Two weeks ago I dotted the last pixel on my novel Lifeform Three and now it’s got an agent who loves it. Phew.
A few months ago no one would have loved this book. Not even me. Although occasionally scenes and characters would flash a winning smile, there was so much that remained wrong with it. And I’d already been working on it for much of the year.
I have had to drill virtually to the Earth’s core to find out what the story in this idea was. Then I had to work out the very best way it should be told. I have pulled it and punched it until it has revealed its themes and I have sweated over how to explore all that without bludgeoning the reader, being saccharine or vastly obscure.
I have refined every metaphor, analysed every action and reaction, listened to every niggling symptom that something is not right. I have put that book on the psychiatrist’s couch and had endless discussions with it about what needs to change, whether characters are pulling their weight, whether we should let go of a scene I’d always cherished. I have been prodded back to the drawing board by every good film I’ve seen or great book I’ve read. Even the bad books seemed to be doing a better job than I was. The beginning has had more corrective surgery than Michael Jackson.
Finding the right voice was an ordeal all of its own. I’ve gritted my teeth at every respected blogger who said don’t use present tense, because for this book present tense always felt the most natural way to tell the story. I’ve gritted at every post that warned about intruding narrators. I’ve needed a narrator who could place a cosy humanity around bleak events and get away with jokes that the main character would never be able to make himself.
For more than a year it seemed as though Lifeform Three was born damaged and has had to be nurtured, massaged, corrected, restrained, disciplined, until it was fit to stand up on its own, walk into an agent’s inbox and say ‘read me’. Of course, there are still a few notes to come about niggles and clarifications, but it substantially does exactly what I wanted when the idea first grabbed me. And more.
And do you know what? This is what it takes to get a novel right. This is normal.
This is why writing is not just about the first draft. It’s why revising is not just correcting your spellings or twiddling with your literary expressions. This is why the hard work is the ruthless and endless rewriting, the questions we ask about what we are really writing about, the demands we make of ourselves to do better. This is why it takes so long.
And now, I start another. I write this post to help me through the storms ahead and for anyone else currently trapped by a difficult book. This is what it takes to do the job.
Where are you with your WIP? First draft, second, umpteenth?
#1 by last_lines on March 27, 2011 - 12:22 pm
I am so thrilled to be able to Congratulate you on the completion of your novel! I know it will be a best-seller. How could it not be! Congratulations also on getting an agent. Thank you for sharing this post. 🙂
#2 by rozmorris on March 27, 2011 - 12:37 pm
Hi Kim – thank you very much! I already had an agent for adult novels, but she doesn’t handle children’s/YA so I had to query all over again. Struck lucky, I guess!
But there’s a long way to go before it’s sold as that doesn’t happen overnight… so fingers will have to be crossed until they’re cramped.
#3 by Jeffrey Russell on March 27, 2011 - 1:53 pm
Congratulations to you, Roz! And thanks for this post. It will help keep me encouraged.
I’m not yet to the umpteenth revision, though it feels that way. My protagonist’s story has already gone from a third person bildungsroman to first person, and then told as a kind of hybrid bildungsroman /reverse mystery which didn’t work either. Then I tried peeling the layers of the protagonist’s conflicts completely through the eyes of the other characters, primarily his love interest. (I had a lot of hope for that one!).
Even though none of those drafts worked, more of the story revealed itself each time. Or, as you said, I got closer to finding out “what the story in this idea was.” So, I’m back at it once more. Maybe this one gets the story right, maybe not. But either way I bet I’ll be closer than I am now…
#4 by rozmorris on March 27, 2011 - 2:00 pm
Hi Jeffrey – crumbs, I know what you mean! Not sure what a reverse mystery is, but I’m fascinated by reverse stories. However, I haven’t yet found the right idea to make it work. But perhaps that’s not what you mean…
Keep at it.
#5 by erikamarks on March 27, 2011 - 1:59 pm
Roz, what a great post. And yes, congrats on getting there! As you say, it is never easy. And frankly, when I look back at previous novels that I didn’t edit to the point of despising them for a time, I clearly didn’t work them enough.
Having just finished the umpteenth draft of my second novel (and am now calling it a first draft), I rewrote the first hundred or so pages no less than five times. I KNEW the story was there, but it took that many (somewhat) false starts to flush it out. I love it now.(But of course, talk to me after I get my first round of edits and it may be a different story!:))
#6 by rozmorris on March 27, 2011 - 2:02 pm
Hi Erika! That’s it, isn’t it – we know it’s in there somewhere, we just have to get the critter to speak for itself!
Good luck with your edits. That’s always scary.
#7 by Glynis Smy on March 27, 2011 - 2:27 pm
Umpteenth. Coming up for the third year in April. I think this is it, I feel it within my WIP’s bare bones. ;0
#8 by rozmorris on March 27, 2011 - 6:03 pm
‘Bare bones…’ Nodding my head off here. Glynis, have you got an outtakes file that would take an entire library shelf? I have.
#9 by Sally on March 27, 2011 - 3:21 pm
Congrats Roz! You’ve provided the perfect analogy for the process – it really is like sitting the thing on a psychiatrist’s couch.
I’m on the ‘first’ draft (for the umpteenth time). I’ve been in and out of working on it for a painful 12 (ouch!) years, though maybe only seven of them have been spent properly writing. Weird thing is I’ve written and published two other books (non-fiction) in the last six years and both of them took 12-14 months at most to research and write.
Fiction is a completely different ball game because you have to literally create the universe in the process writing it.
#10 by rozmorris on March 27, 2011 - 6:05 pm
Sally – that’s so true. Non-fiction is a cinch by comparison. Relaxation, even. When you create fiction, anything could be changed… or not good enough, or should be kept for something else.
#11 by Alexander M Zoltai on March 27, 2011 - 3:23 pm
“Bravissimo!” to you 🙂
“Where are you with your WIP? First draft, second, umpteenth?”
Just past umpteenth. Publishing May 16th. Still brain-frazzeled with all the promotion work…
#12 by rozmorris on March 27, 2011 - 6:07 pm
Thank you, Alexander, and well done for getting past umpteen. Good luck for May 16th.
#13 by Dom Camus on March 27, 2011 - 3:39 pm
I’ll keep my fingers crossed that your agent manages to find a great publisher for you…
#14 by rozmorris on March 27, 2011 - 6:08 pm
Thanks, Dom! Now it is in the hands of the gods…
#15 by christine danek on March 27, 2011 - 4:03 pm
Congratulations!! My first WiP took over a year to write. It is now sitting, and waiting. I revised it for six months, but needed a break. I know it has something I just need to find it. I did start my second novel. I’m 10,000 words into it, trying to find the right tense and voice.
It does take time, a lot of it. A concept I’m finally understanding, but with each set back, I get more and more determined.
Good luck with yours and I’m sure it will do well.
#16 by rozmorris on March 27, 2011 - 6:11 pm
Thanks, Christine. You might find the tense and voice come later – if they’re not obvious right now. Keep persevering.
#17 by Jessica Mazone on March 27, 2011 - 5:32 pm
I am on the umpteenth version of the novel I have been working on. I am finally buckling down and rewriting it since so much has changed since I actually wrote it. Thanks for letting me know, there is light at the end of my word filled tunnel.
#18 by rozmorris on March 27, 2011 - 6:13 pm
Hi Jessica! Congratulations on having seen enough light to need a major rewirte – that’s significant progress. It’s quite satisfying to find a lot that needs to be put right.
#19 by James Kelly on March 27, 2011 - 5:43 pm
Excellent post, Roz! Like the Cowardly Lion says in the Wizard of Oz, “Ain’t it the truth? Ain’t it the truth?” Good luck with LIFE FORM 3. After this introduction, I can’t wait to read it!
#20 by rozmorris on March 27, 2011 - 6:13 pm
Hi James! It is, I’m afraid, the frustrating, grinding truth. But so nice to have got to the end.
#21 by Sophia Richardson on March 27, 2011 - 6:32 pm
Congrats, Roz! I’m in drafting mode right now on my second novel, it’s a lot smoother sailing with an outline. I have yet to attempt to revise the first novel– much as I love the characters, it is lacking in the plot department.
#22 by rozmorris on March 27, 2011 - 6:42 pm
Thank you, Sophia! Yes, I learned the hard way about outlines. Wouldn’t do without one now. Hope you find that when you go back to your first manuscript you get plenty of inspiration.
#23 by alberta ross on March 27, 2011 - 9:41 pm
Hi – congratulations – I found my first two books so much easier than this third – and like you struggled to actually get what it is about – I still don’t have a good beginning but I think the end is good!!!
#24 by rozmorris on March 28, 2011 - 12:26 am
Hi Alberta! I find my books come to me in stages – so like you, I knew the end point before I had a satisfying middle. Keep battling, thumping and hammering.
#25 by Andrea Pawley on March 28, 2011 - 3:38 am
An agent! Congratulations, Roz! I’m on a first draft right now and pushing toward the end. Your inspirational posting has come at just the right time!
#26 by rozmorris on March 28, 2011 - 9:49 am
Hi Andrea! I already had an agent for my adult work, but had to query all over again to get an agent for this. So I was really pleased it found a champion so quickly.
Good luck with yours!
#27 by Jonathan Moore on March 28, 2011 - 11:41 am
Hi Roz. I take heart from the fact that I’ll get there eventually if I put that much work in.
I came to the realization over the weekend that my other WIP (the one on the back burner) will have to be started from scratch as the story had got away from what made me interested in the idea in the first place. It’s been hard to come to terms with that (because that’s a lot of hours I’m writting off) but it doesn’t work so I know I have to start again. Hopefully the one on the front burner won’t need such radical development.
#28 by rozmorris on March 28, 2011 - 1:06 pm
Hi Jonathan! What an interesting realisation – the story had moved away from what you wanted to write. Don’t write all that effort off, though. For one thing, it got you to this realisation. For another, you can keep the material and perhaps reshape it for something else.
Experiments with negative results are still telling you something.
#29 by Unforgivingmuse on March 28, 2011 - 12:58 pm
Bestseller success stories make interesting reading, but usually serve to make me feel unequal to the task. Hearing from a real writer, who is there at the coal face struggling through the same doubts, problems, and breakthroughs as I am is what inspires me more.
Well done Roz.
#30 by rozmorris on March 28, 2011 - 1:07 pm
Hello Simon! And thank you.
#31 by Rachel Giesel on March 28, 2011 - 2:36 pm
Congratulations on accomplishing a successful difficult novel! I feel as if I’m in the same boat you are. As I was reading your post, I was reminded of myself doing the same thing multiple times, and I need to do it even more in-depthly again! I’m glad that you finished it though and it came out to your expectations. This gives me hope with mine and inspires me to get working!
#32 by rozmorris on March 28, 2011 - 8:01 pm
Hi Rachel – keep going. When you’re in the middle it seems you’ll never sort it out!
#33 by A.M. Kuska on March 28, 2011 - 4:35 pm
“Umpteenth” doesn’t even begin to describe it. >.< I'm so glad you posted this. It gives me hope.
#34 by rozmorris on March 28, 2011 - 8:02 pm
Ho ho! Delighted to have helped!
#35 by Debs on March 28, 2011 - 4:57 pm
Congratulations Roz! And a great post. I’m on my 4th draft and recognise ALL that you speak of! But at last, I’m beginning to see the shine beneath all the rewriting/polishing I’ve been doing and can begin to believe what you say!
#36 by rozmorris on March 28, 2011 - 8:03 pm
Keep going, Debs. When you start to see the shine it’s all worthwhile.
#37 by Avish Parashar on March 28, 2011 - 5:42 pm
1.5th draft 🙂 I started writing with a loose outline last November for nanowrimo. I kept going, but soon things went off the rails, so I am now 3/4 of the way through a very detailed, scene by scene outline. The outlining is helping immensely, but I can already see this is just draft 1 of the outline – I’ve already got plot holes and characters that need development. Thanks for the post – great reminder and motivator!
#38 by rozmorris on March 28, 2011 - 8:03 pm
Avish, I find outlining helps enormously. Sometimes we need to strip away the words and look at the skeleton.
#39 by mollie bryan on March 28, 2011 - 8:01 pm
My manuscript has been delivered to the publisher and I’m working on those edits. I’m on the second draft of those edits. But before that, as far as draft count, I don’t think I could even guess. This is my first published work of fiction, as well, after publishing two cookbooks. Fiction edits are way harder.
#40 by rozmorris on March 28, 2011 - 8:04 pm
Mollie, I agree – fiction is so much harder than non-fiction. Congratulations on having snared a publisher, especially in this difficult market.
#41 by Michelle Gregory on March 28, 2011 - 10:08 pm
i’ve lost count. sigh. thanks for the push.
#42 by rozmorris on March 29, 2011 - 8:31 am
Keep pushing, Michelle!
#43 by Stephanie on March 29, 2011 - 7:44 am
Thanks for your encouragement. Those tunnel walls seem to close in sometimes … !
#44 by rozmorris on March 29, 2011 - 8:32 am
Hi Stephanie – yep, it can get a bit panicky in there.
#45 by Kevin McGill on March 29, 2011 - 11:30 am
Big congrats Roz!
#46 by rozmorris on March 29, 2011 - 11:32 am
Thanks, Kevin! And big ‘phew’ too…
#47 by tahliaN on March 29, 2011 - 11:55 pm
Yay! It’s a great feeling to be able to say – finished. I suspect mine is only finished until a publisher’s editor gets to work on it! But.. for now it’s with my agent and I’ve gone back to working on the sequel. Now I know the work involved, it’s a bit daunting, but I know more now than last time.
#48 by rozmorris on March 30, 2011 - 8:44 am
Tahlia, you’re right. There are different phases of finished. A publisher might have queries even after your agent is happy.
#49 by Jack on March 30, 2011 - 12:00 am
I found you on twitter and then came across this lovely, inspiring post! Thank you so much. I’m about halfway through the first draft of my debut novel, approaching 50k words, and I know I’m gonna have to rewrite as I discover more about my characters’ respective journeys. Which is fun to think about but hard to fathom (hopefully it won’t be umpteen times..) Just plowing on to the end of this is hard enough to get my head around at the mo.
I will buy your kindle book, looks good!
#50 by rozmorris on March 30, 2011 - 8:44 am
Thanks, Jack! Honestly, be prepared for umpteen… Everyone has to.
#51 by Laura Pauling on March 31, 2011 - 10:57 am
and yes, that’ swhat it takes. Hard work, pulling and stretching our writing into what we want it to be! Glad you’re at the end!
#52 by rozmorris on March 31, 2011 - 2:05 pm
Hi Laura! Pulling and stretching… forgot to say those words but that went on too. Books put us through the wringer.
#53 by Paul Greci on March 31, 2011 - 1:23 pm
Congrats Roz!! This is very exciting news!!
A very inspiring and truthful post!! The book I just handed to my agent went through many drafts(somewhere in the teens) and many changes.
#54 by rozmorris on March 31, 2011 - 2:06 pm
Thanks, Paul. And congratulations back. Fingers crossed that agent, editors and so on are not too gruelling with you.
#55 by Gyula on April 1, 2011 - 12:40 pm
Congratulations Roz for finishing the book. I’m working on the second draft of my first novel, long way to go, though.
#56 by rozmorris on April 1, 2011 - 12:46 pm
Thanks, Gyula! Long way to go… but I’m starting at the beginning of another one, so really you’re ahead of me…
#57 by Bill Greeves on April 1, 2011 - 6:44 pm
I am somewhere wedged between second and umpteenth drafts. Still looking for an agent too. But in the meantime I’ve just signed my contract with a publisher for a non-fiction work, so I can’t whine (too much anyway). Congrats on such a quick pick-up when you finally were able to put it down!
#58 by rozmorris on April 1, 2011 - 7:32 pm
Thank you, Bill – perhaps we should all have T-shirts that say ‘Am I at Umpteen yet?’ Best of luck with your fiction and your non-fiction.
#59 by Christine Rice on April 10, 2011 - 10:07 pm
Congrats, first of all! Secondly, reading your post couldn’t have came at a better time for me, not to mention all of the comments that followed. It helped me to realize that if there was once a spark there, I need to keep at it. There’s a story waiting to unfold; it just needs more tending. And, it helped to know that there are other wonderful, talented writers out there who are in much the same boat!
#60 by rozmorris on April 11, 2011 - 7:35 pm
Thank you, Christine – we certainly are all in the same boat. And when we climb out of it, it isn’t long before we climb back in.
#61 by Simon Yates on March 25, 2015 - 2:39 pm
Wow! There are so many blog posts that try to be like this one, but you (as some of your other books imply) have nailed it.
Four years on, what makes it even better is seeing how well received all your hard work has been.
#62 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 26, 2015 - 10:03 am
Thank you, Simon! And what a reality check – I hadn’t registered that four years had passed since that post. I knew it was a while, but not such a big while. I guess I get caught up in the pleasure of the work and time flies by.
Anyway, it’s nice to meet you. Good luck with your projects.