Rewriting Hell

Oct 17, 2016
Ruby Clyde in the Hill Country of Texas

Ruby Clyde in the Hill Country of Texas

I had reworked my novel, RUBY CLYDE, (final title pending) so many times I no longer knew what remained in the book. My weekly writers’ group patiently weighed in for a year, while I worked with an independent free-lance editor. Only then did I submit the manuscript to agents and several showed interest. The one I signed with gently suggested certain improvements, which I worked on before she submitted the manuscript to publishing houses. I was fortunate enough to begin talking to editors, and they suggested several more changes. Most of which I found valuable. Then, the first pass at Farrar, Straus and Giroux failed at acquisitions. There was a problem with my comedy about a little girl who’s mother is on death row. Certain changes were proposed but since the changes were so large, so integral to the story, I got in bed and hid under the pillow until receiving the most amazing email from my oldest son. It worked. I got up and rewrote, yet again, and FSG bought the book. I am certain that I will rework the novel even more, with an editor that I have grown to trust. It won’t be easy but I believe it can be done. I’m sharing my son’s message here:


I tried to call you a couple times but I guess you are busy. This is basically what I would say on the call, and we can talk more later.

First of all, congratulations! Any answer other than rejection is great news! It really is. They are professionals, not coddlers, and they are clearly still very interested in the book. I understand you are probably feeling a little disappointed right now. It’s completely understandable to feel that way, and you shouldn’t suppress that feeling. But after you get over the initial hump, you will realize that the solution is really not as daunting as you probably think it is right now. As much as you tried to convince yourself it wouldn’t sell, a small part of you was still hoping– almost expecting– that they would buy it outright with no strings. But that’s unfortunately just not the world we live in.

Up to this point, you have been writing Ruby Clyde for you. And that’s a very free structure, with no one able to tell you what to do. But in that world, your audience is very small. Now, you need to write it for the world, and the first step in bringing it to the world is Farrar. It is likely that many at Farrar love the death penalty aspect of the plot, but at the end of the day, they are a business. And if there are political problems with writing about the death penalty that would interfere in the book’s chance at success, that is simply the reality. We all think it’s stupid. But that’s the reality.

When we made the documentary, the process of making it without ESPN was very different from the process of making it with ESPN. We had already pared it down to what we thought was the bare, glorious essentials. Every second mattered, every moment had meaning. And then ESPN wanted us to cut it in half, which, as I’ve said before, felt like I was the baby’s true mother standing before King Solomon. We gnashed our teeth and thought that it was impossible to do, that it would be a whole different story, a ruined documentary, if we cut it that much. We thought it would take ages and ages to get it anywhere close. But honestly, the daunting prospect in those first moments felt far worse than the actual editing process ended up being. And by cutting our baby in half, we expanded our audience from our circle of family and friends to millions and millions of people.

You see, we had attached meaning to every frame. And every frame seemed to be necessary to us, because it was. Just as it is for you and Ruby Clyde. But at the end of the day, we realized that what was truly important was no particular detail, just Kyle’s triumph over adversity. No plot point should be able to stand in the way of getting that message out. Similarly, Ruby Clyde herself is the heart and soul of your story. No plot point, even if it feels huge, is. That’s how you need to look at their death penalty issues, and the other details they mentioned.

As your agent mentioned, the issues Farrar has will likely be the issues other publishers will have. You cannot change the political reality of the book distribution world, at least not yet. For now, you are trying to get your first novel published, and frankly, that means you should be willing to tear up the floorboards if it means selling the house. I know it feels hard right now. The first cuts will be the hardest.

When you are up to it, talk to your agent, and possibly even your contact at Farrar if necessary. Try to determine, as specifically as possible, what all their roadblocks are. Then turn Ruby Clyde into a pile of notecards. Write each scene on the note card and display the whole novel in visual form on a cork board. Each scene or plot point where they have an issue, write in red what their issue is. Write below it why you wanted to have that plot point in the book in the first place, the deep reason you were really bringing it into the novel. Then write five alternative note cards to that scene. Talk to us for ideas, talk to your friends for suggestions. Shuffle up your book, chew it up, work it around, and find a new formulation that makes both you and them happy. Then go back and sell that book which at that point they will truly love. Remember, you don’t even need to rewrite it yet for them to buy it. Just re-outline. It really isn’t as bad as you are currently thinking. I promise, I’ve done it before.

Always remember mama: Even if Ruby Clyde was terrible (which it obviously isn’t), even if it was unreadable (which it obviously isn’t), even if you couldn’t even string three coherent words together (which you obviously can), even if you were a babbling idiot in some 19th century insane asylum somewhere (which I suppose we can’t rule out), even if ALL of that were true, Markham, Jesse, Pop, me, and many, many other people in this world still love you more than words can express. We are so happy for you. Call me when you get some time.