Corralling A Hot Mess

I’ve reached a milestone of sorts in my semi-illustrious self-publishing career. I have finally disposed of a story that has been cooking inside my brain forever, that has kept on haunting me even as I set it aside and went forward with other unrelated novels because they seemed to come easier. I’ve somehow corralled the scraps of this tale that have lurked ever since I first began to entertain an imaginary friend in childhood. That “friendship” has persisted well into middle age. She still hangs around, advising me and leading by example, since she possesses all the aggressiveness that I lack. She’s the leader of the story, a composite of strong women I have known and admired, while the character based on me is the follower. The story has always been called “Sycophants,” even as it went through revisions too numerous to count. I fear it’s a somewhat self-deprecating title that pegs my heroine, Imogene, as less than heroic, although she does manage to conquer a few demons here and there.

The outlines of Sycophants came to me during my college years in the early 1970s. I was an introvert who tended to gravitate toward the take-charge personalities in my dorm. My college was in rural Maryland, a very pretty spot, but I often longed to escape to New York City, over 200 miles away. A previous novel, The Rock Star’s Homecoming, published in 2007, dealt with college roommates Sara and Imogene as they embarked on a road trip to the big city. Their mission was to bring back the homegrown band fronted by Sara’s brother Jake, now a famous rock star, to perform at the annual Homecoming concert. Sycophants is a sequel to that novel, in which the original characters have grown up and are now laying the groundwork for their fondest dream, a movie production company. My blurb describes Imogene as a country girl by birth who determines to leave the farm where she grew up and join her former roommate in this exciting venture.

I’ve “finished” the manuscript for this story a few times before, only to abandon it as awkward, uncontrollable, and illogical. In short, it was a hot mess that wouldn’t seem to cool down. For starters, I didn’t know enough about the movie business, and what would be plausible in a do-it-yourself situation in the late 1980s. So I began to read numerous books about all aspects of film-making. I presented the first chapter to a critique group that gave it a real beat-down, leaving me incredulous as to how I could have made so many missteps in just twenty pages. Since traditional publishing was the only real option then, I queried a few places. A few literary agents admitted to liking the concept, but that was as far as it got.

The various manuscripts for Sycophants have a storied history, grinding through all kinds of primitive technology. I typed it on my first computer, purchased around 1987, a Kaypro which had no hard drive and could only store ten pages at a time on floppy disks. Over the years, as the available technology evolved, I transferred it to each new computer. There were times when the ideas flowed smoothly, and other times when they got tangled. I started from scratch more than once.

Now I’m done with it … at least for the moment. I had what I thought was a semi-decent rough draft by May 2018. I reread the whole thing to make sure it was minimally coherent, at least to my own eyes. My current critique group, a much more helpful bunch than the previous one, had beta-read it a few pages at a time, making many useful suggestions. However, that system didn’t allow for an overall assessment. I found that the story hung together, but that the language needed either tightening up or fleshing out in numerous places. I went through the rewriting process at least five times between May and October.

Finally, after farming out the cover design and line editing, I decided to publish directly to Amazon for the first time. My previous four novels were published by iUniverse, and received the Editor’s Choice designation. The last two of those novels, Let’s Play Ball and Handmaidens of Rock, went through the full developmental edit process, which I found thorough and professional. This time I went with only a line edit, not the full process, simply because I had rewritten it so many times myself that I just couldn’t face doing it again. I was something of an editor myself in my Federal government career, and I critique other writers’ work on occasion, so I’m not totally helpless in that area. Still, this feels something like walking a tightrope without a net. But having decided that perfection is the enemy of progress, I determined to let  my “life’s work” fly. At least I’m confident that the professionally designed cover reflects what the book is about … amateurs and semi-amateurs trying to worm or pay their way into the movie business.

But in Amazon’s system, is anything really finished? The files are always available to be unloaded, revised, and reloaded. To my disgust and chagrin, there were a few errors that I didn’t catch until I had the published paperback in my hands. Formatting errors, as long as they’re few and far between, don’t trouble me much. That seems unavoidable, with all the format changes that a manuscript has to go through to be readable on various devices, as well as ready to print. At least the story seems to flow and cohere as well as I could make it. The one thing that made me break out into a cold sweat was discovering that I twice used the wrong name for a minor character. I cursed myself, while wondering if anybody else would notice or care.

I’m sure many of my fellow authors have stories churning in their heads that they can’t seem to finish, but that won’t let them go either. These days it’s fairly easy to go “live” with your books, whether they’re perfect or not. Do you ever get to the point where your work is absolutely finished, and never to be touched or altered again?

A novel about film-making can’t exist without a video, so here’s the link:

10 thoughts on “Corralling A Hot Mess

  1. I think I found one error in every one of my books. Luckily it wasn’t my fault in one book so I had it reprinted. I used a professional editor for the first two stories but gave up after that and tried to put in practice what she had said. I doubt if there will be any more as I am concentrating on poetry and flash fiction now but I shall go on marketing the seven novels until my loft is empty.
    I don’t use my kindle since it packed up but I do order books from the library and amazon – especially second hand ones. ( I’m a meanie) You’ve got me curious enough to try one of yours. Best of luck with Sycophants.

    1. Thank you so much for the vote of confidence! I also felt that I had learned enough from my previous developmental edits to apply the lessons myself with the new novel. Self-publishing companies like iUniverse are often maligned, but I can vouch for the fact that they employ skilled editors. I was chagrined that I didn’t eliminate every error in Sycophants, after so many readings, but I have found errors in traditionally published books as well. Best of luck with your poetry and fiction!

  2. So much of what you wrote here resonated with me: the errors, the rewrites, the revision fatigue. You don’t say much about your experience in hiring someone for the cover art. Mine was BAD. One was especially bad: didn’t read my instructions and delivered art that stylistically did not in any way fit the book, and even got my name wrong. I’ve ordered “Sycophants” and will be reading it on a plane to Iceland. Congrats on publishing it!

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences, and for your interest in “Sycophants.” I used Buzbooks for all the necessary services: copy editing, file conversion, cover design, and book trailer. They delivered everything in good time. I was especially pleased with the cover, which I thought captured the “movie-making” theme of the book. Best of luck with all your endeavors.

  3. Great post. I can so relate. Is anything ever finished? I have just finished another edit. My novel reads so much better and I was so proud until I found two dumb mistakes.
    Will look at “Sycophants” as soon as I can. Again, great post.

    1. Thank you, Barbara! Sometimes when our writing starts to read better, and looks professional on the surface, that is when the little errors start to crop up. Best of luck with your latest work!

  4. I enjoyed reading this. As writers, sometimes it really is easier to beg forgiveness, than to ask ourselves for permission. Sure beats the alternative, which is to never get the ideas out there in the first place.

  5. I agree. At least your put your work out there. I went to a writer’s conference last Saturday and out of the 120 people there only four of us had written, finished something and had published something. Sometimes letting go of fear is the biggest step.

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