WRANGLER OR TOSSER?

by | Apr 4, 2024 | Tracy Clark, On writing | 12 comments

Dispatches from the Desk
By Tracy Clark

I’ve heard stories of writers stopping two-thirds into a novel and shredding the whole thing because they weren’t happy with what they’d written.

I’ve heard stories of writers who have finished an entire book, submitted it, and then asking their editor to toss it in favor of something else they’d rather write, something presumably better.

I’ve even heard stories of writers who have dumped an unfinished manuscript into a dark drawer proclaiming it unsalvageable, only to start a new project that could end up right beside the unsalvageable one.

I gasped each time the tale was told. I didn’t get it. I mean, I got it, but it didn’t quite compute. Why? Because I’m a word wrangler, a plot pummeler, the orneriest novel ripper this side of the Pecos. (Insert tobacco chaw hitting spittoon here.) I, fool that I am, think I can make anything work, turn any story mess around, as long as I put in the time, crystallize my vision, serve my characters well, and don’t throw in the towel when the words bite back.

Wrangler or Tosser?

Sepia toned image of rodeo scen. A horned-calf running from a cowboy in jeans and spurs on a saddled, trotting brown horse. Only their waist down is visible. A lasso flies from top left beyond the crop toward the calf in canter, hovering above like a halo. Image fades into dark around edges.

All writers are different. I know this. We’re like snowflakes, unique. Not a single one of us has the same process. No one way is the right way or the wrong way. Still, it’s the two-thirds through, the completion followed by the yank back, the book locked away in the dark drawer like it’s the Man in the Iron Mask that gives me the skeevies.

I think it has something to do with the fact that I’m an editor by profession. I can’t look at a news story or a column and say, “Nah, dude, I can’t fix that. Want to try again?” The clock’s ticking. There’s a slot waiting. I have to fix the mess and send it on. Blue pencil out. Head in the game. Go.

I approach my writing the same way. I’ve started a story. I’ve envisioned a plot, characters, the whole nine. I’m gonna finish it. I’ve got to commit. When I encounter the mess on the page, and I will, I know I have to figure out a way to fix it. It’s mano a mano. Me versus the words. Only one of us is walking away clean.

For every story problem there is a solution, I just have to find it.

Sometimes the fix is easy. I took a wrong turn somewhere. If I go back and find the thread I dropped two chapters back, I can usually pick it up and weave my way forward. Sometimes the fix is difficult. I’ve completely lost the plot, the plot’s too weak, the stakes aren’t high enough, my characters are acting like ninnies and racing all over my pages like preschoolers hopped up on fruit punch and vanilla wafers.

Maybe I’ve got to take my original idea that sounded workable at the outset and turn it on its head, coming at story and character from a different angle. Maybe the upside-down perspective is the secret sauce? I can snatch victory from defeat, dadgum. I only have to try.

Perhaps, there should be a support group for Word Wrangler writers. We could all sit in a circle once a week clutching our wrinkled pages and try and figure out why we are so averse to giving up. Why do we hold onto words like we’re Gollum squatting in a drippy cave hunched over a gold ring? Are we wrong? Naïve? Is it that we just don’t know enough not to? Maybe the writers who toss and shred and sentence their books to dark places never to see the light of day have it right?

Beats me.

Wrangler or Tosser?

Black and white image of writer in reasearch mode. Top-down view of hands on keyboard, reaching over an open book (may be dictionary) to reach board. Hands are light in skin-tone and, based on shape and hair, potentially masculine. Other open books boarder the image, most overlapping the black keyboard providing the overall effect of crowded and fervid work.

All I know is, I’m not giving up a story two-thirds of the way through. I reason if I’ve gotten that far I’ve found something to say; I just have to unearth the right way to say it. I’m also not getting all the way to the end and then changing my mind about a story. If I’ve typing THE END on a manuscript, you’d better believe all the words that come before those last two have been hard fought for and sort of make sense.

Before I type the end, I’ve dug deep. I’ve raised those stakes. Characters have been tamed. My story dominoes, lined up like little soldiers, have fallen one on top of the other in perfect precision, or at least as perfect as this imperfect sidewinder can achieve.

By the end, I’ve moved words and sentences and chapters around a bazillion times. I’ve fallen into story holes and clawed my way back out again. I’ve condensed and consolidated, I’ve trimmed and deleted. But I’ve held on. Fortune favors the brave and the … stubborn.

Besides, most of writing is revising, anyway, isn’t it? That first draft is nothing but trash. The good stuff happens later when you really drill down, when you make sense of the garbage, when the lifts become heavier. That’s when you keep going. You don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

That support group might not be a bad idea, now that I think about it. A group for the pummelers, those clutchy scribes who knock the stuffing out of slow beginnings, messy middles, and weak endings.

You will know us by that steely look in our eyes, that stern set of the lips, that refusal to relent.

Meet me next Tuesday in group.

“Hello, I’m Tracy, and I’m a Wrangler.”

.

Tracy Clark, author of the Cass Raines Chicago Mystery series, the Det. Harriet Foster series, and this blog: Wrangler or Tosser?

Tracy Clark, a native Chicagoan, is the author of the Cass Raines Chicago Mystery series and the Det. Harriet Foster series. A multi-nominated Anthony, Lefty, Edgar, Macavity, and Shamus Award finalist, Tracy is also the 2020 and 2022 winner of the G.P. Putnam’s Sons Sue Grafton Memorial Award. She is a member of Crime Writers of Color, Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.

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12 Comments

  1. Karna Small Bodman

    I can certainly identify with this great blog, Tracy – because I do believe I’m a “Wrangler” — just a delayed one. Several years ago, I wrote a thriller but my (then) agent kept criticizing it – telling me to kill the Prologue, switch around the chapters, change other aspects – until I finally gave up, left the manuscript in my back – restored the Prologue and am “re-editing” the whole thing. Thanks, Tracy, for the additional nudge!

    Reply
    • Tracy Clark

      Karna, I’ll meet you at the support group. LOL.

      Reply
  2. Cynthia Rice

    Great blog topic and very original. I think ‘wrangler’ is a better approach than ‘plot patcher,’ where I sometimes feel I’m heading.

    Reply
    • tracy clark

      Plot patcher. I like that, Cynthia!

      Reply
      • Jenny Milchman

        Plot pummeler. I LOVE that. Preschoolers hopped up on punch and nilla wafers. I love that even more.

        Your sense of efficacy is what blows me away. It’s not that I don’t believe I can edit and revise–although I don’t, and every time I get an editorial letter is a fall from grace for me, Wait, you mean I’ll have to change a single of my precious words?

        That stance is borne less of hubris (though that’s in there too) than terror. I don’t believe I CAN change a precious word and wind up with something better.

        Guess I need a steely eyed gaze of my own.

        Reply
        • Tracy Clark

          Jenny, I think we all have to Lady Macbeth this writing thing, go for it, and “screw our courage to the sticking place.” Minus the real murder part. LOL.

          Reply
  3. Keenan Powell

    Wrangler. There’s one book I started a couple of year ago. Got one-third through it where obviously there needed to be a murder but I didn’t want to write a murder. I wanted to write literature, where nothing happens beautifully. The book is in the back of my mind nagging me. I try to rework it into something else but it isn’t cooperating. I suspect I’ll finish it someday.

    Reply
    • Tracy Clark

      Wranglers unite!!!!

      Reply
  4. Lisa Black

    I’ve thrown a few chapters away, but yes, the idea of throwing a book 3/4 done away gives me nightmares. People think I’m organized and efficient but that’s because I’m basically lazy and despite wasted effort. Save room for me in that support group because even when my herd looks like it’s under control, I know they’re about to bolt in all directions in a show of complete chaos.

    Reply
    • Tracy Clark

      I’ll save you a chair, Lisa. LOL

      Reply
  5. Chris Goff

    Wrangler! Though, I will admit, I’ve learned not to feel bad when going back and tossing a few chapters before moving forward again. It’s never wasted material. Somehow much of the best writing finds its way back onto the pages, just in better position and with better purpose.

    Reply
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