear Vicki's story. :) Thanks, Theresa!

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  27. Oooh, great breaking point. What does she do...

    I haven't learned how to shelve a novel yet. I tell myself I'm going to, but then I shake the feeling off and I'm back at it.

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  28. Hello again! Digging out from another 8 inches of snow. I wanted to jump on a comment that Theresa made up above about shelving a novel for a period of time and then coming back to it later as a different, stronger writer. I can certainly relate to that.
    I've shelved novels, sometimes for years, and then come back completely fresh, as a different writer from when I wrote it. I'm talking opening up a new document and typing onto a blank page. Breathing new life into an old idea that still interests me.
    But... making the decision to shelve the novel - even with the knowledge that someday I'll come back to it stronger - is not always easy for me. Except in the case where the story is not exciting my critique group, is not getting any interest, and/or is in general not going anywhere.
    Most of the time it's hard. Especially in the case of this story above, when the manuscript seemingly has come SOCLOSE. That's when I weigh the loss of time vs. the benefit of fixing the manuscript on my own later and one side is not the clear winner.

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  29. great inspirational post!
    i shelved my first one when i realized the market for it was on a down turn and i had no idea what i was doing - i would've had to rewrite the whole thing! i may come back to it some day...

    happy almost friday!!

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  30. I can't wait to hear the rest!

    www.modernworld4.blogspot.com

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  31. I publish what I write a chapter at a time online. Getting feedback really spurs me on to the next chapter. After it's all done, I collect it into a novel and then publish that. It's kind of fun and provides the right kind of motivation for me to reach the end.

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    1. Michael, that's interesting. Where do you do that? I find that I have so much to change by the time I hear from several critique partners that my first chapters go through several transformations.

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  32. One thing for sure ... Victoria knows how to write a cliffhanger ending! I'm hoping this story has a happy ending.

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  33. Hi, Theresa and Judy,
    This story sounds similar to one a friend of mine had. She wrote a book everybody seemed to love including her agent. Then she revised it multiple times, sold the movie rights and still the big wig editors had her tinkering with it.

    Wonder if you did the same thing she did. I'll come back next week to find out. :)

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  34. Gah, I need to know what happened! Are you going to the conference this year, Theresa? I registered last week and am so excited!

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    1. Julie, you're going to the conference??? Now I'm extra sad. Unfortunately, I have to take a special education class that weekend. It's the first time I'm missing it in 7 years. It's a wonderful conference. I'm so sorry I won't get to meet you in person!

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  35. Oh I do hope you didn't choose no.1!!!!!! Off I go to the find what happened next!! Yay! Take care
    x

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  36. Eep! Such a cliffhanger! But how inspiring that you put in so much work.

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