Decluttering has officially affected every aspect of my life. Even my novel. Recently I’ve culled this beast down to a two-page synopsis, a two-paragraph elevator pitch, and finally a Twitter pitch. Not fun.
I loved writing TIES THAT BIND duringNational Novel Writing Month.Creating those touching scenes filled with evocative details of time and place was fun. 112K words of fun in fact. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was merely building a stockpile of raw material from which I could (maybe) craft a novel. What I had created was a metaphorical slab of marble. Not a book–yet–just a massive lump of potential.
I should have known this, after all I used to teach a lesson about the writing process, using Play-Doh of all things. Students molded and mashed, pulled and pinched the dough until they knew what it could do. And what it couldn’t. Only then did they try to turn it into something recognizable. And only after it was created could they add details—in this case bits of different colored Play-doh. Details don’t stand alone. Descriptive details do not necessarily make a story, whereas relevant details can.
Of course, now I’m doing the opposite. Removing extraneous bits—decluttering the narrative—to reveal what I hope is the novel hidden inside. Like a sculptor, I’m removing the chunks of cold marble that don’t serve my characters’ story arc.
The heart of my story is in there–I hope–buried beneath this beautiful mess.
With some trepidation, I sent a “completed” draft of my novel (working title Ties that Bind) to four friends who had graciously volunteered to be first readers. Three are fellow members of Lone Mountain Writers. One is a member of my book club, although I hesitate to say “just a reader.” Without readers, there would be no writers. Right?
Every page of this nearly 400 page beast has been read, critiqued, and nit-picked repeatedly, but the whole thing all at once? Not until now. I really wanted to know how–and if– it hung together. Two manuscripts are still out, but the two critiques that have come back are so vastly different, I hesitate to make any major changes before seeing the final two. What? Two readers had very different opinions about one piece of writing?! Unheard of! (And where’s that sarcasm font when I need it?)
My “reader” friend had few comments and wondered if I’d finally publish it now. As if it were within my power to hit “publish” and make my book land on the shelves at Barnes and Noble next week. I explained the daunting process of researching and querying dozens of agents, hoping to convince just one to take on the task of selling it to a publisher. That process could take months. Years, maybe. I was recently told that until I had queried and been rejected by one hundred agents, I shouldn’t consider calling my attempts “failed.” Yes, self-publishing is an option, but…
My “writer” friend thought it was fine writing, just not yet a novel. It lacked a through-line of cause and effect to compel the reader. Crap. She also caused me to question my own judgment about the scenes I had deleted when I cut nearly 14K words from the original 112K manuscript. Had I unintentionally cut out the heart of my story? Double crap.
In light of that, I’ve begun rethinking the structure and scope of what I had originally envisioned as a story of a lifelong friendship between two very different women, the choices they make, and the consequences of those choices. Here’s the most recent version of the blurb:
“Baby boomer, Claire Jordan has spent decades building a satisfying career in international relief while running away from the losses that plagued her troubled youth. However, when she receives news that her one lifelong friend Libby is ill, she books a flight home. Libby too, has built a life, but one tangled in the very ties and expectations that Claire has so scrupulously avoided. Together they will discover if it’s ever too late to change your mind about who you believe you are.”
Too much or too little to drive a novel?
While I ponder that question, I’m re-reading books on craft, especially the sections on plot and story arc. My two much-highlighted and dog-eared sources: Writing Fiction (Janet Burroway) and The Emotional Craft of Fiction(Donald Maass).
I remind myself that I asked for this help. And in recent yoga classes, I’ve meditated on remaining receptive to my teachers and trusting I will be able to untangle the many threads I’ve created and weave them into a story.
It’s impossible to say how many drafts Ties that Bind has undergone. It’s been in revision since 2008, when I “finished” 50k words during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Each sentence, each scene, and each chapter has been reviewed and critiqued countless times by me and the very capable–not to mention very patient–members of Lone Mountain Writers. It’s now about 100k.
This past spring, I printed out and read the whole thing cover-to-cover in an attempt to get a sense of how it all hung together. Or didn’t. The result was a hard copy filled with highlights, sticky-notes, and huge sections crossed out. I’ve since made those changes in my manuscript. Nonetheless, I thought it needed (I needed?) one more going-over before letting a few beta readers take a look. (Obsess much?) And no, the MSWord spelling and grammar checks don’t catch everything.
Several people recommended reading it aloud to myself. Good idea, but I have been over this beast so many times, I’ve become “error blind.” I do not read the words that are there. I read the words that I think are there. Silly brain.
Then I remembered that my Kindle Fire has a Text-to-Speech feature. I’d listened to e-books while driving, but never used it with a document. I sent the document (a docx file) to my Kindle Fire. If you haven’t done it before it’s pretty easy with your Kindle’s email address. Find yours under “Settings” and “My Account” on your device.
You know what? It worked!
Ms. Kindle’s voice is female and a little mechanical, but certainly clear enough for my needs. I sat at the computer with the document on the screen and the ear-buds tucked in. I listened and made corrections as the nonjudgmental voice read exactly what was on the page. Bless her heart. She read every single typo, every syntax error, and every other embarrassing “little” thing that I hadn’t picked up in my repeated readings. Some errors were the ghosts of previous drafts–you know, tense or point of view changes.
While I couldn’t see them, I could certainly hear them.
Still, as helpful as Ms. Kindle is, she can’t create the tension that compels a reader to keep turning pages. She can’t make my characters believable or likable. She can’t tell me which scenes and details are necessary and which were merely fun to write. Nor can she do the other thousand and one things to make this creation into a book that someone besides my family will want to read. That’s still up to me.
I discovered yet another layer of revision by making a “word cloud” from my manuscript. I simply pasted my entire manuscript into the tool atWordItOut.You can easily see my overuse of certain words.
I’ve spent the last two mornings removing about half of my uses ofknow. Only a little tedious. I found most of them were in dialogue that I thought sounded conversational, but was merely boring, you know? Now, maybe I’ll just do that with all the rest.
Bless their hearts. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
My dear friend, Joan, challenged me to write a novel during National Novel Writing Month(NaNoWriMo). While Joan was a NaNoWriMo veteran, I was a virgin. Why not? I was retired now and I’d had this story of love and friendship (inspired by a few real events) rolling around in my head for years. So I rolled up my sleeves, stocked up on coffee and chocolate, and spent the month of November tapping out 70K words. Sure, it was a little rough in spots and probably had a few gaps in the plot. Nevertheless, I believed I could get it into shape during the following year.
That was in 2008.
Cue the deep, resonant voice of an omniscient narrator: “Little did she know…”
Soon afterward, I ran into another friend, the legendary Western Nevada College writing teacher, Marilee Swirzcek. She was enthusiastic about my accomplishment and invited me to join the local critique group that she had founded. Advice from Marilee and other writers? Sure. Sign me up!
I attended a few meetings of the Lone Mountain Writers and critiqued pieces in a surprising variety of genres. Romance. Horror. Memoir. Fantasy. Christian Fiction. Sci-Fi. They all had one thing in common, though: excellent writing. I knew I needed to up my game.
Months went by as I continued to polish my first fifteen pages. I was sure the group would be awed by my as yet untapped literary genius.
Here’s what I heard instead:
“Beautiful writing, but where’s the story?”
“What does your protagonist want and what are the stakes?”
“Where is the conflict, the drama?
“Who is the POV character? And why does it seem to switch in the middle of this paragraph?
Gulp. While I had read a literal ton of books and had written opinion pieces for the local newspaper for a decade, it appeared I knew nothing about writing fiction. Nothing. I could certainly recognize a compelling story, but did not know how to create it. Yet.
Fortunately, the group included several English professors who could offer both criticism and encouragement in equal measure. The group has been discerning and honest and, more importantly, patient.
They have now read most of my 111K manuscript—twice. Last week, I printed a hard copy of it (300+ pages, double-sided, spiral-bound, $40 at the UPS Store, BTW) with the intent of doing a whole read-through and edit while on along ocean voyage (18 days, Sydney to Honolulu) this month. Yes, my highlighters, sticky notes, and flash drive are already packed.
What I hope to do here is to document the next few stages of the process. You know, recruiting a few beta readers and doing a final edit—if there is such a thing. I’ll also be choosing how to publish. Shall I try to find a traditional agent and publisher or self-publish? Only e-books or hard copies too? And with whom? If this is to be a DIY project, then the issues of learning to—or paying someone to—format it and design a cover arise. Then there is promotion and, well, you get the idea. There is still a long way to go.
In addition, I’ll finally have a place to point my dear non-writer friends who keep asking when it will be done. I try to reassure them (and myself) that I don’t want to be embarrassed by something that was put out into the world before it was ready. Unfortunately, the wait has also served to raise their expectations. It seems I can’t win.
So watch this space for news of my progress. And please, if you have personal experience with any part of this, I’d appreciate you leaving a comment or link.
This post is in response to a brief blog-versation I had with the charming Brian over at Bonnywood Manorafter he kindly nominated me for a Liebster Award. Liebster means “favorite” in German and the nomination carries along with it some obligations, which I am politely, humbly, and gratefully ignoring. Brian was curious about my creative process and the critique group to which I belong. Therefore, instead of accepting the award, I wrote this. If you have something to say about writing, creativity, or lifelong learning, please do so in the comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts. XO
In this photo, my granddaughter is celebrating her 100th day of kindergarten and being “100 DAYS SMARTER.” It got me thinking, shouldn’t we all celebrate getting smarter? Am I still learning?
I like to think so, but some of that learning is accidental. For example, perhaps we should have gotten an estimate to replace the roof on this twenty-year-old house before we made our offer. Or maybe drinking several cups of tea with my sushi at dinner the other night wasn’t such a good idea. I guess that’s what they mean by “live and learn.”
Other times, however, I’ve set out to learn a new skill. On purpose. I’ve put myself in the uncomfortable situation of being potentially and embarrassingly bad at something. Like blogging. Or yoga. In short, I’ve risked failure. At my age, being new at anything is refreshing—scary and humbling–but refreshing. Even exhilarating.
Case in point, at the urging of my friend, Joan, I wrote a “novel” in 2009 during NaNoWriMo.The quotes are because my “novel” was merely 70,000 words of collected scenes and sketches, held together with hope, Dove wrappers, and sticky notes. It added up to a word count, but little else. I knew I needed help massaging it into something meaningful (readable even?), but what kind of help? How much? And who do I ask?
Enter another friend, Marilee, who just happened to be a legendary writing instructor at Western Nevada Collegeand founder of Lone Mountain Writers, a local critique group. LMW has been meeting every other week for over twenty years and has among its past and present members several published poets and authors such as romance writer, Wilma Counts. Marilee invited me to join. I accepted.
During my first few meetings, I observed the protocol and learned the ground rules. Up to four pieces are emailed to the group ahead of time so we have a chance to read deeply and make notes. Submissions can be up to fifteen pages. The group responds round-robin style with each of our oral comments limited to two or three minutes, all while the author remains stoically silent. We hand over our marked up copy to the author who only at the end may ask questions, defend, or clarify something.
I was profoundly impressed by the variety and quality of writing. Many people were working on novels. And for the most part, they didn’t need help with grammar or punctuation. The discussions focused on elements of fiction: plot, point of view, character, structure, pacing, voice, etc. These are the things a reader may not even notice, except in their absence. It’s what makes a reader want to invest time and thought and heart in the work. That stuff.
Consequently, I waited months before I worked up the courage to submit. I’d been writing personal narratives and opinions for years, but fiction was new to me. I polished my first chapters until (I thought) they sparkled. I just knew the group would be blown away by my literary genius. Instead, what I heard–repeatedly–was, “This is excellent writing, but you don’t have a story here.” Apparently, what I had was a mess of good writing.
But the story in my head kept pushing me forward. It wouldn’t let me give up.
So I kept listening and learning. I read books on writing and revising. I rewrote and resubmitted. I attended a local writers conference and got feedback from a real, live editor. I “killed my darlings,” deleting lovely little bits of writing that didn’t serve my story. I learned not to take any critique personally and to listen to those who shared my vision for my story. I smiled and respectfully set aside advice from those who wanted my story to become theirs. (It needs more explosions! How about some robots?)
Now, five years and countless drafts and revisions later, what I hear is, “This is the best thing you’ve submitted,” and “I finally like this character. I understand her now.” Whew.
So while I may not have a cute hat to wear to celebrate getting smarter, I nonetheless feel a sense of accomplishment. That’s enough to keep me going. Good thing, because it’s not done yet. But neither am I. I’ve invested too much time and energy to quit now. I’m smart enough to know that.
The Blogging 101 assignment for today is to personalize a prompt from the Daily Post. Here’s the prompt: “Tell us about the last experience you had that left you feeling fresh, energized, and rejuvenated. What was it that had such a positive effect on you? “https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/re-springing-your-step/ That’s easy. This. Yes, this. You. Here. You see, I started Blogging 101 on a bit of a whim. I hate not knowing how to do something so useful and cool. And it was free and I could do it in pajamas and fuzzy slippers. And without make-up. How perfect is that? Little did I know that it would break open the logjam that’s been obstructing the flow of words from my brain. Yes, I’ve written a few posts and tweaked my blog. I’ve sketched out my next column. But more importantly (to me, at least), I’m making real, honest to goodness progress in the long slog of rewriting my five-year-old NaNaWriMo novel. The words and ideas are once again rushing. Yes, I expect there are a few boulders and bends along the way, but I feel like I’m moving forward once again.
I think of myself as a big chicken, bumpy white flesh and all, so I loved Silver Lining Mama ‘s “Stick out Your Neck” post yesterday. It reminded me that the older I’ve gotten, the braver I’ve become. I worry (a little) less about what others think.
Back in 1997, I participated in a Northern Nevada Writing Project Invitational—a workshop for teachers, based on the premise that we practice what we teach. We wrote. And wrote. I become comfortable with sharing my writing. Two years later, I began contributing to a decidedly left-leaning (granola-eating, tree-hugging, feminist…), opinion column in our local newspaper, The Nevada Appeal. That experience toughened me up. My name and face go above every column. For better or worse, I own my words.
The newest neck-sticking-out adventure for me was writing a NaNoWriMo novel and joining The Lone Mountain Writers, a respected, local critique group. Talk about feeling exposed! The first time I had a piece up for review was like my worst showing-up-naked-at-work nightmare. Now five years later, I’ve survived and—more importantly—learned. The other members are wise, talented, honest, thoughtful, and kind.
Thanks for reminding me that being brave isn’t about not being scared. It’s about being afraid and taking that step anyway. So here I am, blogging. If I’m lucky, no one will even notice my bumpy white skin.
I’ve written for years, but blogging is new to me. Blogging 101 seems like a great opportunity to learn the basics. I hope the blog will be an archive for the newspaper columns I’ve written over the past fifteen years and serve to connect like-minded folks. In addition, I’ve been revising a NaNo novel for about five years and hope to post snippets of it from time to time. My interests are pretty varied, so you’ll find an assortment of topics to start with as I begin to define my focus. Thanks for stopping by!