TM: Subplots and Sausages
Hemingway once said that if you believe your reviews when they’re good, then you have to believe ‘em when they’re bad.
I tend to forget that when I get good reviews.
And I’ve been blessed with lots of them on my latest book, In High Places. I can honestly say that I haven’t received a single review or reader letter that I wouldn’t be happy to have on the cover of my next book (trust me – that’s highly unusual). Many point out how much both my character development and voice have grown since Dark Fathom (my last book) which I take as solid praise and a high compliment.
Except it isn’t true.
You see, large portions of In High Places – most of it, in fact – were written and already nearing final draft well before I even began Dark Fathom. Dark Fathom, like the three books before it, was a novel sold from a proposal and written under a contract schedule (roughly one a year), while In High Places was a novel written without a contract, in its own time. It was my pet project, the novel I wrote in between my other ones, and I wrote it just because I wanted to write it, not giving much thought to how it would be received commercially. I was experimenting with a new voice, a different form from my usual plot-oriented narrative and (for me) a new point of view. Although several editor friends did see snippets of it here and there while it was in progress, I told them that I was not looking for feedback or offers on it until it was finished. And if, once it was finished, no offers materialized, then I was fully prepared to publish it as a book-on-demand and give it to family and friends for Christmas. Happily enough, that wasn’t necessary (thanks, Bethany House!).
In High Places took a long time to complete – seven years from the time I first started thinking about it until the time I sent it out as a proposal to my publisher friends. Then again, I didn’t work on it every day and often did not touch it for months. But I was always thinking about it.
So the difference between this book and the one that preceded it is not growth. It’s not a novelist warming to his skills. It’s revision. It’s polish. It’s reflection. It’s time.
Time is the reason that so many novelists throughout history have seemingly been cursed with the sophomore slump – the frustration of following a brilliant debut novel with a mediocre second one. The difference between the two is that the first one was often a labor of love, nursed and polished for years, while the second one was cranked out on a schedule. Tight schedules are good for things that must be produced with regularity, like sausages, but they rarely lend themselves to great art.
Think of that if you are an unpublished novelist. I know how frustrated you must sometimes feel about that (trust me – I know). I know that it must sometimes feel as if it’s going to take forever before someone’s going to offer you your big chance. But being unpublished is not the curse it’s painted as. It is a blessing. It is a gift – a gift of time. It is an opportunity to revise, to subplot, to take the world and people and actions that you have created and bring them to the next level.
Use that opportunity. Set your manuscript aside for a few weeks. Use the time to read Donald Maass’s book, Writing the Breakout Novel. Then go back to your book and find its weaknesses.
Eradicate them. Lather, rinse and repeat.
And if you are published, and you are looking at a schedule requiring you to create five novels over the next 60 months, consider doing something crazy. Consider writing a fourth in your in-between moments.
Why? Because the book you write without pressure will give you room to ruminate, to make broad changes, to experiment. You might find something wonderful – a technique that you can use in your contracted novels. And even if you do not, or if (like me) you find that your pet project and your regular work are as different as apples and oranges, you will be one book ahead of the game when you send your next proposal out to publishers.
Better still, you will have learned the value of reflection. It is a skill that most writers once had (or had the opportunity to have had). But sometimes we get too busy to realize we can reclaim it.
– TM www.tommorrisey.com.