When I finished my first manuscript—well, the first time I finished it (heh)—there was one nagging question I had in the back of my mind: is the time span too long?
It started with my protagonist in her sophomore year of college, flashed back through some of high school, and ended up just after her college graduation; so, while the span was technically only two years, it seemed like six or seven because of the flashback.
I swapped manuscripts with a few other YA writers—without mentioning my concern about time span. I figured, we’ll see if it slides. For the most part, I received positive feedback, but one woman—the one whose manuscript was the best out of all those I critiqued and the one who, during our swap, landed a literary agent—mentioned she thought I should set the whole thing in high school somehow.
Ugh—I wanted to query—but I knew she was right. So I set out to make it fit within the parameters of my main character’s sophomore through senior years of high school.
NOT SHORT ENOUGH—SHOOT ME, PLEASE
Halfway through the manuscript makeover, I attended the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop and had a critique with Waxman Literary’s fabulous Holly Root. When she said three years is still too long of a time span for young adult lit, although it killed me, I knew she was right. As a friend at that conference put it, “Three years in YA is the equivalent of War and Peace.” So I trudged home, consulted several fellow writers, read several YA books and studied those I’d already read, and even asked YA author Lauren Myracle for some advice.
Myracle reiterated what most people had said, most kids’ books take place over a very short period of time (a few weeks, a semester, a school year at the longest). In addition, she asked if I had more than one arc—because, if I did, I could split the book into two.
GET SOME DISTANCE AND GET OVER IT
During that month of researching and gearing up to edit once more, the biggest thing I had to overcome was wrapping my head around mushing my story from three years into two semesters. I was too close to it at the time, and I just didn’t see how it was possible.
I thought a good deal about what my editor and friend, Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest Books, had said when he reviewed my pages: there was a lot I could cut—if the reader “gets it” with just one scene, why drag it out and have three similar scenes? He said he often sees this when writers add autobiographical elements to their manuscripts; they want to stay true to “how it happened” and they end up sacrificing story because of it.
So, with some distance from my novel and armed with lots of great advice, I put marker to dry-erase board and plotted out my story. I looked at every scene and evaluated its worth to the overall story. With the fictionalized autobiographical scenes, I let go of the “how it happened”—and in most cases, I eliminated them altogether. It all began to click into place.
SO . . .
It took about a month of revisions, but what I now have is a much tighter, much better, much more marketable story. I ended up changing my focus pretty much completely, playing up my hook, adding/deleting scenes—and it still wound up being 20K words shorter.
I’m not saying this process won’t likely happen all over again when/if a lit agent is interested in it—and then probably again when/if a publisher is interested in it. But the most important lesson here is that, if you’re too attached to the “how it happened,” too in love with your words, and too close to your manuscript, you cannot be an effective editor.
In the below Vlogbrothers video, YA author John Green talks editing. He says he deletes over 90% of his original words and that all the things people like about his books emerge in later drafts. Enjoy!