Shortly after you retire from your government job in Washington, D.C.—writing congressional testimony about economics and finance for a federal agency—you make your initial foray into fiction. You enter the first 50 pages of your debut novel, The Last Monument, in the 2011 Maryland Writers’ Association Novel Contest, subtitled “Great Beginnings,” in the mainstream/literary category. You win! (And collect $200.)
You query agents. After sending out requested pages you establish a dialogue with one of them (though you do not become an official client). From that rep and others, you hear the same thing; they cannot sell a novel that has an unlikeable protagonist. When the book indeed doesn’t sell, you realize that the naysayers are most likely talking specifically about unlikeable female protagonists in commercial fiction. It is, you conclude, an easy thing to say.
Now what? If you are Valentine “Missy” Craig (below) from Bethesda, Md., you go right back to work on novel number two. And to make sure it works, after you finish a first draft you hire a freelance editor in Westport, Conn., who spent his career at many prominent publishing houses. After he’s read a couple of revisions of your Book Two, you travel to Westport to meet him in person. And you stay overnight with a longtime friend and her nosy husband, who happens to be a regular contributor to the Fairfield Writer’s Blog.
The blogger won’t let you leave for your writer-editor lunch until he’s picked your brain for the lessons you’ve learned that other aspiring novelists might apply to their own creative writing.
Book One, by the way, tells the story of a woman who is contacted by a daughter who she gave up for adoption many years ago and how things develop. Book Two is about a woman who is dealing with the loss of her husband and child in a house fire, and incorporates the historical topic of burking, or murdering someone for medical use of their body parts.
So here they are, 10 lessons from award-winning, though yet unpublished, novelist Missy Craig:
Lesson 1. It’s all practice. “Book Two is much better written,” Missy says. “Even the second part of my first book is better written than the first half. You don’t believe it, but it is practice. Writing dialogue. Doing things subtly. It’s all practice.”
Lesson 2. Summarize your contents. “The organization [of a novel] can be tremendous, and nobody tells you that. Keeping track of all the plot lines and personalities, keeping the tone consistent. I’m now a better person at keeping track of stuff. I don’t really outline. But I have a table of contents. Each chapter is [summarized] in one or two sentences. It helps me decide where something has to be done, or expanded, or where it shouldn’t be, maybe where something is really out of order. So it’s a great organizational tool for me.”
Lesson 3. Join a group. Being part of a writers’ group “makes you sit down and write.” And try to write well, Missy adds. “You don’t want to write something really crappy and have everyone think that’s the best you can do.”
Lesson 4. Take a class. “So many people say they’d like to write a novel and they just never do anything. I’d tell them to take a course.” Missy applied for and was accepted into a dialogue class at the Washington Writers’ Center. “It was absolutely wonderful. How many times in new writers’ work do you read, ‘Pass the salt.’ ‘Here’s the salt.’ They feel like they have to describe everything that happens. First off, my teacher said, ‘I never want to hear any character say, “Pass the salt.” ’ He said, ‘Cut that out. Dialogue should be either for character development or to move the story along.’ ”
Lesson 5. Make your characters human. “What I like about novels is the character identification and caring about the character,” Missy says. “It’s very important to me for people to understand why people are the way they are, that they’re not as they appear. If I can do that, and do it subtly, that’s what I’m looking for.” In Book One, Missy held back on taking the reader inside her protagonist’s head: “I wanted the woman to be someone hard to figure out, so I didn’t want to show much interior.” There’s more inner processing with the main character in Book Two, and “it does make for greater depth,” she says. On the other hand, her independent editor “thinks the man I have in Book Two is too good to be true. Which is very interesting, because every woman who’s read it has said, ‘Oh, where are they?’ ” The editor has suggested that her male lead needs some faults, that the protagonist and the male lead are too harmonious and that the characters do too much thinking and talking and too little engaging in action scenes.
Lesson 6. Finish like you mean it. “My father wrote plays when he was young, and he never finished anything,” Missy recalls. “And he wrote novels, and he never finished them. Working for the government, people think that you don’t complete things. Believe it or not, you have to do it—on time. If I were writing a 40-page thing for the head of the agency to present before the banking subcommittee, all hell would break loose if it was not on the Hill in 40 copies Saturday at midnight. So that was very good discipline for finishing” a work of fiction. “I have to finish things. . . .It’s like a compulsion.”
But that compulsion can manifest itself as a weakness, she learned. Her independent editor said that in the final third of Book Two, “I was shortcutting a lot of stuff. He said the writing was variable. . . .It was like an outline.” And the story itself was “too pat. He said, ‘You just crossed everything off. Closed that, closed that, closed that. Everything’s been closed down. Finished. That’s not how things are.’ After awhile, you start realizing, yeah, this could be longer. Needs more explanation. More context. . . .I may need to explain some things a little more.”
Part of the unsatisfactory finish was because Missy had to deal with a health issue. But there was also her method of re-reading her drafts: “I start doing editing as I go. I have to limit myself to marking problem passages with stickies or check marks and just go back to them later. Instead of taking care of them then. But I just keep on taking care of business again and again. I can’t stop myself. That’s why my ending is not that great, because I don’t get there as often.”
Lesson 7. Be alert to boredom. This tip concerns to that familiar cliché about balancing scene and exposition. In Missy’s words, “Typically I know I’m doing too much telling, and not enough showing, if it gets boring. Telling can be boring. Often you don’t become aware of it until reading [your copy] two or three or four times later.”
Lesson 8. Read your chapters by theme. Book Two has three major themes, and, “I’ve got them separated like that” for reviewing, Missy says. “I pull out those chapters and print them—because I think it’s important to read the manuscript on paper. I review and revise the one that’s worst, the least developed, first. If it’s the mystery theme, let’s say, 10 chapters, I have them all in a row, even though they’re not in the book all in a row, so I can follow the theme through and see if it’s developing properly, see where I perhaps repeat myself. Of course, then when you put the entire book back together, sometimes you have to change other stuff.”
Lesson 9. Hire an editor. When Missy sent Book Two to the agent she had been in contact with, “She liked it, she said. But she said, ‘I don’t think I can sell it.’ It was complete, but pretty much a first draft. No doubt, I sent it too early. So she gave me the names of three editors,” and Missy hired the man from Westport. “He’s read two drafts so far. I think he really gets it. And he’s nice, too.”
In addition to telling her she needed to improve the last third of the story, the editor has helped her with characterization, such as flagging a character’s behavior with a note asking, “Where did that come from? That’s just too out of the blue. You have to expand it.” He’s also advised her to kill her darlings: “I wrote a good scene with a coyote that comes out and surprises the protagonist and her dog. The editor said, ‘That’s very nice, but what is it all about?’ It was a very nice five pages of prose, and it set mood, I thought. He wants me to throw it out.”
In case you were wondering, the editor also read Book One. In answer to agents’ objections that they could not sell a book with an unlikeable protagonist, he told Missy, “I don’t think that’s so. I’ve bought books that had unpleasant people in them.” One of the issues he had with Book One was its point of view, specifically that it sometimes had a secondary POV although it was written in third-person limited. “He told me he liked the first one,” Missy says, “but to go do something else. Which means, he gave me an answer” about its ultimate viability as a publishable work.
Lesson 10. Approach agents at conferences. “I have gone to several writers conferences,” Missy says. “I go only when I’ve completed a novel, and the only reason I go is because agents are there and they are actually looking [for writers with good books]. If you go talk to them, I find that about 80 percent of them will say, ‘Give me 50 pages.’ I think it’s very efficient. Whereas if you send a cold query, 95 percent you never even hear back from. I have sent cold queries out that moved forward, though.”
So, what was the outcome of Missy’s lunch with her editor? He asked to see one more draft of Book Two, with the idea that after that it will be ready for line editing. And then, presumably, successfully querying and signing on with an agent, followed by submissions to publishers and the next stage of its successful journey to a bookstore near you.—Alex McNab