Once More, with Feeling

I never shut up about how important revision is, which is something you probably already know if you’ve been following me on any platform for any length of time. This is partly because that’s a hill I’m willing to die on and partly because it’s a part of the process I don’t often see other writers talk about, which I think contributes to the myth that the first draft is 90% of the work–which has been, in my experience, pretty much the opposite of the reality.

In my last post here I talked about the daunting prospect of the first round of revision, and about how you have to find a way to live in that strange liminal place between the disaster your first draft is and the terrific thing it has the potential to become. So let’s say you’ve gotten through that second draft. How do you approach the third?

This is where I am right now. Over the last three weeks I’ve worked through my shitty first draft, working about three hours a night with the exception of my “spring break,” which I spent locked in an AirBnB in a very small town in Pennsylvania where there wasn’t much to distract me from the work. And despite all that time spent and work done, if someone besides me were to look at the two drafts I have now, they might have a hard time spotting the differences. The most obvious one is probably that the second draft is about 25,000 words shorter, but besides that it looks more or less the same. So what the hell was I doing for those 100-odd hours I spent turning Draft 1 into Draft 2?

Reading through the ugly first draft of any manuscript is the first chance you have to meet the story as a whole, to see the shape it takes when all the pieces are finally in place. It’s a bit of a mixed bag emotionally; there’s certainly a thrill at seeing the whole thing come together, but that enthusiasm is necessarily dampened by the realization of how much work still remains to be done–a realization it’s really not possible to arrive at until you have a complete draft of, well, something. Calling it a “book” might be generous at this juncture. Whatever you want to call it, it can be hard to know where to start. Figuring that out is what I was doing between Draft 1 and Draft 2.

I’ve you’ve been following me anywhere long enough to know how much I love revision, you’ve also probably heard me harp on about how much I love outlining. So it will probably come as no surprise to you that I love nothing more than smashing those two things together. Yes, I’m that much of a creative control freak: I outline revision. This is actually a habit I picked up during a writing workshop at Iowa about five years ago. Our workshop leader, responding to a question about his own revision process, explained that in each draft he only focuses on one thing. One draft to fix plot and pacing. One draft to look only at character development. Another to look only at dialogue. And so on and so forth.

Revision, precisely because it is so important and so unwieldy and because most first drafts are a holy mess, can be really intimidating. So sometime in the intervening years I figured out my own way to make it manageable. While I don’t follow the same one-thing-per-draft approach described by that workshop leader, I do like to approach each draft with a finite list of tasks to keep it from feeling overwhelming. That, largely, is the task of Draft 2: to suss out what needs to be done in Draft 3. After the last three weeks of work, I’ve got a list with ten or twelve items on it, which range in intensity from “Write those two scenes you never actually put in there” to “Cut every word you don’t absolutely need.” (For me, cutting down on the clutter is always a high priority, but since this MS clocked in at 210,000 words I’m going to have to Marie Kondo the crap out of it.) Once I have a list, I tend to favor a top-down approach and do the heavy lifting first: fixing plot holes and character development and anything else that’s a macrocosmic problem. Then I move on to the smaller stuff that only affects one scene or one page or one paragraph. Once I get to the bottom of that list, I’ll call it a draft, then start the process over again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

No doubt about it, this is a lot of work. But what I like about working this way is that you can really see the progress from draft to draft and know exactly what you did to get there. And by the time you’re on draft ten or twelve the items on your list have shrunk from mountains to molehills and it’s starting to look like a book. The best way I can think to describe it is that it’s a bit like finding the statue inside a block of marble. You have to chip away at it, slowly and carefully, bit by bit, until you find the last graceful shape of the thing. Will it ever be perfect? Of course not. That’s art. Even Michelangelo’s David has some proportional irregularities. But if you can carve something like that from a dull mass of stone, you’ve accomplished something worth being proud of–and most people won’t even notice if his head’s just a little too big.

M

Publishing Q&A, Part 1

Over the past week, my agent, my editor, and I have been collecting your questions about books, publishing, and If We Were Villains. Here’s the first round of answers from me and Arielle (but first a quick reminder who we are):

Arielle Datz is a New York transplant from Los Angeles, who started as an intern at Dunow, Carlson, & Lerner Literary Agency in 2011. She then worked in the foreign rights department at WME, followed by the Elizabeth Kaplan Literary Agency. She returned to DCL full-time in 2015. She is currently obsessed with April the Pregnant Giraffe (aprilthegiraffe.com). Other loves include whales, contemporary chamber music, and noodles in all forms.

M. L. Rio is the author of If We Were Villains, coming to a bookstore near you on April 11th from Flatiron Books. Before she was an author she was an actor, and before she was an actor she was just a word nerd whose only friends were books. She holds a master’s degree in Shakespeare Studies from King’s College London, and probably won’t break away from the cult of academia any time soon. Her other favorite things include music, wine, and her dog Marlowe.

And without any further ado, our first questions from you.


For Arielle: Are there some things that you encounter in query letters that immediately or always make you turn them down (apart from people not following instructions)?

Arielle: People not following instructions is a big one. But more generally, if it’s clear the writer didn’t do any research on me (check out my bio on our website, maybe check my Twitter or IG, where I often say what I’m reading and loving, and it’s easy to get a sense of what I’m into), that’s a turn-off. On a smaller scale, if there are grammatical errors in the first lines, I tend to be out. This may seem trivial, but usually it’s indicative of the writing style. Some agents (and an agent is also an editor) can see the potential past sloppy writing and are willing to work with the writer to clean it up, but I get easily lost in the fog of errors to see the story. Careful writing in the query letter shows me there will be careful writing in the manuscript.

For A/M: Is it better to find an agent or send your manuscript straight to a publishing company? I’ve heard opinions on both sides so hearing pros and cons from the professionals would be fab. How do you go about finding an agent? No one ever talks about this mystical part of the publishing process, and I’d like to figure it out before I reach that point. How did you do it, how do agents suggest you do it?

M: I think I’ll let Arielle take the first half of this one, but as for how to find an agent, I can’t stress how important it is not to query at random. When you’re sending query letters you want to take a couple of things into account, which include but aren’t limited to the size of the agency (a bigger agency may have better contacts but you’ll get less attention), what their ‘mission statement’ is, and most importantly, whether they represent the kind of stuff you write and whether they’ve had success selling it. Once you’ve figured that out, you need to look at what specific agents are interested in and be able to articulate why they might be interested in your work. For instance, it doesn’t make any sense to send a query for romantic high fantasy to an agent who’s only looking for middle grade mysteries. Finding an agency is all about fit, so if you can’t say why you’re querying a specific person, you probably shouldn’t be querying them. Last but not least, don’t send query letters to agents who aren’t taking submissions, because that just wastes everyone’s time. The most important thing if and when you do finally get an agent on the line is to make sure your visions for the book are compatible. I talked to a few different agents about representing Villains, but when I spoke to Arielle I could tell she just got it. She knew exactly why the story mattered, I think partly because she grasped the fact that the precarious age of these characters is really important–that strange liminal place between adolescence and adulthood. Some of the agents I talked to wanted to make everyone older or younger so they fit in a more clearly defined category. Arielle understood that their not fitting clearly into one category or the other was precisely the point. Sharing a vision with your agent is really important. As another agent friend said to me when I was weighing my options, “Who do you want talking about your book when you’re not in the room?” It can be tempting to jump on the first agent who expresses an interest, but it’s much better to wait for an agent who’s really the right one.

A: In a broad sense, if your ambition as a writer is to be published by a mainstream publisher, then you need to have an agent. The big publishers generally don’t take submissions that don’t come from an agent, because they don’t have the capacity to field that many submissions. Moreover, an agent acts as a gatekeeper of sorts; it’s an agent’s job to have good relationships with publishing houses, so that they only get bombarded by us with submissions (and they know us, and we know each other’s tastes), rather than by every writer in the world. That said, some small, independent publishers and presses do take submissions from writers directly, and should indicate as much on their websites. As M says, research is key. There are tons of online resources with information on agencies and publishers, so you can begin to figure out which path is right for you, and which agencies or agents you think you would work well with.

For A/M: Do you have to live in a big city to get traditionally published?

M: Nope. When we sold Villains I was living in a small college town in North Carolina. Because most communication in publishing happens either online or over the phone, your physical location is pretty much immaterial.

A: What M said!

For A: What would you advise someone who does not live in an English speaking country to do differently when hoping to find a literary agent? Is it possible at all for, say, people living in Germany to gain the attention of an English/American agent?

A: This is a little bit out of my wheelhouse, but I do have some experience with foreign rights (i.e., selling translation rights for English books into other languages), and I imagine it works in a similar way. My impression is that there are agents in pretty much every country/language, and they should have resources and connections in the English-speaking world. Using your example, I would recommend looking first for a German agent, who would hopefully have the connections to get an English-language agent’s attention. However, it also depends on what language you’re writing in – if you have a manuscript that is written in English, and you just happen to be German, I’d say go ahead and submit to English-language agents. However, if the manuscript is not yet translated, that can be a barrier (and a good reason to get a German agent first). Simply put, it’s certainly possible, but a bit more complicated.


We have many more questions in the queue, but don’t forget you still have two more days to send them in–so if you have questions about writing, agenting, editing, or Villains, ask them soon! All the info you need lives right here.

–M