Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Character Who Won’t Leave Me Alone and How I Misplaced His Voice

I started my first manuscript well over ten years ago. Late at night, after tossing a best-selling author’s book across the room and telling myself I could do better.

My first attempt was full of cliches, passive writing and confusing POV. I was excited that I would soon be a New York Times best-selling author. Along with a bad case of new writer syndrom, I had the where-with-all to know there were other writers out there I could learn from and I went on a quest to find them.

Those first chapters pretty much sucked, but there, from the ashes of bad writing, arose a wonderful character. I knew his history. I knew where he came from and where he was going and why. I knew what was stopping him and how he would get around barriers. I gave him life and he’s taken up residence in my mind and still talks to me at the oddest moments. I think that’s why writers are weird people. It’s difficult to be normal when you have someone else riding shot-gun in your head.

Three or so chapters into this character’s story, I learned a few things about writing and made changes. Then I learned a few more things, attended writers’ functions and became thoroughly depressed. I scratched much of what I’d written and started over, but the heart of my character stayed.

Digressing...I love books and always have. The written word fascinates me. I have a very distinct memory of my mom walking by me, stopping to look at me with a smile on her face, then taking a book out of my hands to turn it right-side up and put it back into my clutches. I remember where I was sitting when that happened. I was probably about three years old. Yep, I’ve always loved books and reading, but once I learned a little about writing, I came to love it more.

I finished that first story, after giving it chapter-by-chapter to my critique group and incorporating their suggestions. I received good feedback, from writers, readers and contest entries. It finalled with, according to the contest coordinator, the highest first-round score they’d ever had. I was proud and, with the feedback I received, I started editing. I found an online critique partner (because my in-person critique group was tired of reading that first story). The new partner said, “This is ready. Get it out there.” I thought she might be right, but I was still editing. I was also working on newer work, but that first story just wasn’t quite good enough yet.

Then Mike and Marne said, “This is ready. This is good. Get it out there. And for God’s sake, leave it alone.” I thought they might be right, but I was still editing.

Our critique group went through a few changes. People left,  new peopled joined. Fresh opinions! I submitted the book again. I didn’t realize it then, but I am somewhat of a perfectionist. When the new blood made suggestions, I saw problems with the manuscript and I set aside other projects and started tearing the book apart. Fixing things, changing things, re-writing.

Now, ten years later, the story is in pieces. Worse, along the way, while trying to make it perfect, I lost my voice with this manuscript. It’s tragic. I mourn often.  

Unlike other losses I have had in life (which, I’m fortunate enough to say, are few) time has not healed this wound. My character is pissed. He tells me about it daily. He wants closure. It's a good story. I screwed it up by trying to make it perfect.

I have a new belief from this experience. I believe there is no perfection in writing, because perfect writing is boring writing. No perfection, only story, characters and voice. Someday I’m going to let Jesse out to play and I’m going to tell his story. I have to distance myself from the mess he’s become first.

What do you think about perfection in writing? How about your characters? Do they holler at you while you’re trying to hold meaningful conversations with your children, your spouse or your boss? What about your first manuscript? Did you finish it? Did you submit it?

Are you still in mourning like I am?


  1. I write and I edit professionally. My first several manuscripts were okay but I didn't have the benefit of a crit group with the first couple. So they sat on the shelf for years while I raised my family. And when I started writing again...I decided to leave them on the shelf. Perfection is the desire of every author. Yet you might be surprised at how many I work with who believe I am somehow trying to ruin their voices when I suggest changes based on English usage, current trends in writing, marketing, and publisher guidelines. If I ruined every author's work, I wouldn't get paid, or have my job very long. And yet when it comes to my own writing (I'm published), I often look at my own books and find it hard to believe what I'm reading came from somewhere inside me. I'm betting the next time someone tells you it's good and you should submit as-is, you will do so, right?

  2. I've said it before, you can edit a book to death.

    As for characters yelling at me, not so much. Mine whisper dirty little erotic things, the females anyway. I think they want to arouse me, don't know why. Maybe they are just twisted because the inhabit my mind. A wonderfully demented place, my mind.

    I don't hear much from the males unless they are wyverns. But, that's another story, one I'll revisit one day. Just like your Jesse.

  3. First, I know someday Jesse's story will be published... I don't know if I've yet read it, but his story will find a way out and you'll have peace.
    I have a story, a sci-fi actually, tucked comfortably away in a drawer. It was my first real, all-the-way-to-the-end novel, and I don't know if I'll ever get it out and try to fix it. You learn so much in the first few years of writing. A good friend of ours once said (and I'm paraphrasing) it takes writing a million words to get published. The first time I heard that, I thought no way in Hades. I'd never get published. Now, I think she was pretty close...
    Great post, Miss Vicki!

  4. All so true, Kay...thank you for your comments.

    Mikey - I love your demented mind. It keeps life interesting.

    Marne - I do believe I've written over a million words just writing Jesse...over and over again. LOL. Then there are the manuscripts since then. It's time to get one in print I guess. :) Can I just say that and make it so?

  5. Set the pieces aside and rewrite the book fresh. That's what I'm doing with the Sentinel series.

  6. Bets, that's what I've done. Current wip is going well -- I'm excited about it. However, the character from the other book hollers at me pretty often. Someday...