I could talk about the tons of small projects during childhood and adolescence that I wrote as my first manuscript, but my first novel which I started at age twenty-one was just all kinds of wrong. That should be the title of the book. “All Kinds of Wrong.”
The idea started out sweet and easy. It was supposed to be a cute romance about two people who started out as childhood friends at a vacation lodge and how they fell in love as adults. Picture the setting as Dirty Dancing, minus the dancing.
Then I began to think about all the obstacles, the family members, the friends, hell, even the staff and local residents. My cute vacation romance started the slippery slope into wanting all my secondary characters to have lives, too. I could picture these characters with posters, protesting their one-dimensional lives.
So I took the first step into All Kinds of Wrong, my first spiral into Manuscript Madness. I gave them all extensive backstories and lives outside of the main story. Then I realized that I was paying too much attention to them instead of the main characters. I had to give my hero and heroine more than just a backstory. Enter a shit-ton of flashbacks and flashforwards and information dumping.
And that was in the first chapter. I’m not joking when I say that I had my hero driving up winding mountain roads in the first chapter, just reminiscing and flashing back to how he first met the heroine when she was six and he was twelve. It’s painful to read this first chapter. But, hey. I didn’t leave out my heroine. She got the whole second chapter of raking her bittersweet memories over the coals. I gave her flashbacks equal time.
What started out as a sweet, short romance turned into a crazed mashup of The Thornbirds, War and Peace, and every Judith McNaught book I’d ever read. It was epic. It was 150,000 words of epic.
It was Manuscript Madness.
I had whole paragraphs detailing the walk down to the lake where the hero and heroine would meet for the first time after many years. They both started from different cabins, each taking a break beside different trees while flashing back to the last time they had apparently touched that same bark on those same trees before revealing a momentous memory. Something that had happened that changed them both.
I guess I thought at age twenty-one that a first kiss and (years later) the loss of virginity were momentous occassions and crazy obstacles.
What were the things I learned about that first epic manuscript where I descended into madness and All Kinds of Wrong?
You don’t need to put on the page every single character’s backstory and life. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t make them three-dimensional characters. It just means they aren’t the main focus.
Weave in backstory in sneaky ways. Don’t dump information. Not everything is important.
Touching the bark multiple times along the journey might seem bittersweet, but years later it’s cringeworthy. Take my word. First manuscripts are learning opportunities. Even second and third ones. Or, as in my case, the thirteenth.
When I start a new manuscript now, I still have to push my secondary characters out of the way. I don’t care if they sign petitions and organize protests or they try guilting me into writing them into the story more.
I have to tell them: “If you deserve your own story, you’ll get one. Wait your turn.”
That’s my first manuscript story. What things have you learned from your first manuscript attempt? Did you ever descend into madness? Did you ever feel like a manuscript (not just the first) went All Kinds of Wrong?
Please share. I can’t be alone in this. Right?!