I’ve been working on my first novel, a SciFi book about a PI who gets dragged into something much bigger than he thought. All he wants is to drink his strained-algae coffee, but it turns out he’s going to have to save the world. It’s called The Mason Truman Project, and I’ve blogged about it several times.
I finished the book early last spring, and I’ve been working on refining it off an on since , while I also worked on the second book in the series. I started shopping it out in June, resulting in another raft of fine editing.
I’ve had a fantastic group of beta readers. I’m lucky enough to know lots of very smart folks, and it turns out my mother thinks my book is the bee’s knees. Thanks, Mom!
I’ve also been fortunate to meet some fellow writers, and between the betas and my writer friends, I came to a realization a few weeks ago: I’ve written the book I want to read, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the book I can sell.
There were two problems, the beginning and the ending. OK, those are two huge problems, but let me explain. The beginning of my book is what I think of as a slow burner. The story unfolds organically in a deliberate way while Mason figures out how to get started on the case that gets him entangled with all this messy end-of-the-world stuff that interrupts his coffee time.
I love books like that. I love context, and some of my favorite books are those that show me the context of the characters and their world in a way that makes it feel alive. In writing my own story, I’ve tried to do the same thing.
Most of my beta readers enjoyed it, or at least they said they did. Friends and family are usually great sources of support, but I was always a little worried that the first three chapters would be perceived as unfolding too slowly. A minority of my betas commented to that effect in various ways.
For writers who are reading this, that includes:
- It took me a little while to get into it, but once I did…
- I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it, but once you got into A Hollow World…
- I really liked A Hollow World…
There’s a theme there, but I didn’t much worry about it. It was, after all, the story I wanted to read.
Now, let’s cut to the end. The Mason Truman Project ends on a cliffhanger. It’s roughly halfway through the story, and it seemed like a great place to end the first book to me.
It turns out, however, that I got much more pushback from my betas on this front. Some said it was great and they couldn’t wait to find out what happens. Others told me the cliffhanger pissed them off. One woman I respect immensely effectively told me that if she didn’t like me so much, she’d burn my in effigy, curse my name, shred the book, and rue the day she read it. Not because it wasn’t good—she was among the most supportive—but because of the cliffhanger. She hates ‘em.
It was about 50/50 among those who thought the ending was exciting and those who were critical of it or put off by it. This contrasts with the 15:1 ratio of those who said they liked it as a whole. That’s a significant difference.
I let it go, though. I figured I’d let it stay until and if an agent or publisher requested or suggested a change. My feeling on my book is that it’s not great, but it’s way better than most of the stuff I’ve read, especially if I’m just counting first-time authors. That’s an honest assessment, FWIW.
Then I got some crucial feedback from four people. A friend’s partner who is interning for a literary agency (that doesn’t rep SciFi, unfortunately) read the prologue and the first two chapters. She told me that if she was making notes for her bosses, she would tell them, “It’s well written, but nothing’s happened yet.”
At the same time, a couple of new betas (who I respect immensely) offered me some great critiques (mostly positive) that included criticism of the cliffhanger.
Lastly, one of my writing friends—Dmitri—finally finished the manuscript and took a sneak peak at the beginning of book two. He took me to the woodshed, and said two things that put things in perspective for me:
- My ending point didn’t give the reader any payoff for reading the first book.
- I didn’t properly escalate the stakes to make the reader want to move on to book two.
I was fortunate that he respected me enough to give it to me straight, but I was even more fortunate in that he is a gifted story teller. He has a great sense of pacing. I suspect it’s all that D&D he played when he was a kid.
In any event, that’s when it came together for me. I decided to move the ending of the first book one chapter out, to what was going to be the first chapter of book two.
If I’m going to do that, however, I need to make room for it, as the manuscript was already at the maximum word count a new author can get signed. The obvious place to do that was the beginning, and that’s when I finally let go of my organic build.
As a new author, I need to hook the reader from the beginning. Slow, organic builds are fine when the author already has a dandy reputation, but I don’t have a fiction following (yet!), so I need to reach out, grab you, and reel you in.
By doing so, I can take the book I want to read and turn it into the book I can sell, but more importantly, I think it’s going to be a better, more interesting story for the doing.
This isn’t selling out (Editor: “How about instead of a tinker, you make Peanut a sexy princess…”), it’s learning more about the craft of writing. It turns out that I needed to write those first three chapters, but I needed them for my own background. I’ve written them, I know more about my character because of them, and the rest of the book is more compelling for that process.
Having done so, I can now pull those chapters out and start my book at a different point in the story.
And that was a huge lesson for me.