If you’re writing a manuscript and hoping to publish it, perhaps this post will inspire you to never give up.
A few days ago I had the pleasure of listening to two published novelists at the Pen on Fire writers series, hosted by Barbara De Marco Barrett. Two novelists, Heidi W. Durrow and Danzy Senna, shared the process they went through in writing their novels which made me reflect on the amount of time and effort it takes to write a publishable manuscript.
Heidi Durrow’s debut novel, author of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, explained how she started her novel in 1997, and finished it in 2010. That’s thirteen years from start to finish, and here am I on my sixth year of rewriting my travel memoir, Freeways to Flip-Flops: A Family’s Year of gutsy Living on a Tropical Island feeling like something’s wrong with me, for taking so long.
When Heidi opened up with her honest statement of how long it took to write, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, I instantly liked her. It also helped when she said, “My mother is Danish, my father is black, and I grew up in Portland, Oregon.” This probably sounds silly, but I felt a connection with Heidi when she mentioned “dancing around the Christmas tree,” something my own Danish mother kept as a tradition. My childhood in Nigeria, although not related to Heidi’s background, also made me feel connected and I love Portland. It reminds me of Denmark with its coffee houses, friendly atmosphere, and locals riding bikes instead of driving, just like the Danes in Copenhagen.
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, is Heidi’s debut novel and it tells the story of Rachel, the daughter of a Danish mother and a black G.I. who becomes the sole survivor of a family tragedy. Her novel won “The Bellwether Prize,” established by Barbara Kingsolver…the only major North American prize that specifically advocates literary fiction addressing issues of social justice.
Heidi mentioned she went through twelve massive revisions, and was rejected over and over. Because she wanted every sentence to be perfect, it took her six years to write her first draft.
I’ve put together a list of helpful tips, some from Heidi Durrow and Danzy Senna’s conversation with writers, and added some of my own, from what I’ve learned over the six years I started writing, taking classes, attending conferences and networking. They are in random order.
- Don’t write to make money.
- Only start writing if you are truly obsessed about your story and believe in it.
- Write the book you want to read.
- Be a completionist, not a perfectionist.
- Let the first draft be messy.
- The key is in the revisions.
- It takes time to write and revise a book for publication.
- Don’t hire an editor to review your manuscript too early in the writing process.
- Don’t change your story to please everyone, especially others in your critique group.
- Don’t give up if you know you have a unique story.
At this point in my writing, I thought I had a completed manuscript. Several “positive” rejections from agents, (positive means a rejection with specific feedback on what to change) have shown me that I have another rewrite to do. It’s taken me this long to understand what agents have been telling me, as well as small presses. They want to hear about an American family in Belize. As one agent put it, “What makes your story unique isn’t how you got to Belize, but the fact that you went.” So, I’m finally listening to agents and editors’ advice. The market is saturated with stories about the parents of troubled teens, just as it is with cancer survivors, autism, alcoholism, etc. So my new approach will be to start with the action in Belize. My Freeways to Flip-Flops page has been updated.
I think we can all get off track while writing a manuscript. Sometimes we try to please those in our critique groups. I know this happened to me.
As Heidi and Danzy pointed out, ask yourself:
- Why am I telling this story?
- What is my relationship to this story?
Any thoughts? Are you writing a manuscript? Have you felt off track?
Happy writing to all, and remember to keep going.