Three Lessons from a "Crappy Book"

Cover photo by Blair Speed

A few years ago I finished a novel. It took me two years to write it. After some minor edits following reader feedback, I sent query letters to five agents.

Three agents responded. From their replies, a singular truth congealed: the book I submitted wouldn’t be the book I published. At first I felt discouraged. After a summer of self-loathing in the writing department, I recognized the gift rejection gave me.  

I hadn’t published a crappy book. This judgment may seem harsh, but to unflinchingly look back at old work and recognize the room for growth proves to be a humbling but necessary part of the process.  

I wrote a book. It had flaws. It had potential. But more than anything, it had lessons to be gleaned and applied. Below are the top three things I learned from the first manuscript I wrote for my book-in-progress.

1. Not (truly) knowing my characters 

One agent responded, “I’m not connecting with the characters.” Although this response is self-explanatory, I fumbled with its meaning for months before I realized I, the author, assumed creator of said characters, hadn’t actually connected with them either.

In an earlier Salt & Ink post I wrote about the time it takes to truly know a character. Not unlike the loved ones in our lives, characters take months—years even—to know. This may be different for other writers, especially if one is practiced in crafting short stories. For a larger project, though, I do believe a writer must invest hours upon hours into getting to know her characters.  

I was schooled in creative nonfiction writing. While I mostly wrote essays following my graduate studies, I loved reading fiction and well-written fantasy novels. When I first decided to craft a novel, I didn’t anticipate the time and effort effective character building demanded since all my characters up to this point had been real people.

The same techniques for creating characters apply to both nonfiction and fiction: show more than tell; use unique details to flesh out a character’s personality and backstory; develop relationships with other characters to show a character’s dimensionality. For nonfiction, these techniques flowed naturally into the writing. For fiction, I realized I needed to spend more time with the characters off-page if I wanted their complexity and nuances to manifest in the manuscript.

When I write off-page, I mean writing and other exercises that happen outside the pages of the manuscript. Free writes in journals. Role playing—and yes, I mean actually acting out the character. Conversations. Playing a movie reel in your head.  

For our real-life characters in nonfiction, all these interactions happen without much effort on our end as writers. We journal about our relationships. We “role play” in our interactions. We converse. We are leading actors in the movie alongside our “characters.”

I now believe in fiction, especially for a larger project, creating similar opportunities to interact with our characters, people to people, is vital for effective storytelling. These interactions accumulate overtime, eventually creating a connection between author and character and thus reader and character.

2. Prioritizing lyrical writing over plot

Once in a workshop, when I was twenty-three or so, a writer called my work “flowery.” He said it tongue-in-cheek. I felt affronted. Essentially, he pointed my attention to my overuse of adjectives.  

While we all have an unnecessary scar or two from the modern workshop experience, sometimes a cutting remark actually helps us see something we could improve in our writing, (rather than scaring us away from risk-taking altogether, which happens far too often in workshops). The word “flowery” came to mind when I read my first manuscript. I relied heavily on creating beauty from details; in so doing, the story became stagnant.

In modern writing culture, some turn their nose up at plot-driven storytelling. While I also believe literature is well served by avoiding the dynamite, racecar driving of Hollywood, I shied too far away from forward-movement in my first manuscript. 

I still take the time to smell the flowers in my writing, but plot now serves a larger force in maintaining momentum. Though I believe character development is most important, plot development isn’t far behind.

3. Not telling enough

I love showing: the art of it, finding a perfect detail, experiencing the reader’s delight of “being smart” and understanding the showing in another’s work. Yet when we show too much, we risk keeping the reader at arm’s length.

When one reader of my manuscript asked me to tell more, I was surprised. She said she needed more blank-point explanations of what was happening in the plot. As authors, we know what’s happening behind the showing. (Or at least we should know.) I erred on the side of too much “hinting” and not enough explaining.

Now I often practice writing an important scene in both a showing way and a telling way. If I can eliminate all the telling without losing clarity and direction for the reader, I do so. But more often than not, I keep a few of the telling sentences around to ensure the reader is aware and engaged. If the reader is the lost, the showing will be but a picture, meaningless without context.  

Overall, I ended up ditching two-thirds of my first manuscript. Yet as I liked to say in the workshops I used to facilitate, no writing is wasted writing. The 80,000 words I “threw away” helped me discover these key lessons, among a dozen others.

Above all, I learned the importance of taking risks and “failing.” Sending out a “crappy book” to agents helped me get closer to a book I’ll be proud to publish. So take risks, dear friends! Venture forth and write boldly.  

Worksheet for this Salt & Ink post available here for subscribers to my monthly newsletter.