Writer Tech: complete vs. finished

A week ago, I got to the final scene of my work-in-progress. It is complete, which is to say, it’s got a coherent plot with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

My elevator pitch for Unremembered Lives is “a Romeo and Juliet story set against the backdrop of a bitter 1913 copper strike in Michigan.” At 91,000 words and 363 manuscript pages, it’s the shortest of my novels so far, but that’s not surprising. Unremembered Lives has a relatively compressed time period (seven months in 1913) and it takes place mostly in one small town (Calumet, Michigan).

Now comes the editing.

Usually I over-write, with way more detail than the story needs. I still remember being told, very kindly, by an early reader of Doc, “Mary, nobody wants to know this much about nineteenth century dentistry.”

The rule of thumb I’ve developed for editing is “Cut anything that does not drive the plot, reveal character, or delight the reader.” That last element is somewhat squishy, but if a passage makes an early reader laugh or cry or comment on the insight or phrasing, I keep it even if it’s not strictly necessary.

With this book, however, I might actually add some detail as I work through the complete manuscript. My elevator pitch remains accurate, and every chapter begins with a quote from “Romeo and Juliet,” but the love story didn’t turn out the way I expected it to. Instead of dying at the end, the young couple wises up. A different couple’s relationship goes in a direction I hadn’t anticipated when I started the story. I need to smooth out the character development along with untangling sentences and re-cutting paragraph breaks.

When it’s reasonably solid, I will send it to my agents, Jane Dystel and Miriam Goderich, for their comments and suggestions. At the same time, I’ll send it to several readers who are familiar with labor history, to be weed out howlingly dumb mistakes.

When I’ve addressed the new problems each reader identifies, I’ll send the corrected ms. to Jane and Miriam again, and they will see if it can get itself a publisher.

I think I’ve accidentally written something that’s turned out to be very topical, and it may even have a Young Adult cross-over market, but there are no guarantees. Every book is a different roll of the dice, and past performance is not indicative of future results.

If it gets a publisher, there will be more readers, with different suggestions, and then a copy editor, and then a production editor, and in the meantime, I’ll lie in bed at night and suddenly sit up thinking, “Oh, damn. I have to fix that…” I generally don’t consider a book “finished” until I phone the production editor with the last batch of  changes on the morning it’s scheduled to go to the printer.

15 thoughts on “Writer Tech: complete vs. finished”

  1. I’m halfway through DOC, and enjoying it, and I would not be averse to some more details on nineteenth century Dentistry, Ma’am.

  2. I loved seeing that process and your use of the word “Squishy!” Too bad Romeo and Juliet hadn’t wised up. Good luck, Mary. I can’t wait for the finished product!

  3. Please ignore that early reader of DOC. My husband and I both enjoyed learning history of dentistry and have frequently passed on factoids we found fascinating. I hope you educate us on the history of copper. The use in war. Have you visited the Az copper museum in Clarksdale AZ? Shell casing etching art is amazing! http://www.copperartmuseum.com

  4. I knew the route was tortuous, but never had the blanks filled in so well. Thanks for sharing this nuts and bolts version of getting a book from manuscript to press.

  5. “nobody wants to know this much about nineteenth century dentistry.”

    I’m sure Melville heard, “Nobody wants to know about the ancient history of whaling and a bibliographical classification of whales.”

    I’m looking forward to an illuminating moment in labor history.

  6. “Mary, nobody wants to know this much about nineteenth century dentistry.”
    My comment is perhaps irrelevant but maybe when Michener wrote his books somebody told him nobody wants to know this much about salmon, volcanoes, Canada Geese… they couldn’t have been more wrong. Sometimes the beauty is in the detail and makes for a richer experience. I have read your books Doc, Epitaph and Thread of Grace
    and loved each of them.

  7. Let me just say, “yay”. And I have professional experience in the organized labor field and some historical background – so really interested in this one.

  8. Sounds like a book I’d love. But you sort of gave away the ending! Nonetheless, I look forward to reading it.

  9. Dear Mary:

    Is any literary work ever finished? There is a cherished copy of Applause First Folio for which the type setting is transposed from Elizabethan to modern: one of five Shakespeare texts on my shelf. Each is subtly different from the next.

    After a time, one finds that an introduction to the actors for whom the roles were originally intended is as enlightening as the words themselves. Most of the young actors who played such enchanting roles as Portia from “Merchant of Venice” are unfortunately lost to History.

    Even Mark Twain’s great Huckleberry Finn is targeted for editing as was Dr. Doolittle. You probably remember passages in scientific text books which were revised several years after the authors’ passing. Albeit not a literary work, the latest revision of the Cistine Chapel’s ceiling is nonetheless enlightening.

    There was some passage from Plautus (I believe) we had to translate many moons ago which stated that he’d rather the guests praise the soup than the cooks. So let it lie with Unremembered Lives.

    Can’t wait to read it.

  10. Thank God and Microsoft for modern text editing. Literally cutting and pasting six or seven hundred pages of single-space sounds like an express ticket to the funny farm.

    That said, Congratulations for getting this far.


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