A year and a half ago, I had completed my client’s story. It had started out with aspirations to being a memoir, turned down the highway toward autobiography, and ended up as life story. He was satisfied. We had a publisher. Soon, I thought, the project would be over. Ha!
I’ve relayed this story several times. Here I reference it to address the topic of rewriting a book. Not just revising. Rewriting. And it occurred to me this morning that what I had spent these last 16 months doing to my manuscript bore much resemblance to grappling with an unfinished manuscript, or even with a work in the germination phase. You’ve got dozens of gripping anecdotes. You’ve got a unique and workable angle and a clear theme(s). You might even have whole scenes and chapters written out. But how to organize it all? How to get at the point of it all? How to set the story soaring?
A recent post on fellow blogger Lisa Reiter’s Sharing the Story provided the impetus for me to finally write this post. Close to having a completed manuscript, she still struggles with key questions:
. . . ‘purpose’ is the biggest issue I feel I am grappling with. What is the purpose of my book? Who is my intended reader? And therefore where am I trying to end up? Answering these questions would help me jettison anything that is just background noise because writing this sort of memoir – one where the story is never quite over so long as I’m still living – could mean the writer makes the mistake of including everything that happened since survival.
This point in the road is precisely the juncture at which I found myself in February 2015. Like Lisa, I had a big theme; where her story is one of surviving cancer, my client’s is one of surviving early adversities to make it in the high-stakes world of neurosurgery. The problem was—as Lisa suggests in that last sentence above—that in the original manuscript I had included everything that had happened to my client over more than sixty years. Sure it was a hell of a story, but one that appealed at best to a handful of readers who knew or knew of my client. The key events were there, but they commanded no more page space than much smaller events. And what was the purpose? Indeed, what was the genre? Immigrant story? A tale of rags to riches? A life in medicine?
From Life Story to Memoir
I had had an inkling of the problem at the outset when my good friend, author, and grammarian Kathy Papajohn posed the question to me: Who is going to read this book? There are circles she explained to me, from intimate friends and family to readers interested in autobiography and memoir to those who look for a good story across genres. What is this book? WHY is this book? Who is your target market?
I was ill equipped to answer those questions in the beginning. I thought they would take care of themselves once I had 80,000 words. Indeed, I thought I could worry about overall structure during the revision phase. I didn’t know how else to tell the story but to get it all down. Such an encompassing process proved to be invaluable, but it also greatly extended the time it has taken for my client to get his story told.
Which brings me to late 2014. I was doing last revisions on the existing manuscript, and working towards eliminating unnecessary scenes and lines—what Lisa referred to as “background noise.” (I blogged about this process on my old site, Memoir Crafter.) Soon after, everything changed when my client and I began working with an established agent/editor named Claire Gerus. After encouraging us to “stop the presses” with the first publisher, Claire immediately honed in on certain elements of the manuscript. Great medical anecdotes, she said. Engaging formative episodes in his youth. Fascinating stuff on his German roots. But his time coaching his kids in soccer? Boring. His first day of high school? Who cares? Then she told me the kind of book she saw in the manuscript, one that she felt she could represent: a medical memoir with brief but telling flashbacks to those important formative events.
How to Attack a Rewrite
It was almost harder to rewrite the manuscript than it would have been to start afresh. For starters, how to identify the key scenes? How to decide on a new starting point? Claire provided me with a couple of helpful exercises.
- THE FIRST was to review the story and identify the important events:
- What were the turning points?
- Where did the protagonist experience a revelation or epiphany?
- What dramatic moments moved the story forward?
- What scenes showed the protagonist working through the important themes?
- Which ones included key characters that served as friends or adversaries?
- Then, Claire told me to break this list down into two columns: one showing the positive events that had supported my client’s journey toward self realization, and one listing the negative events or moments that had blocked the attainment of his goals or wishes.
- Equipped with this list, I was now to block out a timeline where I interspersed these high/low events. This would create drama and tension in the narrative.
- THE SECOND EXERCISE took my existing table of contents as a starting point. Using the list of positive and negative events, rethink the table of contents. Build the TOC from the combined list of high/supporting events and low/obstructing events.
- Finally, identify a new starting point, not at “the beginning” but with a significant event, a major surgery for example.
- Move forward from that point, using flashback as needed to fill in the narrative gaps and reveal and/or reflect on the formative experiences.
The high/low exercise encouraged me. I can do this, I thought. Just identify the events, slot them into roughly chronological order, and insert sections of the original manuscript. Bingo. The rewrite.
Then I attempted the second TOC exercise. My efforts fell flat. I could not get away from my original chronological sequence. I ended up at least five or six chapter titles in before I got to a medical event, and that was only med school.
At the same time I was using Scrivener to rethink the structure and order of chapters. I moved the entire manuscript back into Scrivener, divided by chapter and scene. I experimented with moving the chapters around. I axed scenes I judged to be irrelevant. Most times I felt more muddled than ever. What I was doing was avoiding the real REWRITE. I hoped to slide by with a little shuffling and sleight of hand.
Book Proposal as Guide to the Rewrite
In February Claire suggested a new approach. I didn’t have to have a completed manuscript, she said. The story was solid. Hold off on rewriting the manuscript. We could sell the idea to a publisher with a book proposal. Focus on a few crucial things, Claire said:
- Rework, yet again, that new TOC with compelling chapter titles;
- Do a knock-out sample chapter that shows the doctor at the top of his game;
- Come up with a succinct title and subtitle that will grab attention and signal what the book is about;
- Create an overview of the book, snagging the editor with a description of a dramatic scene and summarizing the main events and themes;
- Throughout, focus on the editor not the imagined reader. Make each sentence crystal clear. Use powerful language that reflects the book’s uniqueness and appeal (“high-stakes”; “groundbreaking”; “game changer”; “pioneering”) and which in turn signals the main theme(s).
- Remember, Claire said, editors want to see hard-hitting specific content that readers can get excited about.
So, that was the beginning. Those first sections of a traditional book proposal—overview, TOC, and sample chapter—set me on a track that over an entire year led me to the skeleton of my rewrite.
I will expand on this topic in my next post: The Book Proposal: Pinpointing Purpose and Readership, and show how for me, the proposal pulled me up from pantsing mode to outline mode—and gave me the structure I needed to make real headway.
What about you? How have you dealt with the task of organizing your manuscript? Of deciding which elements to include and which to leave out? What tools have you used to gain more control over the process?