Restless Manuscript Syndrome

“Restless Leg Syndrome? Oh, that’s an electrolyte imbalance,” said a doctor-friend. “Just drink Gatorade.” I shrugged. Couldn’t hurt. So I downed a juice glass-worth of Gatorade and voilà—my legs stopped twitching. Thirty years of restless leg syndrome gone. Done. Relief! All I have to do is drink a little Gatorade every evening, and I sleep through the night. And for what it’s worth, let me just say that I really like that “cool blue” flavor, but if I get tired of it, there’s mango extreme, rain berry, lime cucumber…

If only writing were so easy. If only there were quick fixes for years of rejection letters, for the restless places in our manuscripts. If only finding the voice of a story were as easy as trying a new flavor.

Come on, we’re all about quick fixes, right? We have no shortage of elixirs for lowering cholesterol or losing pounds. Combine free Internet access with the ease of digital printing and everybody and their second cousin once removed has published a memoir or mystery or children’s book or dystopian fantasy. Publication promises immortality, right? What are you waiting for? Publish that baby! Now! Quick!

Ahhh… but if only every book or essay or short story were worth reading.

So the question is: how does a writer make a manuscript worth someone else’s time? Earlier this month, I attended SCBWI’s regional conference in Austin, TX, and heard author Matt de la Peña tell writers to slow down. “Let a scene play out… Let readers participate more… The micro-level of a scene matters…” It was just what I needed to hear. I returned home to my work-in-progress and made myself linger inside scenes. I paused to identify smells and sounds, to let my characters touch smooth surfaces and rough ones. I threw out scenes that didn’t matter to the emotional arc of the story, and dug deeply into those that did.

Then I read de la Peña’s award-winning young adult novel, Mexican WhiteBoy, and loved it. No matter that I’m not into baseball and this is a baseball book. It’s well written. Period. I savored the flow of it, the way he wove memories into present-action scenes and orchestrated the unfolding of an unlikely friendship. And then there were the baseball moments. The pitcher. The batter. The wind-up. The challenge. The threat. The way he raised the stakes. Again. And again. And again. Not only did he have me on the edge of my seat, but a week later I found myself suggesting to my book group (a bunch of middle aged white ladies) that we read and discuss this book and get tickets to a Flying Squirrels game. (That’s our local minor league team. Great name, huh?)

By slowing down each scene in Mexican WhiteBoy, de la Peña got me to engage with characters whose world was foreign to me. He invited me to read as if I were a participant in the action… there on the edge of the baseball diamond… cringing, cheering, sneezing when the dust got too thick… I felt it all because he invited me in. No quick tonics. Lots of sensory details. Amazing dialogue. And the irony, okay? Is that he left me restless… eager to read his other critically-acclaimed novels.

Sure, I’d like to hurry up and finish my current work-in-progress, get something new to my agent, have a second book in print. But not if it means hindering readers from entering into the scenes I’m writing. I value my readers’ time, so it’s worth my time to slow down. Getting readers to participate in my characters’ lives is everything, and if I can pull it off, I’ll have penned a novel that’s worth their time. Thank you, Matt.

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