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.