Read It Or Weep

By Gar Anthony Haywood

(We interrupt our regularly scheduled blog post to announce that I’m in New York attending the Thrillerfest conference this weekend, and I’ve just witnessed our own J.T. Ellison receive the 2011 Thriller Award for Best Paperback Original [THE COLD ROOM].  And she was speechless.  No, really, she was speechless — poor baby has a cold and has almost no voice.  You go, J.T.!)

Most of you may not know this, but my last Murderati post was not technically my first.  Way back in March, 2007, I wrote a guest blog here at the invitation of the late, great Elaine Flinn.   (God, I miss that woman.)

The subject of that initial post was a partial WIP I loved to death but couldn’t sell.  I referred to it as my MIaD, or “Manuscript In a Drawer.”  If you’d care to read the whole post, the link above will take you to it in the archives, but here’s the only part of it that’s really relevant to what’s on my mind today:

(My) MIaD is 140 pages of a standalone thriller that has never found a reader who didn’t prove to be indifferent to it.  My agent didn’t get it; my former editor passed on it without breaking a sweat; and the two or three other people to whom I’ve shown it over the years have all responded to it with a collective shrug.

It’s gotta suck, right?

Well…

I still can’t wrap my head around the idea that it might.  It is going on seven years old, and the idea from which it sprang is much, much older than that, but here I am, as convinced as ever that this is one great book.

Well, it turns out I was right.  ASSUME NOTHING — the MIaD I was referring to — will be published by Severn House in December, and it is indeed (in my most humble opinion) a great book.

Finally.

What’s the “finally” mean, you ask?  It means that, while I was right to have the faith in the book that I did back in March, 2007, I was also dead wrong to think that it didn’t suck.  Because at that time, it did.  I was just too in love with the material — and frankly, lazy — to see it.

Sure, I’d read and re-read the manuscript numerous times over the years.  I’d even re-written large chunks of it on occasion.  But at some point, I’d grown so familiar with it — and so tired of looking at it — that I just couldn’t read it with anything resembling an objective eye anymore.  I didn’t have that kind of patience for it.  So you know what I did, at least once, perhaps even twice?  I did the unforgivable.

I sent it out for people to read without having really read the damn thing in months myself.  Can you believe that?

(An email has just appeared in my Inbox from Corbett, asking for my Murderati membership card back.  DELETE!)

Well, you can probably guess what happened.  The book went back into the drawer, unloved and unsold, until a little over a year ago, when Severn House asked for a follow-up to CEMETERY ROAD and that old itch to see ASSUME NOTHING in print started demanding to be scratched again.  So right back out of the drawer the manuscript came.  Only this time, before I let even my new agent see it (my last one hated it, remember?), I set a full day aside, sat down in a comfortable chair with a cup of joe, and read the whole thing.  Twice.

ARGGHHHHHHHH!!!  It was dreck!  I’d shipped this piece of crap to an editor I greatly admire at a house I’d kill to have publish me?

My Constitutional right to bear arms notwithstanding, I don’t own a gun, which is the only reason I didn’t blow my brains out at that very moment.

Oh, the premise I had so much undying faith in was there to be found, all right, as were a handful of great characters and set pieces.  And the prologue, overall, was a fine piece of kickass writing.  But the dialogue and narrative throughout?  They were an embarrassment.  Far below my usual standards, or at least, the standards I’d established since graduating high school.

Needless to say, I got started on a full re-write immediately, and didn’t send the reworked manuscript out to my agent, let alone my editor at Severn House, until I’d read and re-read the damn thing a dozen times.  Each and every page.

Now it was “one great book.”

Great enough, anyway, that both my agent and Severn House loved it, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Here’s what the book will look like in December:

So what exactly is the lesson to be learned from all this?  I think there are several:

  1. Shut up, sit down, and read that manuscript again.

    Yes, I know you’re sick and tired of looking at it.  You’ve been working on this frigging book now for what feels like half your life, and as fond of it as you are, you are absolutely sure you will hurl all over your Macbook if you have to read so much as one more paragraph of it.  But do it anyway, because maybe, just maybe, it’s not all you thought it was the last time, and one more good, hard look might make all the difference between a manuscript you can sell and be proud of, and one that needs to stay in a drawer.  A locked drawer.

  2. You’re a better and more critical editor now than you were six months ago.

    Because you’re also a better writer.  Your expectations for your work should be rising right in line with your skills, so any manuscript you last read half-a-year ago or longer, while it may have struck you as utterly flawless then, is probably inferior to what you would find acceptable today.  Never assume that something you read and found worthy of your name in February will pass muster with you in August.  Your editorial judgment is constantly evolving, and you owe every word you send out into the world the benefit of its most recent — and discriminating — incarnation.

  3. Enough lousy narrative and dialogue can (and probably will) make a no-sale out of any manuscript, no matter how great its general premise might be.
  4. Nevermind an editor or an agent — don’t even think about letting your mailman read that book until you’ve followed my advice in Bullet Point 1 above.

There’s a reason so much is posted here at Murderati about the agony of receiving a copyedited manuscript from one’s publisher: We don’t want to read the goddamn thing ever again!  Our minds are already busy formulating not only our next book, but our next three, so the last thing we want to do is revisit, with any real level of concentration, a book we’ve already written, re-written, read and re-read at least a dozen times.  Does that sound like fun to you?

Fun or no, however, reading and re-reading your own stuff — slowly and deliberately — is part of the gig.  And the author who tries to work around that part does so at his own peril.

Questions for the class:  How many times can you read something you’ve written without wanting to scream?  And for the published authors among us, do you ever go back and read your own books once they’re in print?

22 thoughts on “Read It Or Weep

  1. Alafair Burke

    I actually wish the publishing calendar allowed more time to read, read, read, and read, because you're right: with a fresh look six months later, you can always make it at least a little bit better. Congratulations, and welcome to the madness!

  2. Sarah Shaber

    Rereading my work makes me want to gag. But I do it, because you're correct, each time makes a better book. I also have a MiaD that I am going to pull out when my current WIP is finished and shipped out to my editor! Then I'll get that one back and have to reread it–and then I'll have to proof the galleys! Ugh.

  3. Sarah W

    (Well, I know what I'll be reading in December)

    How many times before screaming? With the first half of my current project, I'm already there. But I've avoided looking at the first five chapters for few months (seriously — e-mailed 'em to my First Reader, copied them to a flash drive, and deleted them from my laptop) so I'd stop fiddling with them and get on with the rest.

    I'm hoping to be slightly more objective in a few weeks when I start revisions. Guess we'll see.

  4. billie

    I love re-reading – but that's probably because I love editing. The hard thing is putting a ms away for enough time to get out of the forest with it.

    My favorite thing to do now is to email the ms I'm editing to my Kindle and read it on there. It feels entirely different than reading it on the desktop, laptop, or printed out on paper.

  5. Phillip Thomas Duck

    My current WIP is seriously getting on my nerves. Throughout the editing process I've read it more times than Derek Jeter has hits. As for my already published novels, from time to time I might reread a passage or two just to hear what my "voice" sounded like, but as a general rule I stay away. If I need to reread something I much rather it be Daniel Woodrell's GIVE US A KISS. Now that's one I never tire of.

  6. ZoΓ« Sharp

    Hi Gar

    Time and distance are get assets to my internal editor. I try not to re-read old books, unless I need to check facts – they are a snapshot of who I was at the time, and should not be Photoshopped to get rid of an inconvenient hairstyle or fashion of clothing.

    Having said that, I'm going to bring my very first novel, KILLER INSTINCT, out in e-book format for the first time, and I'm going to add in a couple of deleted scenes that help to anchor Charlie's military backstory. But I will resist strongly the urge to fiddle with the rest!

    An HUGE congrats to JT!

  7. Louise Ure

    Ugh, I don't know the number of rereads that finally makes me gag, but I've reached that number with each book. And no, once published, I do not read them again. It's even difficult to read passages at author events. I want to edit them as I'm reading.

    Congrats JT!

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    What a great post, Gar. I'm just at this stage myself – revisiting a book I had to put away because of family issues, Time is a wonderful clarifier; it's so much easier to see what I need to do with the draft now.

    Putting a couple of older books up in e format is going to make me reread them for the first time since publication. I'm nervous!

  9. Eika

    No, no; rereading too many times and I want to light it on FIRE, not gag. That's why I'm querying now; beta-readers assure me they'll track me down and kill me if I set it on fire.

    I'd set the number somewhere around twelve, though.

  10. Allison Davis

    Congrats to JT for the well deserved award and to Gar for the December publication. Bay Area signing in time for Christmas please?

    I have my first manuscript in a drawer because I just can't bear to look at it anymore. I worked it and worked it until I had to break up with that book and say enough. I am two manuscripts beyond that book, and reading it is like looking at wedding pictures after you've been divorced. However, you are right that time makes a lot of difference, and while I edit the third manuscript and hope to get this thing done before I can't tolerate it anymore (because it is a good book), I am thinking one of these days I'll revisit that dusty draft and see what's there.

    In the meantime, I'm sending everything to Billie because she likes to edit.

  11. David Corbett

    There's a Murderati membership card?

    I think Alafair has mine. I smell something burning.

    Well, I'm glad this baby gets to see the light of day, and good for you to be an honest enough self-editor to do the hard work of going back to it again. And again.

    I can sympathize with the whole shuddering phenomenon of wondering what drugs I was on when I showed a piece of writing to others when I later realized it was woefully unready.

    And it's true, time provides you with a more objective perspective. Alafair's right, the rush to get books out on a yearly basis undermines the quality of much in the genre, sadly.

    The worse experience, though. is when you know something's good but everybody shrugs it off regardless. Not suspect it's good. Know. You've read it through, had a wise reader/editor go through it with you, cut, tune, revise, all of it — and editors still pass.

    I haven't gone back and re-read an entire book of mine that I've published, but I have read stories and bits of the novels. The most sobering experience was writing a spec TV script based on DONE FOR A DIME. I realized, in having to trim and cut and completely re-chronologize the opening, that I could have relied on my dialog a lot more, and trimmed a great deal of narrative (you know, all that "fine writing").

    I think the biggest lesson I've learned as I've grown as a writer is: trust the reader. You don't have to explain everything. That comes more from insecurity over establishing your authority than it does telling the story as it needs to be told.

    BTW: If Severn wants a blurb, I am so there. It may be too late for the cover, but you may be able to use it online promotion and such. Not that my name will help you sell any book, but …

    And yes, a big shout out to M-Girl JT. Strut your moneymaker, Ms. E.

  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Great success story, Gar.
    I'm currently in the weird spot where my editorial eye is too sharp to let me write a fucking paragraph. It's not letting me write a terrible first draft. I'm going to have a polished book by the time I reach the end, but it's taking me two years to do it. And, in the process, I'm finding it hard to remain objective. They say the second book is the hard one, but I'm finding the third near impossible. It's like knowing how to whistle a great tune, but struggling to play it on the saxophone.
    Great cover and title for the new book!

  13. Pari Noskin

    First of all: HOORAY FOR JT!!!!!!!!!!!

    Okay, now that I've gotten that out of my system: Great post, Gar.

    I don't know how many times I re-read, but it's a lot. I also don't read my books once they're published, but it's always interesting to go in when I've been asked to read aloud and have to find a section that I want to play with.

    Right now, I'm really curious about this question and bullet #1 because I have all of this material I've produced in the last year and haven't yet edited or read any of it. I think leaving it all be is a good way to get some of that objectivity necessary for good editing. I don't remember the stories because I've written so much since. And I'm almost to the point of wanting to start editing the ones from early July last year.

  14. Ronald Tierney

    Congratulations. Loved Cemetery. Will read this new one.

    Since I'm reissuing the first four Shanahans in trade paperback and e-books, I had to proof the scans. Reading the Stone Veil after 20 years was almost like reading another writer. Not bad, really β€”speaking without tasteful humility β€”ust surprisingly different. A valuable educational experience.

  15. Jake Nantz

    I'm ready to scream by the time I finish re-read number 5. That it takes some of you guys longer to get to that point tells me a lot about my writing and how far it has to go. So, back to the writing board…

    Gar, great post, and congrats to JT!!!

  16. JT Ellison

    Thanks so much, y'all. It was a spectacular night.

    I made the mistake of going back to read my second novel to prep for PR. I got four chapters in and burst into tears because I could have made it so much better. Perspective is a beautiful thing, and yes, the pub schedule means we don't have as much revision time. It's so good to take a few weeks away from a manuscript so you can really get a sense of what's happening. Too bad that's a luxury instead of the standard.

    Congrats on your new release, Gar! We will fete you in style!

  17. Gar Haywood

    Alafair, you're right — the publishing calendar makes it hard to devote as much time to each book as we would like. But the alternative would be having a publisher who doesn't care WHEN you turn your next book in, and we all know what a bad omen that is, right?

    Zoe, I think you're instinct to leave well enough alone as you e-publish your backlist is an understandable one — "fixing" the things you could find to fix in those books today is kind of like writing a revisionist history, after all. But the temptation to do so still has to be overwhelming. Kudos to you if you can pull it off. (I doubt I'll be able to when the time comes for me.)

    David: Trust the reader. What great advice. We have a tendency to treat them like children, don't we? And why? The readers we're trying to reach are bright enough to get what we're trying to say without a whole lot of help from us. Just tell the damn story and trust the reader to comprehend it, period. Oh, and about that blurb? You're on.

    Stephen: Thanks for the kind words about the title and cover of ASSUME NOTHING. I'm quite happy with both myself. The way you write, I trust your judgment, no matter how long all it takes you to write a book your internal editor can be happy with. You think I PLANNED to take 2 1/2 years to write CEMETERY ROAD? Some books just take longer to write TO YOUR STANDARDS than others, and the time involved has nothing almost whatsoever to do with YOU.

    Pari, leaving it all be for a nice stretch of time always helps. Right after you finish something, there is nothing in world you want to believe more than that it is dead, solid perfect, and that desperate hope has a tendency to color your editorial judgment to the point where you'll overlook anything just to get it out the door and published. A few weeks or months later, however, you're more open to the idea that it might not be perfect just yet, so you make for a better and more object editor.

    Jake, re-read number 5 is a pain-in-the-ass for me, too.

  18. Reine

    JT, congratulations . . . soooo good!

    Gar congratulations on upcoming release. I look forwrd to reading it.

    Great metaphor, that MIaD. Some days my life feels like a MIaD, thrown in and locked up, much like Stephen's, "It's like knowing how to whistle a great tune, but struggling to play it on the saxophone."

  19. PD Martin

    Yes, the dreaded re-read…and re-read…and re-read. I quite like editing but it still gets tedious. Mind you, I always surprise myself at how much fat my first drafts still include, five published novels into my career. But I think that's just part of my writing process, which is very much "Write from your heart, edit/read from your head."

    I have thought about re-visiting a few of my unpublished novels (even though they're children's novels). Maybe one of these days! They're not even in my draw anymore, just on some floppy disc somewhere. Guess I should copy them somewhere before the floppy is completely obsolete!

    To date, I haven't gone through my published novels for a re-read. I want to, but I'm way too frightened! I might have a JT tears moment πŸ™‚

    Talking of JT…congrats!!!!!
    Phillipa

  20. jeremy bates

    my favorite part of the writing day is re-reading/editing in the evening…. i can do it with a beer instead of a coffee (which is for the morning "creative" stuff), and just chill out…. one thing i try to watch out for: over-editing!

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