Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Sinning My Way out of a Shitty Act III

Well, my muse finally showed up about six weeks ago. This is Erato, the Greek muse of lyric poetry.

She is not my muse.

In my world, a muse is more along the lines of:

And, yes, she uses the whip. Since this isn’t a novel, I’m going to start with backstory.

After about a year of toil, my manuscript (MS) way finished. Yay Me. Then I got to spend several months revising and editing and refining and everything else I recommend people do — including letting the damn thing fester for a month before I did said revising, editing and refining. Then I queried some agents, had MSs out and had to wait. And wait. And start going crazy, because all I could do was fucking wait. 

But that wasn’t true, there was something else I could do. I could start the new WIP (which wasn’t IP yet, just an idea). Ironically, about an hour after I started it, I got another full request. Karma.

Somehow, though, starting the new WIP gave me breathing room from the old MS that even making it fester for a month did not.

Life Lesson NO. 1: Starting the new novel is probably the best thing you can do for both your sanity and your old novel.

For the next several weeks, my nightly walks with Coho the Wonderdog turned into critique sessions about my Act III. Eventually, my critique group (the dog and I) came to unanimous agreement that my Act III kinda sucked. Except for the kinda part.  Because it sucked. Boo me. That was soon confirmed by a rejection, accompanied by eight pages of notes. Notes that can be summarized in a six word memoir: Love your writing; Act III sucks.

Hope and despair soon began arriving in my e-mail (and on my telephone) in the form of instructions to revise and resubmit my manuscript (R&R). Three of them, to be precise. Any guesses what those three agents thought I needed to change? I’ll give you a hint, it rhymes with Act III sucks.

Whoever said admitting you have a problem is most of the solution never had this problem or is a big fat liar. Admitting I had the problem was nothing compared to highlighting and deleting about 30,000 words. And that was a breeze compared to figuring out a completely new ending. In fact, that part was even harder writing the new 35,000 words, plus another 10 or 20 thousand worth of cutting old and putting in new to make the new ending flow. In other words, writing half the novel from scratch was easier than thinking up what to write. That part was so hard, I gave up on using my normal thinking time (yes, the dog again). I finally decided I had to get my ass in a chair and start writing (an outline for the ending, not the actual prose). 

Life Lesson No.2: There is no substitute for getting your ass in a chair and writing.

Not coincidentally, that’s when my muse showed up. She didn’t fill me with inspiration, she reminded me that I’m her bitch. So I started putting out. It took me about a week (around 25 hours of writing time) to crank out a two page outline. But I knew exactly where I needed to go by the time I was done. I was certain of it, in a way that I hadn’t been certain of even the parts of the book the agents loved. It took another week or two to draw all the threads from Act I and Act II together for the new ending, and then (after about a month) I started writing my new ending.

Who’s the bitch now? Well, I am, because I still had a third of a novel to write.

And this is where we get to my sins. The new ending needed to be told from a new POV. My protagonist’s wife, who went from the No.2 secondary character (or maybe No.3) to the clear No.1, and the MC (not just the main POV character, the main acting character) for part.

I like tight POV. And I don’t like shifting POVs unless absolutely necessary. It happened in the original MS, when I had simultaneous things happening in different places for a couple of chapters, but the break was clean. With the new ending, I couldn’t make a clean break, and I spent about two weeks of my life trying. Fearing the lash, I finally said, fuck it. I just wrote out the ending with some pretty gnarly head-hopping. At least I’d have something on the page. I’d list that one as a life lesson, but it’s mantra — you can’t edit what isn’t on the page. It just hadn’t made such a stark appearance in my life before.

If you follow this blog, you know how I feel about rules. They are guidelines. Anything that makes the story work better for the reader is the rule, and any conflicting rule should be disregarded. That said, most of the “rules” are summaries of the things that work best for the reader, so they are not to be disregarded lightly. Not bouncing around POVs is one of the cardinal rules. So is not changing narrative perspective. Together, they’re damn near sacred. Which is why I was so certain I was doing the right thing when, after weeks of trepedation and seeking alternatives, I concluded both those rules can go to Hell. For a couple of pages. Not even pages, but for a for a smattering of lines in the pages leading up to the new POV shift.

Life Lesson No.3: When you agonize about breaking a rule for a week or two and still can’t find a better way to do it, the rule needs to be broken. No matter what the rule is.

Ultimately, I found myself throwing in a few lines from a limited omniscient POV, sharing what the main POV character and the soon-to-be POV character were thinking. In theory, I freaking hate that solution. On the pages, though, it really seemed to work. Instead of one jarring shift (and I don’t shift back for the rest of the novel), there is a relaxing of my super-tight protag POV. Soon after, there is the introduction of his wife into the POV. Then I cut him back and increase her and she is the super-tight POV for the rest of the book.

Did I mention I hate that idea in theory? Because I really do. And I’m nervous about what the agents will think of it. Because, unlike the recreational reader, they’ll be looking for it. My solution was basically to adopt a typical flaw in unskilled writing. A couple of them, actually — shifting POV and head-hopping with the characters. It’s a gamble. But it was also the best way to move the story forward. Not out of laziness, but directly as a product of how it unfolded. And I hope the measured and precise way I changed focus — essentially passing the baton — will not be lost on them.

Because, to be completely honest, I’m proud as hell of how it came out on the page. And if there had been any other way to do it, I would have. So I’m pretty sure (sin and all) it was the right way to do it.

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4 thoughts on “Sinning My Way out of a Shitty Act III

  1. Well, whatever happens with the publishers, this at least was a very amusing, entertaining read. Good luck!

  2. Go you! It’s hard work, and every step of the way I’m convinced *this* one is the hardest. Fuck it, it’s all hard, all deserves the respect and attention. Wishing you the very best with your latest submissions.

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