I started cutting and pasting huge sections. There was no finessing, no pre-work, no planning. I would highlight 25 pages from three quarters of the way into the book, hit cut, move back to page 40, and hit paste. I did this all over the manuscript, four or five different times, until the sections I had mapped out to correspond with the dramatic arc I wanted were placed in the correct order.
Cutting and pasting is generally a quickly achieved function. This, however, was not. This was painful, on a visceral, almost physically painful level. And it wasn’t because I was harming my precious manuscript, killing the darlings and eviscerating my crystalline prose. It’s because I was actively taking a document that made sense and basically forcing it into nonsense. (Keep in mind, this was just cutting and pasting: no smoothing out transitions, making connections between scenes, no real writing at all.)
It was hard because I was taking a 300-plus page document that I had spent years polishing and I was, on purpose, breaking it. It defied logic, to the point that my brain would shut down sometimes in sheer self-defense, or maybe rebellion.
But eventually I had it: a glorious disaster of a manuscript, ready for me to make it make sense. And then, slowly, page by page, chapter by chapter, going in rigid chronological order so that I wouldn’t miss anything, I did.
On the phone with my parents, both writers themselves, I described it this way: “It’s like I’m re-breaking a poorly healed bone so that I can set it properly.” I was deep in the trenches when I said that – my husband still turns pale when I bring up that editorial month. But I can think of no better metaphor in hindsight. In order to make something really good, you have to break something decent. There’s no way to outsmart yourself, to make that step unnecessary.
I learned that again very recently.
Back in the operating room
My next YA novel, a fantasy this time, sold to my publisher earlier this year. It’s called Wench and should be coming out in fall 2020. I had initially conceived of the story as a duology, maybe even a series opener. But when my editor bought my pitch of 60 pages and a synopsis, she only gave me one note: “We’d like to make this as standalone as possible.”
It was a totally fair request. When a newbie author is daydreaming about their career, fantasy trilogies have a special aura of prestige, especially in the realm of YA, but the fact is there are already a ton of them – maybe even too many. Standalone fantasies, when done well, are in great demand for readers who love genre, but don’t want to wait a year to finish reading a story. I’m one of those readers myself, so, while I knew I’d have to kill a few darlings, I was game.
It should be noted that when I sent her 60 pages and a synopsis, I had a complete 500-page draft already completed. I had drafted it in the waiting spaces of Bad Girl’s schedule – first waiting for my eventual editor to buy it, then her notes, then her line edits, then the copyedits, etc. All of that blank space translates into a ton of time where one has nothing to do but either twiddle one’s thumbs – so, instead, I wrote something new. I recommend this to all authors who want to hang on to their sanity. And I had really outlined this time, too, even using the two columns system detailed above.
I took great pains to structure the story very carefully, so that I wouldn’t have to again cut my manuscript into pieces, throw them into the air like confetti, and hope that when they landed, they rearranged themselves in the shape of a book.
But my editor didn’t need to see that rigorously structured 500-page draft to give me that note. And now my task was to somehow superimpose a tight narrative arc on a 500-page manuscript that had been designed as a Part One, with a whole Part Two to delve into speculative cultures and develop the relationship between protagonist and antagonist. And, as much as I had been patting myself on the back for outlining, conceiving of Wench as a series had allowed me to skip making a lot of decisions: I didn’t have to have a clear handle on the mysteries of, say, a character’s history, or the origin of an artifact, or even if there was going to be a love interest – I could deal with that next book.
As a standalone? Not so much.
As of writing this, my first draft is due in six weeks. And, with nowhere else to turn, last week I started doing the only thing I knew might work.
I highlighted a 15-page stretch of text and hit cut. I scrolled back 30 pages and hit paste.
Only 18 more of those to go.
Maxine Kaplan lives in her hometown of Brooklyn, NY, where she works as a private investigator and caters to the whims of a dimwitted but soulful cat. She is the author of The Accidental Bad Girl and the upcoming Wench, coming Fall 2020 from Amulet Books for Young Readers.