"I don't like your main character. At all. I found her really annoying, actually. Sorry."
That's how the agent's rejection email for Me, Just Different read. And it wasn't too much of a surprise because my manuscript had just bombed a contest for the same reason - Skylar was unlikable. Not the type of character you wanted to spend a ton of time with.
For a few weeks, I indulged in inner protests that Skylar was supposed to be unlikable, that if the story was going to be about her reinventing herself, she had to start as someone who needed reinvention. But the evidence had piled up against me - three judges in ACFW's Genesis contest and a literary agent were all in agreement. She was a pain in the butt.
I shelved the manuscript, figuring I'd cut my losses and move on with other easier-to-like main characters.
But Skylar wouldn't quite let go of me. Despite her pain in the butt qualities (or maybe because of them) I missed her. I needed a way to drum up some sympathy for her. After some brainstorming, I decided Skylar needed a reason that she didn't want to be around boys and a reason to start dating her boyfriend. What I landed on was a near date rape, from which she was rescued by the guy who becomes her boyfriend.
I figured I'd open the story with that (or the morning after, to be more specific) and then I could proceed with the story as planned. It seems incredibly obvious to me now that an author can't casually toss in a main-character-barely-escaping-date-rape plot, but it wasn't obvious at the time.
I rewrote my opening scene, slapped it in the front of the manuscript ... and realized (or admitted to myself) that this wasn't as simple as adding a scene, that book surgery was required.
I've had to do book surgery a few times now, and here are somethings I've learned:
Every original scene must be examined
Book surgery means you are doing something major to your manuscript. Not just beefing up a plot line or fleshing out sensory details, but stuff that affects the story as a whole. To seamlessly weave in the new stuff, you'll have to look at every scene and reconsider it. Factoring in the new plot, would this still happen? Would the character still feel this way?
I've found the easiest way for me to do this is to write out all the current scenes in the book on one color of index card, and then the scenes that I know are going to be added on another. The result is something like this:
|Purple was for current scenes and green was for additions. Also I flagged some of the purple scenes were I could tell major revisions would be needed. Not sure one that lone yellow one is. Alternate idea, maybe?|
Examine the story calendar
For all my stories, I keep a calendar that looks like this:
The reason I do that is because my book surgery for Me, Just Different resulted in chapter three taking place in October and chapter four taking place in September. And it was my sweet editor at Revell who pointed it out to me.
So I learned that after the surgery is complete, double checking the calendar will save my editor some work.
Things you love will die
I have two big book surgeries under my belt now, and with both manuscripts I had to cut scenes and plot lines that I loved to make room for the new, better material. With the most recent one (something still unpublished) I was really struggling with the ending. In the original manuscript, the book ended with my main character moving to Kansas. In the revised version, the book also ended with my main character learning her book was going to be published. I was really struggling to make everything fit, when it dawned on me that I had warring endings. It made no sense to keep them both!
It was such a relief to discover why the book wasn't working, that I felt happy to ax my character being Kansas-bound. Though doing so also meant axing the 25,000 words I'd written of book two. Sigh.
But how do you know when book surgery is worth it or when you should scrap a project? There's no firm answer on this, sadly, but I think putting something away for a period of time is a decent test. I have a couple completed manuscripts that I put away when I realized they needed serious surgery. I've never felt much of a longing to pull them back out. Yet with Skylar, it had been in my "Retired Manuscripts" folder for about a month, but I was still thinking about her. I knew then that the extra work was worth it.
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