Hey there, Internet, just me again, here with an update on how things are going with my writing. In short: eye-stabbingly, skin-flayingly painful. To quote Sally Brown, “I was jumping rope, and everything seemed to be going fine. And then, suddenly…it all seemed so futile.”
In long, which I know is what you all came for, here is what’s going on: I was deep into a revision of my second volume, BACK ROADS REVOLUTION, when I received a rejection letter from an agent to whom I had queried BACK ROADS KINGDOM.
I wasn’t gonna query again, but I fell off the wagon. I sent off a small batch of queries a few months ago, just because querying is THAT MUCH FUN, and wound up with one request for a full manuscript for my trouble. When the rejection email came last week, I asked the agent politely if she would elaborate on what she didn’t like. I always ask. Never, really, do I get a response. But this time I did. She said a lot of really specific things.
I took it…hard.
Side note: I typically present carefully selected images to accompany these posts, but it’s 5:30 in the morning and I’m sitting in O’Hare Airport and I’ve been working on this stuff all night and look, you’re going to have to settle for the results of Google’s “I’m Feeling Curious” function.
Revisiting and revising a book down that’s been up for sale for so long feels like unearthing a body to perform Frankenstein-like experiments on. No, never mind, that’s really morbid, forget I said that. It feels like when NASA realized there was something wrong with the Hubble except the Hubble was ALREADY UP THERE. So they had to send Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck to fix it, and it was a huge, expensive mission, but it’s good they did in the end, because now we have a working satellite that will tell Jeff Goldblum well in advance before the invasion starts.
Another way of putting it: I’m Lucasing. And not for the first time in my career.
Now, there’s a small difference, which is that STAR WARS had been seen by millions of people when Lucas started futzing with it, whereas BACK ROADS KINGDOM has been read by, if we’re being optimistic, hundreds of thousands. And if we’re being realistic, dozens.
It’s been read by maybe a large enough number of people that I can pluralize the word dozen.
And, yes, it’s been up on Amazon for a year, but after these changes are made, it’s going to be up for ALL THE YEARS and potentially be read by ALL THE PEOPLE, right?
Ugh. Still feels like unearthing a body.
To be clear, much of what this agent said, I’m comfortable ignoring. Yes, the first six chapters throw a lot of insanity at the reader, between the time jumps, the introduction of a fantasy world AND a story-within-the-story written in screenplay form. But most readers seem like they’re able to keep up with all that, and some even seem to enjoy the challenge.
Other complaints weren’t so easy to disregard…because they weren’t really new. They’re things I’ve heard before. They’re things I’ve struggled with, in fact, a lot and a lot and a lot. So to read that someone was having the same issue that readers were having, like, ten bloody revisions ago was humbling, to say the least.
This is what it comes down to: the specter of unlikable characters.
Now, before you start writing letters of protest to every agent in New York, hoping you’ll chance on the right one, please know that this had nothing to do with Alana or Sly or Molly or Dingo or Al or Scree. All those guys seem to be successful in winning over the hearts and minds of America.
It was just about the teen characters. They struck this particular agent as venal and bitchy and just generally THE WORST. Now, two of them – Lenore and Rithi – are supposed to be just exactly that, and don’t show up in this book after the first six chapters anyway. Another, Roach, is more of a comic relief doofus, and he’s also gone after the first six.
But the other two? The other two should not come across to anyone as THE WORST. They should be accessible and sympathetic. One of them, in fact, is the novel’s protagonist.
Some people who reviewed the book positively have said things along the lines of, “I like where Penny ends up as a character, I like the way she changes and blossoms, but in the beginning, she’s not someone I’d hang out with.”
Which, not to get defensive, was kind the point. But, as this one agent said, “I can tell this is the beginning of her arc, but if the reader can’t tolerate her for the first six chapters, they’re going to quit before there’s any payoff for it.”
Side note: Good Lord, writing is different from theater or film in this one really crucial, stupid way. I mean, sure, people can walk out of a theater, but they rarely do, because they paid for it and they’re gonna stick around to the bitter end. But with a book, people can actually just stop reading, even though GUYS THE LAST SIX CHAPTERS ARE SOOOOOO GOOD.
Anyway. Certainly not every reader has had this reaction to Penny. Some of my readers seem to latch on to her in all her acid-tongued nastiness, and this was my hope. I was afraid of writing the sort of vaguely defined protagonist you often find in YA novels, the type of character who seems designed to be a cipher, broad enough to allow the reader to project whatever they want onto them. I was shooting for idiosyncratic, even knowing that this could potentially alienate some people while resonating strongly with others. I thought, “I’m doing the Ebenezer Scrooge thing. People will follow this nasty character because she’s acidic and fascinating, and she’s been through a lot so it’s understandable, and they’ll want to see where she ends up. It seems to be working well enough for that MAGICIANS book.” And so I committed to nasty, because nasty was just more interesting than bland.
But I think that at some point over the many years and many revisions, I just lost any sense of objectivity, and my calibrations were just all screwy. So I’ve gone back in, focusing on those all-important First Six Chapters, which were always the problematic section for me, in search of ways to SAVE THE FREAKING CAT.
After two cross-country flights, one visit to a Northern California goat farm, and substantial loss of sleep, I think I have a new edition worth releasing. I’m still gonna sit on it for a few weeks before replacing the current edition on Amazon. Gotta let it steep. But soon enough it’ll be up, as a free download (I’m 99.999% sure) for anyone who’s already purchased the book.
In case you’re interested, here’s the short version of what I did. Penny’s whole mission statement, later in Book One and especially in Book Two, is all about fighting for underdogs and defeating all the bullies (killing all the bullies, she eventually comes to say). But I realized that this needed to be more vivid right from the get-go; as protagonist, she needed to lead with this. Chapter One makes a much stronger statement now, with Penny defending a complete stranger from the bullies in the convenience store, instead of defending herself. This relatively small change feels like a seismic shift, now that I’ve gone through with it. Everything she does later in the book and in the sequel now feels like a call-back to this act of bravery. And I think I’ve managed to do it in a way that doesn’t really compromise her essentially sour, contrary nature.
And that was just the biggest of the thousand or so tiny alterations I made. Penny’s nastiness is better tempered now by displays of warmth, humor, compassion, drive, struggle and genuine regret for the moments where her mouth acts like an asshole. The affection she shares with Marc and the reasons for it are much more vivid now. And Marc gets a lot of TLC in this revision, too: more specificity, more background, more depth.
Plus, hey, going back in allowed me to make other changes, too. Knowing where the story goes in Book Two, it’s nice to be able to foreshadow some of that crap, sharpening story elements that will be important down the line. And, I was finally able to do some other really important things that have been bothering me for a long time, like toning down (or outright removing) most of the moments in those First Six where the threat of sexual violence is invoked. So much of that had grown to feel weird to me, and incongruent with the quasi-absurdist, high-fantasy tone of the latter chapters.
SO, that’s the long. For those of you who have been with me on this journey from the beginning, I truly and sincerely thank you for your patience as I find my way with this whole writing thing. It’s hard. Especially when you want it to be good. I guess really only if you want it to be good.
And guys, REVOLUTION is good. It’s twice as long as KINGDOM, it’s crazy epic, which is why it’s taking so long, but I’m very confident that it’s good. Penny gets to dress as the Statue of Liberty and shoot fireballs at cyborgs with her torch, Sly finally uses his Portable Hole to make holes in people’s bodies, Alana gets ass-whipped by a very tiny dwarf, Bill gets to fire a cannon that turns babies into fully trained adult wrestlers, Molly cusses a lot, Scree eats not one but several faces, Back Roads to Vegas turns into the musical to end all musicals, and there’s smooching. There’s, like, a lot of gratuitous smooching.
So, yeah. Good.
And in the meantime, things aren’t really all that bleak!
4 thoughts on “FIXING THE HUBBLE”
Critique is hard to swallow, especially when it uproots the book that profoundly. But I think ultimately, a protagonist does need to be likable and it’s important to modify the book accordingly. If you haven’t seen Jessica Jones yet, I highly recommend pulling from that playbook. Jessica is an asshole. She doesn’t have a filter and she does some illegal/immoral things for the greater good. But she’s immensely likeable. Mostly because she does exactly what you want Penny to do – she stands up for the little guy. She would give her life to protect her friends. And she is very broken, and hurting, and that gives a better perspective as to why she is so rough around the edges.
I think if you want to write an acerbic character, the best approach is to write them as the asshole we all want to BE – the one who tells off their boss or who stands up to a racist stranger they overhear at the supermarket. The one who doesn’t let a creep at the bar get away with a bad pick up line. The one who always knows the best comeback in the moment instead of three hours later. Don’t write them as the asshole a reader would avoid in real life (people who complain too much, people who shirk responsibility and blame everyone for their problems, people who stomp on others to get their way, etc. Such people can be fascinating, like Cersei Lannister, but not a protagonist we’re supposed to root for).
I’m not even sure if the arc for such a character needs to be from “asshole” to “nice person” either as much as it could be “unhappy asshole” to “happier asshole.” If you nail the acidic personality well, it will be one readers enjoy experiencing. Neutering the character of her wit and cynicism by the end may actually make her bland. I think the best arc for this sort of character is one in which a likeable, lost asshole discovers purpose – not one in which a dreadful person learns to be tolerable. So I would encourage you to stay true to your vision of the character; perhaps just curb her more towards the former arc. The scene earlier in the book where she tells off some bullies is a nice start, so you’re on the right track.
Thanks Aetherhouse! I think I’m very much on the same page as you. Thinking about Jessica Jones a lot actually 🙂 My character is younger and more vulnerable, more like the teen version of Jessica you see in flashbacks. And of course, I would love to have Kristin Ritter playing the role, giving her all that nuance.
Making her the asshole we all want to be is a wonderful way of phrasing it. Much of my cat-saving fell into that category, especially with that first-chapter adjustment. There are still one or two moments in the early chapters where Penny is rude to someone who doesn’t deserve it, but now we get a better sense of how she beats herself up for it and tries to make amends. Much like JJ. Her arc really is about going from “unhappy asshole” to “asshole with a purpose.” And it pretty much always was – “nicer” was never part of the equation for her – I just found it to be a hard balancing act to pull off. I think the book is in a much better place now. Still may not be for everyone, but then, what is, really?
Hey, I know you’ve written about the fact that you’re not a voracious reader (and neither am I), but if you’d ever be interested in beta reading each other’s stuff, I would definitely be up for that 🙂 We seem to like a lot of the same stuff!
Hey, man. I identify with a lot of what you’re saying here. God, it can be hard to unearth and excavate around your writing. But from everything you’ve said, it sounds like you’ve made some very positive alterations. Personally, yes, I did dislike Penny at the beginning. Those first 6 chapters before we’re really introduced to the other characters were a bit tough. But, hey, revising 6 chapters ain’t bad, considering!
Is the new version up yet? I’d love to give it a read.
Can’t wait for Book #2! Any update?
Thanks for the comment and the support, Jesse! I know it’s been ages since I posted here, but I am going to do a post today or tomorrow with a big update on Book Two and a preview section. It’s an epic…twice as long as Book One…which is the main reason its taking me so long to get a final draft out there.
The revised Book One went up along time ago, but Amazon is really dumb about that sort of thing. Basically, if you already own a Kindle version, they won’t allow you to download any revisions I put up. The only thing you can do is to buy the paperback version, which (I am proud to say) just went up last week, and looks really good. BUT if you want to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, I would be happy to send you a free epub of the revised Book One that should work in your Kindle. I would love to hear your thoughts on the changes to those first chapters and how Penny comes across!