To the Manuscripts I’ve Loved Before…

Copyright © 2000 Julie Elizabeth Leto

“To all the manuscripts I’ve loved before ….” Can’t you just hear Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson crooning that? I can! The phrase occurred to me after I finished my latest Work In Progress (which will now be my June release, INSATIABLE). With each book I write, I learn something. And I like it that I learn with every manuscript. Usually, the learning occurs because I have tried something new. But not always. Sometimes the learning occurs because I tried to do something the old way and it no longer works.

Counting the three books that I wrote before I sold SEDUCING SULLIVAN, INSATIABLE is my ninth manuscript. However, I wrote the first three chapters way back before I wrote GOOD GIRLS DO!, my third published novel (and sixth completed manuscript.) When I went back to pick up the proposal again after writing GOOD GIRLS DO! PURE CHANCE and EXPOSED, I noticed a definitive change in my writing. Not in the grammar or the sentence structure … not in the way I plotted or even in the dialogue. That would have been easy to fix. So I just kept writing, hoping that the revision process would help me discover what was missing from those three chapters.

My first critique partner read the book in pieces, so she didn’t notice anything wrong. It wasn’t until the second critique partner read it in one sitting that someone other than me recognized a problem. We still couldn’t pinpoint it. It wasn’t the writing, but that’s all we knew for sure.

Then, luckily, my editor, who is not paid enough in my estimation, figured it out. It was the way I approached my characterization that was lacking. I hinted at their pasts too lightly, subtly inferring things without spelling it out. Part of the problem was that my heroine is a spin off character, but more than that, my approach to telling a story had evolved since I first started this book. I’m much better at it now and I can weave in information with the subtlety and light hand that I’d attempted with that book, but couldn’t yet quite pull off.

Why I am telling you this?

Because too many people are still fiddling with the same book they started years ago. Because some new writers insist on revising and revising the same story over and over when the manuscript or proposal has never quite hit an editor enough to inspire them to give the writer the precise guidance they need.

I’m here to tell you that revising and revising is, in most cases, a lesson in futility. You need to start new stories, explore new situations, study and learn and apply.

I did revise SEDUCING SULLIVAN at least two and a half times before I sold it—but luckily, with the clear guidance of my editor. With PRIVATE LESSONS and GOOD GIRLS DO!, the process was easier…my writing and my approach to the stories had evolved and grown. Each book is a learning experience. Even looking back to those first three manuscripts I never sold, the progression of improvement is evident. The third book, in my opinion, is damned good. Someday, I may sell it…but not until I revise it quite a bit to match my current voice.

And that’s another thing. You don’t develop voice through revising. Voice is developed through the telling of the story itself. So in order to find your voice, you need to tell lots of stories…you need to write more books!

I’m not putting down revising. It’s an essential process that sometimes separates the published from the unpublished. But you also shouldn’t keep working on the same story forever. After a while, it’s time to let go. Maybe you’ll someday be able to go back to that story and with your new, developed skills, you’ll be able to fix the problem. But that’s for later. I’m talking about now.

Now, you may have, through your study of the writing craft, have evolved beyond those characters and that story situation. You need to test those skills on something new. Luckily for me, I only had three chapters to revise. The rest of the book worked fine as I had written them recently. But I know that three years ago, I may not have had the skill to revise INSATIABLE. Even now, I needed my editor’s guidance. The changes were so light and yet so essential—they required a focused, subtle hand. But I did it! And now, I keep writing … moving on to something new.

So should you!