In this article, New York Times bestselling author, John David Mann shares his experiences editing and rewriting his first novel, Steel Fear (2020).
When I handed my wife my five-hundred-page, hundred-fifty-thousand-word completed draft of my first novel, she did three things. She read it. She told me she loved it. And then she gave me the best advice I’ve had in a decade: “Send it to Jericho.”
This wasn’t my maiden voyage. I first learned about the value of rewriting—the agony and ecstasy of rewriting, its trials and rewards—more than a decade earlier. Back in 2005 I coauthored a little “business parable” with a friend and managed to secure us a terrific literary agent, who in 2006 sent it round to a handful of publishers in New York and got the following responses:
Editor 1 at Publisher A said no.
Editor 2 at Publisher B said no.
Editor 3 at Publisher C said no.
Editor 4 at Publisher D said no.
Editor 5 at Publisher E said no.
Editor 6 at Publisher F said no.
Editor 7 at Publisher G said no.
Editor 8 at Publisher H said, “This one was pretty interesting. The writing is good, but the payoff was a bit lacking.” In other words…no.
So we took the manuscript back, spent months reworking it, and then in 2007 sent it round to publishers yet again. This time, some of those same editors from 2006 responded, as did a few different editors at some of those publishers, as well as some altogether new editors from entirely different publishers. Here’s what they all said:
Editor 9 at Publisher A (Editor 1’s publisher) said no.
Editor 10 at Publisher B (Editor 2’s publisher) said no.
Editor 11 at Publisher I said no.
Editor 12 at Publisher J said no.
Editor 13 at Publisher K said no.
Editor 14 at Publisher L said no.
Editor 15 at Publisher M said, “Starts out with a bang but loses steam in the middle.” That’s a no.
Editor 16 at Publisher N said, “Liked it, but not quite right for our imprint and the direction we are going in this year.” Nyet.
Editor 17 at Publisher O passed to Editor 18. Who said, “Like it, but couldn’t get other team members enthusiastic about it.” Nein danke.
Editor 4 (back at Publisher D) who’d said no on the first try, said, “It’s very well done, but I don’t think it’s the kind of book that will work well on our business list.” En-Oh.
Editor 5 (back at Publisher E) read the new version and said, “Needs a unique hook or punchline to get people to respond. Writing is great but payoff not strong enough.” Fuggedaboudit.
Editor 6 (still at Publisher F) said, “Saw this twice now. Liked it, but didn’t love it. While I like the message a lot, the story itself seemed a little more didactic and forced than we would like.” Amscray.
Editor 7 (back at Publisher G) said, “Liked it. Wanted to love it, but I’m afraid I just didn’t connect with it. I’ve been incredibly wrong before and probably am on this one, but I’m going to have to pass, with regret.” Don’t let the door hitcha where the good Lord splitcha.
Editor 19 at Publisher H, the same house where Editor 8 had said “This one was pretty interesting but the payoff was lacking” the previous year, said—
He said “yes.”
The moral of the story
We published THE GO-GIVER in early 2008. It hit some lists, won some awards, and to date has sold nearly a million copies in more than two dozen languages.
But the moral of the story isn’t what you might think.
You’ve heard the stories about persistence— JK Rowling turned down by a dozen publishers. Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen and their goofy idea for a book called Chicken Soup for the Soul turned down by 144 publishers. Harlan Sanders and his recipe for fried chicken rejected more than a thousand times. And so on. The moral is, persist! Believe in yourself! Don’t listen to the naysayers—keep knocking on those doors! Right?
Those first eight editors were right to reject our book. To this day I thank my lucky stars they all said “no.” Because if even one of them had said “yes” and we’d published the book back in 2006, it would not have sold a million copies. Maybe a thousand. Or not.
Because it wasn’t ready.
Those eight editors knew something we didn’t know.
And that, that, is to me the moral of the story.
Yes, believe in yourself, believe in your idea, trust that your story is the most fantastic and amazing and compelling story that has come around in years, that the world needs and wants your story. Have unshakable faith in yourself.
But keep one ear open. Maybe both ears. Because there are people who know things you don’t know. And if you want your idea to become all it can be, all it should be, all it was born to be, then you need to hear those things you don’t yet know. Hear them, and act on them.
During those months of reworking that original manuscript, our agent first covered every page with red ink, and I then spent dozens of hours rephrasing, simplifying, compressing, and deleting. Changed one character’s gender. Cut a few other characters altogether. Remember that comment about how “the payoff was a bit lacking”? Right: we tossed out the entire last chapter and wrote a brand new one.
And it became the book it was meant to be.
Which was why Number Nineteen (aka Adrian Zackheim at Portfolio, an imprint at Penguin, now Penguin Random House) said “yes” and launched my career.
Fast forward a decade. By 2018 I’d written a bunch more books, some fairly successful, some not so much, but all of them sharing this in common: they were all shelved on the nonfiction side of the bookstore.
In June of ’18 I set out to do something that terrified me: write a novel.
Harry Bingham is one of my crime-fiction heroes. I’ve loved every word of the Fiona books. I wanted to do something like that. I’ve also come to love Harry’s teaching and coaching. Before starting work on my novel I read his How to Write cover to cover, joined Jericho Writers and watched his video course.
Then I started.
The story is a thriller called STEEL FEAR, and I cocreated it with a friend, a former Navy SEAL sniper with whom I’ve written before (all nonfiction, till now). He had the basic story idea, supplied technical and background detail, and was a rich source of color and flavor for the world I was building. The actual writing—creating characters, designing the plot, working out the twists and turns, putting flesh and blood and bones on the whole thing, and tapping out one damn word after another—was my job. Here’s the elevator pitch:
A disgraced Navy SEAL stalks a serial killer aboard an aircraft carrier in the midst of the Pacific Ocean.
It took me about fifteen months, from first research notes and scribbles to first draft.
At which point my wife said: “Send it to Jericho.”
Understand, this is something I’ve never ever done before: hired a third-party consultant to critique my first draft. I’ve gotten critique-and-review assistance from my agent, from my publishers’ editors, and from the handful of friends who form my early readers’ circle. This was different: a novel. My first. And a thriller, yet.
I knew my wife was right. I needed professional help.
So in mid-September 2019, I submitted the manuscript to Jericho for a full manuscript assessment.
I don’t think it’s too early to say, that one action has changed the trajectory of my career.
Jericho paired me up with veteran thriller author Eve Seymour, who turned around a lengthy, comprehensive critique within a shockingly short time. (Weeks, not months.)
Eve was most generous in her initial comments, the “What I think is great” part. And then got down to business. Chapter by chapter, page by page, structure, plot, characterization, pacing and tension…she mapped out the entire thing, end to end, from broad-strokes observations to detailed notes.
Her critique was fantastic, phenomenal, incisive, spot on. Kind but ruthless. Terrifying. Galvanizing. Motivating. I saw what was lacking, and what was possible.
Eve helped me see that the story had major flaws. I’d conceived of it as having more or less three protagonists—and you can see the problem right there in the phrase “more or less.” It was vague. Not a clear three-strand braid, but not a clear one-hero thread either. She prodded me to make a clear choice as to who was the protagonist, and then rework everything to serve that choice.
I had way too much backstory. Heaping helpings of unnecessary exposition. The pacing was fantastic toward the end but laborious in the first half. And inconsistent: some scenes zipped along, some dragged or halted the momentum altogether. Plot took way too long to get going. Some subplot threads didn’t really work. And so on.
I had a lot of work ahead of me.
I spent October through the end of the year completely reworking it, in the process shrinking from 152k words to 129k.
On New Year’s Day I sent Draft 2 to my agent.
Who read it. Told us she loved it. And asked for further cuts and revisions.
Her observations ran along exactly the same lines as Eve’s. All I had to do was keep going.
Between January and April I went through two more drafts, in the process taking that new 129k word count to 120k, and finally to 103k. (From the original, that’s about one in every three words chopped. Warning: Many, many darlings were murdered in the course of this production.) Deleted a handful of characters, some of whom I’d thought were “indispensable.” Tightened timelines. Shifted critical revelations to earlier. Rewrote all the murder scenes that were originally told from the killer’s POV to now be from the victims’ POV. Eliminated a prologue I’d thought of as brilliant and riveting but which turned out to be neither.
And so on.
Until, finally, it had become the book it was meant to be.
In June we got a handful of offers, took the one from Ballantine Books for a two-book deal. Signed a contract in early August. The first book of the series, STEEL FEAR, will hit the shelves on August 24, 2021. The sequel comes a year later. With, perhaps, more to follow.
And here’s the cherry on the sundae: we are presently in discussion with three A-list Hollywood producers, all of whom want to bring our story to the screen. The book has, as they say in Tinsel Town, “buzz.” Once a deal solidifies and we know for sure which horse we’re riding I’ll see if we can append that information to this post.
Will the book be a hit? No one knows. Will the screen adaptation really happen? No one knows. But this I know, and know for sure: If we hadn’t gone through all that rewriting, none of those editors in New York would have jumped on it. Not one. And the novel would have ended its days sitting on my shelf.
Writing made the story. Rewriting turned it into the story it was meant to be.
John David Mann is coauthor of the New York Times bestsellers TheRed Circle, Flash Foresight, The Slight Edge, and The Latte Factor. His Take the Lead (with Betsy Myers) was named by Tom Peters and the Washington Post as “Best Leadership Book of 2011.” His international bestselling classic The Go-Giver (with Bob Burg) was awarded the Axiom Business Book Award’s Gold Medal and the Living Now Book Award’s Evergreen Medal given for “contribution to positive global change.”
You can keep up to date with John’s new releases, on his Amazon page. Find John on twitter here, or have a nose around his website here.
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