Reining in The Beast

By Brett Battles

Each book I write has it’s own personality. I’m not talking about the theme or the plot or the way it is told. I’m talking about the physical process of writing it.

Some are like your friend that you like spending a lot of time with. You get along. You have fun. Sometimes you make a wrong turn when you’re on a road trip, but you always get to where you’re going.

Some are like that friend who you are always making plans with but more times than not they cancel before you get together. Your relationship takes a long time to solidify. Occasionally it never does.

And some are just beasts.

In fact, I would venture to guess that most authors would say the majority of books they work on fall into this last category. These are the books that you are fighting with constantly, that you’re trying to tame, or at the very least rein in enough to get down on paper.

For me, I’ve experienced all of them, and sometimes all three in the same manuscript.

My first published book, THE CLEANER, was the good friend you like to spend time with. Of course, being my first novel, I didn’t have a contract yet so had the luxury of time, so I could afford to meander wherever I felt like going.

Then came my second novel, THE DECEIVED. Of every book I have ever written, published or unpublished, this was the one that was my biggest beast. Largely this was due to the well known phenomenon of the “second book” syndrome. By second book, I don’t necessary mean the second book an author writes. I’m talking about the second book he or she creates once they have been published. This usually is the first book you write where you’ve got a contract. And a contract means your publisher has expectations…like it you’ll finish within a certain time frame. And we’re not talking about a date in the distant future affording you that luxury you had with your previous book(s). This is a deadline that’s barreling down on you. In additon you have the added pressure of not wanting to screw up. For me, this, this meant I must have rewritten the last 100 pages of that book three times. When I was finally done, I was SO relieved.

My third, SHADOW OF BETRAYAL, was a little bit of both the good friend and the beast. But because it went a lot smoother than book 2 went, I was basically happy.

The fourth book I wrote (again this is post publishing, I have three unpublished manuscripts on my computer somewhere) was a breeze for the most part. That book, THE SILENCED, will be out next March. The hardest part of that one was that I broke up with my girlfriend of the time in the middle of it. Not fun for either of us, I’m sure. Of course, in a way, that just made me focus more. But, even then, I don’t think I would ever call THE SILENCED a bear. In truth, it came really easy to me, and I’m very pleased with the final version.

Number five is a standalone called NO RETURN that’s actually all down, too. (It will be coming out in the future, publisher hasn’t set the date yet.) That was the quickest book I had written to that date (from zero words to a draft polished enough to submit to my publisher). It also seemed to flow right through my fingertips. A good friend again. Not a beast.

Number six I wrote at the beginning of this past summer. It’s a YA book that my agent is showing around right now. That was probably the most fun book I have ever had writing. I loved the experience, the characters, the story. A good friend, indeed.

So based on this, when I started my latest adult novel in September – the first in what I hope might be a new series – it was natural to think that with my recent track record this one would be a breeze. After all, the last three I had written had gone extremely smoothly. Why shouldn’t this one, too?

Why, indeed?

I wish I knew the answer, because it hasn’t.

It. Has. Been. A. Beast.

As of Monday, I have restarted this novel for the fifth time. The first time I probably got about 20 pages in before turning back. No biggie, that happens. Take 2, another 20, maybe 30, and I think I was able to salvage much of the first take. Take 3: 81 pages, mostly new material. Take 4: 103 pages, mostly new material. Take 5 (current version): as of this writing on Tuesday night, 41 pages, almost entirely new material.

That is one, big, fat, UGH! If I could have strung all that new material together I’d be well over 200 pages by this point!

Now, I am using a lot of the same setting. And the characters are all pretty much still there, though they have changed greatly (especially in my latest version). I’ve also used scenes that are similar in each. Unfortunately they are not similar enough to recycle what I had. I think I’m getting closer now, hoping, in fact, that Version 5 will be the base for a full draft. (Dear God, please let it be so.)

Am I frustrated? A bit, but not as much as you might think. I take the view that I can’t afford to ever get too frustrated. That would only cripple me from doing the task I need to perform. If a story’s not working, it just means I need to take a closer look at it, or it could even mean it’s not the story I should write. Either way, I gotta keep moving forward. To be overwhelmed by frustration (or anything for that matter) is not an option. (This goes for the editing phase, too.)

So I’ll get up tomorrow morning (I’m writing this on Tuesday night), and I’ll put my fingers on my keyboard and tap away until I’ve hopefully reached my goal for the day (went way above on Monday, went way under Tuesday.) And I hope when I reach that 80 to 100 page mark I don’t get the same “crap, this isn’t working” feeling I got on takes 1, 2, 3 and 4. I don’t think I will this time, but I didn’t think that on the previous versions, either.

It’ll all depend on whether I can rein in the beast or not.


So do your stories have personalities? How would you describe them?


15 thoughts on “Reining in The Beast

  1. Debbie

    First MS, a song, perhaps that of a Phoenix based on the genre. The second, a child, too immature, naive. The third, a quest, I've left the Shire,ring tightly in hand, know where I'm going, but haven't a sweet clue how to get there. And so, I go back to editing the first MS with the excuse that people are asking for it, and the editing is a headache at times. I'm thankful that I don't have a contract, deadlines although maybe one day. Brett, I feel your pain…I just want it to work out for you this time around. Maybe starting from a different point in the story, switching POV?
    Glad to hear you've got two on the way. Those titles…don't want to read too much into them, but after a breakup…? I hope you hear good news on the YA front!

  2. Robert Gregory Browne

    They're all beasts for me.

    Funny thing is, when I'm writing, I wish I weren't. When I'm not, I wish I were.

    When I have a deadline, I can't relax until the beast is tamed. Then, when it's tamed and sent on its way, I miss it.

    Yeah, I'm weird.

  3. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I think this is why I put so much time into outlining and research. Research keeps me enjoying the process, reminds me that there's something cool in there, a reason to tell the story, while outlining gives me that sense of security. I go through all that frustration in the outline, so me and my manuscript can have a good time together when I'm writing the book. Of course, it never really works that smoothly.

  4. Louise Ure

    I can't tell you how glad I am to hear that you're dumped early versions at someplace around 100 pages. When I get to that point, I think I'm just a chicken and really ought to continue on with the version in hand. Sometimes that's just not the right decision.

  5. Gar Haywood

    Rob's got it right. Sooner or later, they ALL become a beast. Some less so than others, but no manuscript is ever a cakewalk from beginning to end.

    And yeah, I've dumped and rewritten more partial manuscripts than I'd care to count, and the question I have for you, Brett, is:

    How do you know when you're right to put on the brakes and go back to square one? What, other than that the writing has become a slog, are the warning signs that you're headed down a dead end? Surely there's such a thing as a "false positive" where this sort of thing is concerned — a book we simply THINK is broken beyond all repair that is in fact just HARD AS HELL TO WRITE, which is another thing entirely?

  6. Jake Nantz

    Hard to get the beginning right, but already have the end playing out in my head. That's been the case twice now, and Stephen has it correct as to why. Outlining is great to get the frustration over with early, then it's just a matter of creating a crackling beginning without reaching the over-the-top/eyeroll stage. Talked to Michael Connelly once, who said it's like surfing (I wouldn't know, Nantz don't surf) in that you have to paddle like crazy to get up and going, but once you're on the wave, you get in the tube/pipeline and just ride. I will always be grateful to him for that, because I thought it was just me. And he's right. Man, once you hit that zone, that pipeline, the ride to "The End" rules.

  7. pari noskin taichert

    I usually stick with a manuscript to the end . . . then, sometimes, I dump it anyway. But responding to Gar's question: I often don't know if I'm just losing faith or if the book/story is simply crap.
    So I pursue it.
    I know it's not very time-effective, but it's always interesting.

  8. Tom

    I've got one that falls into the 'friend' category. But the other one . . . sits there snarling and snapping at me. Not fun.

  9. Brett Battles

    Gar…For me it starts with a tickle at the back of my mind that something's not right. Now that tickle happens probably on every book I write, but when it when it moves from the back of my mind to the front I know I have to stop and reassess. Usually this means just going back a bit or reworking a section. This time, though, I just thought my base was not as solid as I thought. I did do a lot of pre-planning, but the write of the story exposed holes I didn't (couldn't?) see in the planning/outline stage.

    I am MUCH more comfortable with where things are now.

  10. Alafair Burke

    Great observation. I guess I do look at my books as my seven children. I created all of them (and often in about nine months!). I had different relationships with each of them but try to love them equally.

  11. Pop Culture Nerd

    I've never written a book so I can't comment on the process. I loved THE DECEIVED, though, so if you won that wrestling match, you will beat down the current beast, too. You will kick it in the crotch twice and make it STAY down.

    Another thing: Scrap as often as necessary but Ms. Marks had better not end up on the cutting room floor.

  12. Brett Battles

    Have no fear PCN, Ms. Marks is still alive and while and actually even more prominent than before. Another interesting fact, the company she works for is known by it's initials…3 initials actually. Hmmm…

  13. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Brett

    Sorry to come late to this. I think there's a big difference between a book that's being testing, and one that's digging its heels in because some part of your subconscious KNOWS it's not heading in the right direction.

    Telling one from the other is a bit of a pig, though…

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