Never Look Back

by Michelle Gagnon

Yesterday, Joe discussed knowing where you’re headed before getting started. I received an email from a college friend this week who’s writing his firstnever look novel, and he asked me a few questions about my process. I thought I’d share some of what I said in reply. Of course, there is no one “right way” to write a book; everyone has to find his or her own path. But after hammering out four books, I’ve learned what works for me.

1) At what point do you seek formal feedback, rather than just cranking it out?

I don’t show my work to anyone until I’ve completed two drafts. And then I send it to my “Beta readers,” 5-7 people whose opinion I trust. What I’ve discovered, however, is that they’ll all like different aspects of the story, and they’ll all criticize different aspects. I always take that feedback with a grain of salt. If more than one person is saying the same thing, I know it’s time to go back and figure out where I went wrong.

In Boneyard, one of my readers was so taken with a character in the initial chapter, she felt strongly he should be incorporated into the rest of the storyline. I had fleshed out that character fairly well, so that when something happened to him, you’d fear for his well-being. But ultimately, he was a device to kickstart the plot. Think of it as the garbage men who find a body in a dumpster in the first five minutes of Law and Order. You don’t expect to see the garbage men help track down the killers, or try the accused–they’re there to find the body, then they’re gone. Same with this character. No one else had that comment, so I chose to limit him to that opening chapter.

2) Do you counsel quantity (ie, getting more on paper) over quality (tweaking sentences) early on?

In my opinion what separates published authors from people who have been working on a book for years without completing it is this: never look back. I don’t start editing–at all–until the entire book is written. A lot of people get fifty pages in, then go back and start editing chapter one. The danger in this is that while you might end up with a perfect first fifty pages, by the time you finish those there’s a good chance you’ve lost the thread of the story.

It’s also discouraging to suddenly realize you’ve spent three months on fifty pages, and another three hundred and fifty remain to be written (of course, that’s discouraging whether you’ve stopped or not–I call it the “interminable middle”). I never even re-read what I’ve written until I’ve finished the first draft. (I also spend most of that draft thinking that what I’m writing is the worst junk ever committed to page. But I forge ahead, because I know the next draft will be better.) And then when I do go back, the bones of the story are in place.

3) When does it help to have a literary guide (agent? editor? coach?)? How do you get a good one to take you seriously?
Start the agent search only when your manuscript is as absolutely perfect as it’s ever going to be. That means a minimum of three drafts. And after completing each draft, put it away for a month before looking at it again. That gives you a fresh perspective.

Resign yourself to the fact that the agent search might take months- not always the case, but frequently enough that it’s good to be prepared for it. And not hearing back right away doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be rejected. My first agent asked for an exclusive on the full manuscript right away–then three months passed. If I had to do it over, I’d probably call after a month and ask if it was all right for me to submit to other agents. In the end it worked out for me, but I was gnawing my nails to the quick that entire time. A month is more than enough time for an agent to have an exclusive.

Begin by querying your 3-5 top choice agents, always making sure that a) they’re currently acquiring manuscripts, and b) they represent the kind of work you write (these seem like givens, but you’d be surprised). There are a lot of good books on querying an agent (my favorite is Noah Lukeman’s “The First Five Pages”). Your query letter needs to be perfect, as do your first five pages, since that’s what an agent reads to make a snap judgement on your work. I loved what people were saying yesterday about switching the second chapter with the first. About a year ago, I read a tremendous manuscript written by a friend. And the entire first chapter I was yawning-not good for a thriller. It was all back story: how the protagonist got his job, where he went to school, his mother’s medical condition…then, scene two kicked in. The main character picked up a woman home at a bar, was accosted in his apartment by Russian mobsters, was threatened with blackmail and suddenly boom- we were off and running. Telling too much at the outset is a common mistake. Bear in mind you have 100,000 words to develop your characters, so there’s no need to overdo it at the outset. (By the way, this excellent book- FREEFALL, by Reece Hirsch- found representation and will be published next year).

Your agent shops the manuscript to editors. Very few publishers accept unsolicited manuscripts these days.
Getting an agent is hard. My best advice would be to go to a writing conference that good agents are attending- a face to face meeting goes a long way toward getting you out of the slush pile. Incidentally, Thrillerfest is hands down one of the best for finding an agent for a thriller- I can’t think of another conference that gathers forty top agents in one place to hear pitches. Well worth the investment if your manuscript is ready.

4) Not a question but an observation — I can’t seem to help harvesting the real lives and personalities of friends and acquaintances. Ringing in my ears is Elizabeth Gilbert: “Tell the truth. Tell the truth. Tell the truth.”

I suppose my personal life infiltrates the storylines in some places–but it depends on what I’m writing. For the screenplay I’m working on right now, my co-writer and I are drawing heavily on our life experiences. But for my series, much of it is pure creation-I’ve never defused a dirty bomb, chased down a suspect, or done many of the other things my characters do. I just imagine what it would be like, basing it on research and discussions with people who do those sorts of things for a living. So the old, “write what you know” has never been something I strongly adhered to. Otherwise I’d write about sitting alone in a room typing day after day. And trust me, that is rarely exciting.

13 thoughts on “Never Look Back

  1. Spot on advice, Michelle. I had to smile at “this is the worst junk ever committed to page.” I know a lot of published writers, and this affliction seems to apply to every single one of them. As you say, just forge ahead. It’s never as bad as you think, and you will make it better the next passs.

    As for never looking back, the only thing I do is edit the previous day’s pages. I just like the feeling of having those “clean” and it gets me into the flow again. I’ve taken to using Word’s speech mode on these, which always catches things my eye misses.

  2. All good advice, Michelle. And thanks for reinforcing the importance of beta readers. One of our beta readers, Mark Terry, who frequents this blog, has helped Lynn and I many times, especially on pointing out that we sometimes start at the wrong place. Thanks, Mark.

    It gets a little tricky when you collaborate, especially with editing along the way rather than just getting the story down first. We must review and rewrite each others work every step of the way to make sure we both have the same vision of the story and characters, and for the mutual contribution of overall style and voice. Although we both are capable of writing books ourselves, we feel that the final product is greater than the sum of its parts. So cranking out a first draft before any editing takes place would be crazy for us. On the other hand, I know of another successful writing team who does just the opposite. One author will create the entire first draft then turn it over to her partner for a complete revision. To each his/her own.

    The advice about searching for an agent should be taken to heart by all first-timers. You can’t sell what you don’t have. Let your chickens hatch, then start counting how many you have.

  3. I’m a big believer in getting all the way through, though I do go back and tidy up yesterday’s writing before I move on, if only to refresh my mind about where i was going.

    I’ve been in a couple of critique groups, and the biggest failure I see in both of them is the failure to finish. We can argue all we want about what makes a novel great, or just publishable, but the one common denominator they all have, regardless of quality, is they’re finished.

  4. Wow Michelle, aparently we sat under the same tree in another life or something. What you said is what I thought I would say were I to say it.

    Once started on a draft I don’t look back or stop the progress until the draft is done. The story tends to happen so fast I am afraid that I will miss something the characters are doing if I look away.

    And yeah, the agent thing can be a real pain in the beginning but gotta have it, so be patient and wait for someone good.

    As far as writing real people, use what is real to make your charcters real, but be sure to fictionalize them to the point they can’t recognize themselves…saves on legal fees.

    Its a lovely day in Alaska and I feel like writing in the sun.

  5. I’ve heard it said that there are two types of writers: “Mozartian”, and “Beethovian”. Mozartians go over and over a section, tweaking and retweaking as they write. These writers are always in a “rolling draft.” Beethovians blast forward without stopping, and then go back for another pass. I think either approach works! I’m a Mozartian, myself. (Hopefully I didn’t mix up Mozart and Beethoven’s musical approaches, not being a music major and actually somewhat tone deaf, but you get the idea [grin]).

  6. In that sense Kathryn, I think I’m classed more as a Beethovian of the Pink Floydian sect.

    IE. You’re not sure if what you just saw was real or not, or if anyone else saw the same thing, but you’re not likely to forget it anytime soon.

  7. “Never Look Back”–the best advice ever. I can’t tell you how much time and momentum I’ve lost rewriting page 1 before I’ve finished a draft

  8. Before I send my manuscript out to my beta-readers, I run it through the AutoCrit Editing Wizard.

    It finds a tons of problems that I’d rather fix before I pass the ms on to my readers ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. Janine- what’s the autocrit wizard? Sounds like a tool I need in my aresenal.
    And Basil, I always suspected we were separated at birth.
    Joe, that’s exactly how I’m working on the screenplay we’re co-writing- I can’t imagine doing it any other way.
    Kathryn- I though the whole thing about Mozart was that he never rewrote a note, was Amadeus just a big fat lie? I’m definitely the latter of the two, regardless..

  10. Michelle — As always, your advice is right on the money. Thanks for the kind words about FREEFALL. You were absolutely right about that first chapter.

    You were patient enough to read on to chapter two, but an agent or publisher probably wouldn’t have done that. Based on your comments, I saved a lot of that backstory for later and started with more of a bang (literally).

    I agree with you about keeping that forward momentum going in a first draft. Sometimes writing a novel can feel like being on the Bataan death march. You’ve got to keep putting one foot in front of the other or you’re never going to make it!

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