Funny story, I sent the first chapter of my manuscript to a publisher’s agent on a whim. Yes, I made sure it was tight, my query appropriately humble yet laudatory, and my one-page synopsis was about a paragraph too long, but I had no expectations of it even being read, so I didn’t waste more time on editing it down.
I hit send and then went on holiday.
Imagine my surprise when I got back three weeks later and read an email stating that they wanted the entire manuscript. Now, here’s the funny part: I hadn’t edited it. My intentions were to use the holiday as space between me and the first draft.
(My fellow writers are staring at the screen like…)
So, I did what any writer in my situation would do: told hubby he was on kid duty, cleared my schedule, and I dedicated every free moment to my manuscript. I did not reply to that email from the publisher for about a week. In all honesty, I didn’t know what to say. I thought about lying and saying I was still on holiday, but that’s not really my style. So I left it. I put my head down and edited like my writer’s future depended on it.
A few days later, a first round of edits successfully (though poorly) completed, I replied to the publisher’s agent expressing my joy at her interest and that I’d send it to her in a few days after I’d had a chance to put it together into a submission package.
It’s important to note that it takes a maximum of 15 seconds to transfer a “completed” manuscript from Scrivenir (writing software) into a Word document, and then another 30 minutes to run spellcheck and correct formatting—I had asked for a few days. As any writer will tell you, your first round of edits is only marginally better than your first draft. (Fun fact #1: all first drafts are shit.)
Now, here’s the thing about editing: good, proper editing takes time. It’s layered. There’s the structural edit, the plot edit, the dialogue review, the flow, you gotta ask yourself are the characters believable and behaving true to form throughout. Don’t forget about syntax and cadence—I blame my advisor who was a poet for making me pay attention to those two. Needless to say, it can get complicated.
At this point, you might be asking why not just be honest with the publisher’s agent and tell them that you needed some more time to edit it. The “simple” answer is you get one shot with these people, and she was open to receiving manuscripts now! Not in a few weeks/months when I’d be done. My window wasn’t going to stay open forever.
(Fun fact #2: Most novels don’t sell out their first run. This means that if a publisher publishes 1000 copies of a book, chances are they aren’t going to sell all those copies, which means most books don’t see a second run. Publishers make most of their profits off the best sellers.)
Now, the more “complicated” answer as to why I just didn’t ask for more time is that I’ve been waiting for this particular moment for years. I’ve got at least five different manuscripts in the proverbial drawer, and they’re all at different stages of readiness. They’re all completed, but they illustrate my maturing hand at editing. I felt there was something about this manuscript, and that something was telling me “now” was my time.
As a writer, you know rejection. I would go so far as to say that you know rejection the way an actor does. We all have images in our heads of some actor waiting tables, rushing out of work for an audition, checking her phone repeatedly, praying for a callback.
A writer’s journey is very similar. We write. For years. (Fun fact #3: I got the idea for Sam, aka The Wildcard, male protagonist in The Evolved Ones, back in Dec 2012. That book will be published at the end of this month. 2019.) So, yeah, simple math will show you how long I’ve been waiting. During that time, a lot of writing and rewriting went on. There were blank pages, followed by pages filled with garbage, only to return to blank pages again. The starts and the stops because of sick kids, traveling spouse, fatigue, my own aches and pains… I wasn’t waiting another damn minute. I knew this story was worth reading because at its core, the female protagonist was on a journey of self-discovery–just like I was.
Luckily, I had spent the last five years as a ghostwriter and an editor. During that time, unbeknownst to me, I had been training myself for this occasion. I had learned how to juggle multiple things in my head at once: syntax and character dialogue, plot and pacing, the importance of setting. I had taught myself to pause when something didn’t feel right, to just sit with it a moment and trust that the flaw would reveal itself. I’d also learned how to rock the hell out of time. Nobody, and I mean nobody, can accomplish what a mom can. Especially a working mom. And I drew upon all of that “life” experience, and surprisingly, I didn’t rush. I said goodbye to my family for a week, took longer than a few days, and dove head first into The Evolved Ones because as Eminem, the rapper, said best, “You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow// This opportunity comes once in a lifetime…”
I sent in my edited manuscript a week later. Took a day off, and then dove right back into it. I had to return to the real world of parenting, but I made the most of the time while they were at school and after they’d gone to bed. I even had some amazing friends who took the kids for a few playdates on the weekend so I could get through another round of editing–which saw some major changes to the story.
Another week went by with me checking my emails daily. I began to get disheartened as I continued to edit the manuscript. There were so many mistakes and they all seemed glaringly obvious to me. In my writing, I try to be concise–sometimes–and I had overlooked hundreds of ways to say something better with fewer words. I was reminded of why you shouldn’t submit until the editing is done. You can’t ask for a do-over in this industry. I didn’t send in my best work, and because of it, I was going to get rejected.
Another week went by, and I decided the good news in all of this was I had a manuscript that was good. It was workable. I knew this not only because I felt it, but because a publisher had shown interest. I had never gotten this far. I decided that I just needed to continue smoothing it out, and then I could submit to another publisher. I didn’t want this publisher anyway.
It was a good friend’s birthday, so a few of us went away for two nights to Phuket (as you do when you live in Singapore). It was there, whilst dancing around our hotel room, somewhat tipsy, that I decided (for whatever reason) to check my email.
If I’m honest, it was a bit surreal. They wanted to offer me a publishing contract, yet it didn’t feel like I thought it would feel. Perhaps because I had made up in my mind that they were going to reject me. Or perhaps this is how it always feels when you achieve something you’ve been waiting years for. I don’t know.
My friends gathered around me and gave me a hug. Many of them had been with me through those years of false starts and the long hauls of writing. They were happy for me, and because of their joy, I started to feel my own.
Fortunately, I was coherent enough to know not to reply to the publisher until the weekend was over. We met a few days later and I told her that I’d like to continue smoothing out the manuscript. She was not only amenable, but said, “good idea,” with a knowing smile–or maybe that was in my head–who knows. She said that she’d give me time for a final round of edits before we would start talking about the outline for book two. She was interested in the trilogy, not just the one-off.
It’s been a journey ever since. There has been so much learning as I’ve gone through this process. I plan to write a few more posts about life “After the First Draft”. I’ll always add a “… -#” after the title so that you can follow if you’re interested.