Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Moving on

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Most people think an author's debut novel is their first. Makes sense, right? But for most authors, a first novel is often, more precisely, their first novel to be published. Disheartening? Maybe. Or maybe it's encouraging. But how do you know when your first manuscript is THE ONE, or if it's time to move on?

Marissa Stapley is the author of the recently released novel Mating for Life. The national bestseller is her debut novel, but it's not the first one she's ever written.

How do you know when to revise a book that could be better, or to move on and start something new?

MS: This is a tough question! Recently, I decided that someone needs to invent a device for manuscripts that’s sort of like one of those cake tester things (sorry, I don’t bake--is there a proper name for it?), to check for doneness. his instrument would tell you if a book is ready to show your agent or editor—or if you need to dump it and start over.

But in reality, no such device exists and authors must rely on their own good sense. The problem is that writing can be a very emotional process, which means deciding to walk away from an unworkable manuscript can feel like deciding to walk away from a bad relationship!

Walking away from something you’ve poured a lot of time and effort is indeed scary, but I think it’s important to realize that all the writing you do helps you become a better writer and is never time wasted. I’ve walked away from my fair share of novels at this point, so I do feel I’ve developed a sense for when something has potential, and when it’s a dud. Since I love nothing more than to be working on a first draft of a fresh project and just letting the writing flow, I’d say a definite warning sign is if the first draft starts to feel like work. The first draft is supposed to be the honeymoon phase! If I dread working on a novel at that stage, I always re-evaluate.

But what if you finish the first draft? Then what?

MS: A problem that many writers run into is what happens after the work is shared and editorial suggestions are given, perhaps from someone in your writing circle, or an editor or agent. Needing work is not a sign that a manuscript should be scrapped. But if you start taking suggestions, and reworking, and then taking more suggestions, and reworking again, you could end up with something that was not what you set out to write. At this point, if it’s still not ready, or if it’s getting rejected across the board, taking a break could be what’s called for. Even allowing yourself to start on that other idea you had while walking the dog is okay. In my experience, chiseling and hammering away at a manuscript that isn’t quite working is a painful experience—and stepping back can provide the clarity you need to either make the edits that will turn the manuscript into a gem, or know it’s time to start working on something else. On the bright side, dead manuscripts sometimes resurrect themselves, or their characters find their way into future books. That can be pretty neat.

After a book is rejected by publishers or agents, it's often hard for an author to move on. Your book Saving the World (in Sensible Shoes) was set to come out in bookstores -- then your publisher went bankrupt. How did you decide to start writing a new book when the one you had was polished enough to be published?

MS: Well, the truth is, there wasn’t a huge amount of interest in that particular book after Key Porter folded. I decided I would try to revise it into a Young Adult novel, and while I don’t regret this, I think at that point I really needed to let it go rather than contining to try to get it published. But I was too scared. I had never put a manuscript in a drawer before, so I didn’t know how ultimately liberating it would be. After I did it, I mourned—and then I started writing the short stories that would eventually lead to Mating for Life. And I got a happy ending after all.

Why did you decide not to self-publish Saving the World (in Sensible Shoes) and to instead start a new book?

MS: I wanted to take one more shot at a traditional publishing contract. I may have considered it, if Mating for Life hadn’t been acquired, but I’m so glad I ended up with a team of people behind me rather than having to go it alone. I think self-published authors are incredibly determined and hustle more than I could ever imagine myself hustling. I’d be too afraid I wouldn’t have any time left to write!

What motivated you to keep writing, when you didn't know if you would sell Mating for Life - or how did you tell yourself that it would sell?

MS: I didn’t. I told myself to write as though no one was ever going to read the book. As I was working on it, I didn’t allow myself to even think about a potential publishing contract. What motivated me was my love for writing. After walking away from Saving the World (in Sensible Shoes) I didn’t write anything for almost six months, and I felt so sad. I realized that even if I couldn’t make a career out of it, even if I had to make my living in other ways, I would need to write creatively just because I loved it. As I got further into the book I had a feeling I was onto something, but I forced myself to focus on the act of writing itself, and nothing else. It felt great—and it made me realize that no matter what, I am a writer, even if no one is paying me to do it. (That said, it was a huge relief to find out that someone actually did want to pay me to do it.)

Chantel's note: It IS called a Cake Tester! Here is a cute one. Wouldn't it make a good bookmark?

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.