13 April 2020

Spare Time and Spare Parts

We all need to fill much too much spare time right now, but social distancing is easier for a writer because it's part of our life anyway. Unfortunately, I may have domesticated Zach Barnes and Woody Guthrie too much and fear that I'll turn them into family sitcoms, so, for the first time since 2003, I have no novels in progress. I have a few ideas for short stories and a novella, but a few weeks ago I turned to the Nostalgia Plan, AKA Recycling 101.

I store pretty much everything I cut on flash drives or external hard drives: a line of dialogue or description, scenes I cut from novels or short stories, an interesting character, projects I abandoned, and even stories rejected so often I ran out of places to send them. I cannibalize enough to make it worthwhile.

I published Blood on the Tracks, the first Woody Guthrie novel, in 2013, but I wrote the first version of that story late in 2003. In various forms, revisions, and under at least four titles, the book(s) received over 110 rejections.

Sifting through the wreckage, I found a complete MS called The Cheater, an earlier version of what eventually saw print. Between 2006 and 2008, I pitched it to 58 agents. Interestingly, three of them asked for a full MS, another asked for 100 pages, and two others asked for 50 pages or the first three chapters. They all turned it down, usually without comment, but one with the kind of rejection that makes writers crazy: "You're a good writer and there's a lot to like here, but I can't sell this."

No further explanation.

Eleven years later, I still don't know why that MS was rejected, but I suspect that it was because I changed genre in mid-story. The premise was that the PI who would later become Woody Guthrie met Megan Traine at their high school reunion and they teamed up to solve a murder that involved one of the their classmates. Alcoholism and domestic abuse were important themes, and I suspect agents freaked when the cozy went south.

A few weeks ago, I went through the book again. I even found two pages of revision notes from 2010, when I considered revising that 78K-word story for my then-publisher, who had a 70K-word limit.

The cozy high school reunion idea is autobiographical. I met the inspiration for Megan Traine at my own reunion. Although we graduated together (Our class graduated 691 students), we never met in school, and she became a session musician in Detroit. The reunion idea was the crux of several versions of the book, but I finally decided that was the problem and abandoned it for Blood on the Tracks. 

The Cheater, which I also sent out twice as Alma Murder, presented another problem. The PI was from Connecticut and his name was Erik Morley, but Megan Traine was constant through all  versions of the book. Her character deepened, but changed very little between 2003 and her real debut ten years later. I figured if I put her in Detroit with a different lover, she'd look a little slutty, so I decided to change her name and background. The plot would still work, and I liked the POV of the classmate, a woman accused of killing her abusive husband. She was a lawyer and a functioning alcoholic. So much for the cozy, right?

I studied my revision notes, revised them some more, added new ideas, and rewrote about 40 pages of the book. I changed Megan Traine's name and background and cut all the music scenes from earlier versions (Erik Morley still played guitar, another constant with Woody and one of the few things he had in in common with me).

It was like sticking my hand into a garbage disposal.

The more I read, the more I realized that Meg and music generated some of the best scenes in that book. Changing her would force me to re-write or cut parts that gave all the characters more depth.

Fourteen years ago, I loved the book and the characters and we were a team. The rewriting. . . not so much. It became a chore instead of a passion. I stuck it out for about three weeks, then remembered the advice all doctors have at the top of the list.

First, do no harm.

I was mutilating something I loved and the changes would make it different, but not better. I decided to leave the book alone.

Maybe I'll publish it someday as an eBook, and UR-version of Blood on the Tracks. If I do, Alma Murder still works as a title. Or, maybe, I'll just leave it sleeping on the hard drive where it's happy.

I was surprised that a 14-year-old MS still felt like I actually knew what I was doing. Now, the biggest change would be a global edit to replace the double-space after end punctuation. And maybe to eliminate a few semi-colons.  I have several short stories on that same disc that don't merit reworking. I guess this particular story was more important to me.

Samuel Johnson said that only a blockhead writes for any reason other than money. But sometimes money's not enough, either. Sometimes we do it for love.

What do you have in your closet?


  1. Excellent post. Helpful to many, I'm sure. As for re-writing, yeras ago a writer friend submitted his third novel to his new agent who made suggestion after suggestion and my friend re-wrote and revised his book which went to the publisher where the editor made more suggestions and there were more re-writes. I read the original version of the book. When the book was published, I read it again and it was a shadow of the first book. All the spontaneous parts of the book were gone. The dialogue had been sanitized. It sucked. Didn't have to tell my friend. He was heartbroken by the experience.

  2. O'Neil, I almost had the same experience with Blood, and I'd forgotten it in the original post but remember it now with your jogging my memmory.

    One very well-established agent had me call him back to discuss the MS and we must have talked on the phone for nearly half an hour. He was encouraging, and had clearly read the MS carefully because he had several very concrete suggestions for revision. I asked him if he would look at the book again if I revised it, and he said "absolutely."

    Then I looked at the list of suggestions and realized that I'd seen every single one of them in another book or books I'd read recently. He was trying to turn "my" book into something that had already sold. I never did it.

  3. Steve, I've never had that exact experience, but I have had a situation in which I was writing my second book-for-hire and the publisher had changed editors. The new one was a micro-manager, and wanted a complete outline of every single plot twist, etc., to the point where basically they wanted me to write the novel before writing the novel. No breathing room at all. So I said, screw this - here's your money back. I quit. Never regretted it.

  4. I rarely rework a completed manuscript, though my first sale to AHMM was a story first written in another genre and then substantially revised (after it failed to sell in that genre) to bring the mystery elements to the front.

    I do, however, keep story openings (first lines, first paragraphs, first scenes) that I intend to return to someday. Right now, I've no invitations to submit, there are no open calls for submission that catch my attention, and I have long stretches of uninterrupted time in which I can write (anybody guess why?), so I've been looking back through my folder of story openings. During the past week I've finished and submitted three new stories, one begun April 2019, one begun January 2008, and one begun May 2006.

  5. Samuel Johnson said that? Blockhead? Or did he text it? Sorry, couldn't resist.

    Speaking for myself, I'd like to read the Alma Mater Murder story. It sounds intriguing.

    I had a novel that an agent said he'd like it, but it was 'bi-location', part took place in Florida and part up north. Nobody can work a story with two venues. He said to get rid of taht and he could sell it. But, tear it apart as I might, I couldn't make the single location work– too much hinged upon it. Like no tourist visits Florida? Really?

  6. Leigh, didn't Michael Connelly's second Bosch novel take place in both LA and Mexico? I don't have a copy to check, but I think Black Ice was bi-location.

    I'm actually considering putting Alma Murder out after one more edit for formatting. We'll see. I think I would do it only as an eBook.


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