Before and After

This summer, I’m trying to buckle down and get through a complete rewrite of my fantasy novel, Immortal Bond. It’s been slow going, not just because of our upcoming bundle of joy, but because of the growth I’ve experienced as a writer since last summer.

IMG_8743

I started my rewrite by analyzing my characters in each scene, noticing that I didn’t know some of them as well as I ought. This has made for countless hours of me just pondering them, their individual likes, dislikes, wants, fears, and any desires driving the current scene. I was forced to reconsider things I’d made them do before. The outcome of this exercise was twofold. First, I realized some of their previous actions and behaviors were too dramatic or extreme to be believable which forced me to cut countless lines of dialogue and whole chapters I used to think essential to the story. Second, characters that weren’t my favorite are beginning to feel more real and likable to me.

But all the cutting necessary to evoke this change hasn’t dropped my word count. My next task was to expand my scenes by adding more detailed descriptions of people’s actions and trying to utilize the environment to evoke character emotions instead of expositioning everything to death.

After meticulously implementing these changes in one particular key scene, I went back and compared my before and afters. The difference is dynamic. So much so that it’s embarrassing to look back at the writer I used to be. I keep thinking of all the manuscripts I handed out to people, hoping for feedback that never came, and wondering if I should just call them up and offer to pay them to burn it.

 

Yet, there are really no downsides to realizing this. Even those six or so query letters I fruitlessly sent out were not a waste.

For one, I needed to start somewhere. My inexperience with querying and the life of a writer couldn’t forever keep to my home. Each step forward was a step of learning, even if it required me to trip and fall.

Two, I knew in my heart back then that my novel wasn’t really good enough to be anything to anyone but me. I read too much not to see the difference between solid writing and someone who, though trying hard, is not exactly Random House material. (The difference I am now seeing makes me think I was barely brand-new-small-time-desperate-for-anything indie press.) That was one of the reasons I was such so nervous about handing out manuscripts to friends and family. I knew it wasn’t great, but I also knew I needed all the help I could get. I needed someone to help expose me to my blind spots. Most of those helpers ended up being my professors and classmates. I guess everyone else was too embarrassed to give it to me straight.

I don’t think I’m going to reach my goal of finishing the rewrite before school restarts. (I’ve spent too much of my summer staring vacantly into the void with narrowed eyes, wondering why or if a character would do or not do the thing.) What’s nice is that I no longer care. It doesn’t matter to me anymore how long this process takes, so long as the end product is something I’m truly proud of. Considering my growing love for my characters, and how impressed I am with the difference between my first drafts and my latest, I think I’m a lot closer to that end goal today than I was when I started this journey four years ago.

That, I think, is something to be proud of. ūüôā

Advertisements

Being Brave and Letting Go

Brave art is beautiful art.

My husband reminded me of this after¬†I bemoaned the increasing number personal elements that seem to be creeping¬†their way into the¬†short story I’m handing in for my Fiction Writing class. About an hour ago, I finished my third draft and had so much of my own self and struggles leaking through my fingers into the keyboard¬†that I literally started to cry.

IMG_8131

No, I screamed at me in my¬†head.¬†No, you can’t do this. You know why? Because what if they hate it? What if they say, “people don’t really do that” or “this¬†scenario¬†is so¬†unrealistic” ¬†or “why is she so upset about something so minor?” You know you’ll just run from the room sobbing.¬†You could barely control your emotions BEFORE pregnancy. Now? Now you cry when Han Solo says, “I know.”

I know.

It’s like when¬†that quiet girl from the back of the classroom stumbles in late to Intro to Creative Writing with a tearstained copy of her latest poem:

It’s Over

Weep, weep, weep
Weep on my unrelenting river of tears
Stream that red, red, red
from the bloody bleeding heart he left behind.
We’re¬†done.
I’m undone.
My bosom is heavy with an empty chasm for a heart
Tears, tears, tears
I’m such a miserable fool.

Suck or not, who has the heart to tell her to trash it when you can barely hear her read it over her piteous wails. I mean, look at her bloodshot eyes! Do you really think she slept last night? *The moon shakes it’s head, for it has born witness to her lonely¬†howling.*

Granted, my story isn’t so overt, and thank God I’ve not been told I must read it aloud, but I’m in there. I’m screaming through¬†the characters mouths. I’m laying curled up beside the abandoned child, grasping and clutching at that empty pocket of warmth left behind in the blankets. And it’s scary to be so seen in such an unseen way. No one in my class knows me. No one will see me there in those words. Nothing will hold back their “this sucks” or “what the *&%$¬†is this #$%@?” That’s good in a way. I mean, the truth needs to be told to me, or I’ll never improve as a writer. But even as healthy¬†as the truth¬†is, it can also be terrifying and humiliating.

Maybe that’s why I hated this story so much when I started, because I always knew it would turn into something more.

Come Friday I’ll have to let it go; I’ll have to watch it¬†fall from my fingers into the hands of 15 strangers who will be reading between the lines of my life¬†armed with a red pen.

This is terror. This is bravery. This, I guess, is art.

To Turtle, or Not to Turtle?

I’m not accustomed to this level of praise from anyone but my husband. My professor is¬†holding out my short story to the rest of the class, my¬†‚ąö++ a loud red against the white paper. It’s screaming, “loved it” almost literally, because that’s what he’s written next to my grade.

“Look at the format. This is what you need to do. The heading there, in MLA. And it’s six pages, so now what? She just has to hand in four more and BOOM! she’s done with her portfolio.”

I can’t make eye contact with anyone, barely even my friends. I don’t know if I’m smiling¬†or just red and blotchy. If I am smiling, there’s a good chance it looks arrogant and cockeyed because I can’t tell if I’m pleased or I want to vomit because I’m embarrassed. I thrive on positive encouragement. In fact, I can take nearly any criticism if it comes with a dose of hopeful praise or a sincere, “I love you.” I just get it so rarely that when it comes, I don’t know how to handle it. Usually when he’s reading¬†my stuff aloud, even if nobody knows it’s mine, I turtle. This is when I pull the neckline of my shirt up over my face so the tip of my nose is covered, and stare vacantly across the room at some lonely piece of dust. And for a moment…we are one. Sometimes I throw shade and do this¬†when somebody else’s stuff is being read, just in case anyone’s watching and has caught on to my tell.

img_1827
me turtling

I read my story to the group, that’s how it goes for the stuff in workshop. It’s the first piece of prose I’ve handed in for Creative Writing. I wrote it early in the semester, but it took me weeks to convince myself to hand it in for critique. I’ve LITERALLY been having nightmares about this moment¬†since I passed it out. The windowless basement classroom becomes the ninth circle of hell, my professor is Virgil, telling everyone¬†my sins of shitty writing while my classmates chew on what’s left of my hopes and dreams, like Satan on the head of Judas Iscariot. The only reason I didn’t have to come into class with a large consoling cup of peppermint tea (a necessity for my Sci-fi/Fantasy Class) is because I sneaked a peek into his stack of papers and already knew¬†he’d given me¬†an A. *crosses herself and looks gratefully¬†toward heaven*

Just him alone, I can swallow the negative critique. He’s published about 6 collections of poetry and, obviously, knows his stuff. If he says it sucks, I cry a lot, pick up the pieces, learn and grow. But for some reason the critique of my peers just scares the crap¬†out of me. I mean, there’s so many of them, and just one me. And I’m thirty years old for crying out loud!¬†Most of them are barely legal. How freakin’ sick would it be for me to burst into tears in front of them. (“Don’t mind me. I just paid all this money to find out I suck. Thanks for making my Mother right. Again…”)

I finish reading (badly) and he starts up again. More or less, he had nothing negative to say. Just a few suggestions and pointing out of silly mistakes. He praised my use of figurative language, dialogue, alliteration, and verbs. He said my story made him laugh every time he read it. He even praised things that I thought I did poorly. I was worried that my story wasn’t deep or thought provoking at all. I was worried that my characters weren’t dynamic. He mentioned these things, but not in a way that made it sound like it mattered, that somehow my story was still “really good.” He said my piece¬†was excellently staged, “like it¬†could be a scene from a movie. Great use of senses so you feel like it’s real. Like you’re really there.” That’s something about my writing I’m constantly worried about, that my setting isn’t visual enough to draw in the reader.

I’m shuffling and glowing and want him to stop and want him to never, ever stop. I mean, I adored him from the first day. But now? Gosh. He’s on his way to being one of my all time favorites. Honestly, I can’t tell you how much his praise was needed. I’ve had so many down points since the summer. I’ve been fighting and struggling to find my purpose, my gift, what it is I’m supposed to leave behind me. I’ve been told by so many people for so many years that I am this and that. I locked them out, but they are the forever recording in my brain that tells me, You are not enough. You are not enough.

But maybe I am. I’m not Tolkien. I’m not Sylvia Path or Donna Tart or David Mitchell. But I’m me. And maybe I am enough of me to be enough.

Do I think I’ve arrived? No way. I mean, this is INTRO to Creative Writing. Maybe next semester I’ll have a Prof who hates my stuff. Writing is a thing that you’re always learning how to do better, and I’m still so new at it. I know my novels need a ton more tweaking before I should try my hand at querying again. But at least now I have some concrete assurance that I don’t completely suck at this. And¬†sometimes, that little something can be everything.

IMG_7607.JPG

Not Ready Yet

It wasn’t the rejection letters that made me think it over, not really. I was expecting them. Honestly, I think it was the fact of my so definitely expecting them that made me really think it over, like I didn’t have a chance in hell.

It’s because my query letter sucks, I thought. I just need to rewrite my query.

And then I thought, No. It’s something else. It’s not ready. But what could be wrong with it? I have combed over it near to 1,000 times! I’ve checked on every comma, every line of dialogue; what else could be wrong? What’s missing?

That was the key to the puzzle, “What’s missing,” because the answer to that question is, “a lot apparently.”

One of my favorite writing gurus is Roy Peter Clark. He’s written a bunch of books about writing, most of which I own. I was reading Help! for Writers in conjunction with a book on query letters, The Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters by Wendy Burt – Thomas. I think it was the combination of their advice that helped me pinpoint the problems in my manuscript.

In the section called “finding focus,” Clark discussed the need to cut your writing back to its essence. He suggested writing down the theme of your work, like a missions statement, so that you can chop off the unnecessary limbs. In conjunction with this, he mentioned deleted scenes in movies. He suggested watching the deleted scenes of your favorite movies and decide why it was that they cut that particular scene.

At first, this was all just information in my head. I could feel it mattered, but couldn’t pinpoint why or how it applied to my novel.

Then I picked up my query letter book. One of the examples of a good query opened differently than most of the others I’d seen, with a succinct statement of the major theme of the story, written in such a way that it tantalized you to read down to the pitch synopsis below. I’d read about these in other query books, but never before seen the tactic so well employed. I wrote one for mine:

“Told through a mixture of letters, poetry, and smatterings of cheeky dialogue, Through This Darkness is a novel about death interrupting the plans of the living and finding a new path of love through the darkness.”

I don’t yet know if I’ll employ this in my query letter and I’m not sure if the wording is right, but the exercise of writing down the theme of my book helped me put the rest into focus.

I was finally getting it.

Now I know what I’m missing. Now I know what needs to go.

So, I’ve cut a chapter of my novel (for the greater good) and I’m in the process of writing at least two more letters along with a slew of new dialogue. Plus, I’m now twice as thankful for those five rejections. Not only do they mean I’ve crossed over the threshold into the realm of those who tried, but also no one requested to see a full manuscript for a book that would not actually have been ready.

Sometimes your inner critic DOES know what they’re talking about. ūüėČ

Already Taken

I loved the original idea I had for the title of my novel. Us. Just one word. Simple and direct. And then as I made extensive notes for possible sequels, I thought I could call call the second one We and the third They. I loved how the titles fit with the plots I’d created and how they were all matchy and pronouny. It made me smile.UsNovel

The problem is, that David Nicholls has also written a book by that title. He’s a widely read author, and it’s a widely read book. Now, I’ve seen double title’s out there, and it wouldn’t be as bad as me saying I wanted to call my book The Fault in Our Stars, but I was still cognizant of the fact that I was more or less setting myself up for second place.

At first I didn’t worry about it, reason being, I’d read in many places that if a publisher picks up a book, they often change the title themselves. I figured, since I was going to try the traditional publishing route, I’d just keep it as a working title and let them do what they do best on the other end. And if I ever decide to self publish, I’d deal or not deal with it at that juncture.

Some of the agents I’ve been sending queries to keep blogs on do’s and don’ts of query letters. I found two that specifically mentioned the title as being something they took into consideration when they received a query. They said it was, “like a first impression, and first impression’s stick. So make it count.” So I swallowed hard and started brainstorming for a new title.

Fact: I suck at coming up with titles for my novels.

Truly. Not even just my novels. My blog posts often have sucky titles. It’s just not something I do well. So when I started thinking I thought out loud with my husband. He’s a clever guy and as honest as they come. If he thinks it sucks, he just says so. So, during our hour plus trip to the grocery store, I walked beside him and shot lame title after lame title at him. He wrinkled up his nose and shook his head and shrugged at The Distance Between Us (Which is also taken), You and IOf Cyrano and RoxanneHold Onto Me, and The Space from You to I.

They all sucked.

One of the characters in my novel is a writer and he writes a book called Through the Darkness as part of the plot. I said to Tim, “What if I called it that?”

He said, “If you do then when your book is famous you can’t write that book and publish it under your character’s name.” I rolled my eyes and told him I would never do that regardless. I thought for another minute then said, “What if I called it Through This Darkness?”

That stuck. It makes sense with the story in general and has that extra nice tie in with that point of the plot. I liked it so much that by the time I got home I had already figured a way to rename the sequels to tie them together in a cute and matchy way.

So, until further notice, my novel is now called, Through This Darkness. And as far as Goodreads is concerned, it’s not already taken. ūüėČ

So It Begins…

After months and months of nerve induced procrastination, I have officially sent out my first query letters for Us.

IMG_5331

I sent them out last week. My husband wrapped his arms around me, we counted down, and clicked the send button together. Sharon was a major help to me that day, sending me constructive criticism on my pitch which I truly think made it infinitely better. This whole situation is simultaneously exciting and terrifying. I keep reading things that say, “It’s never your first novel that gets published.” Maybe that will be true, but I’ve started putting myself out there and that, for me, is a huge step forward.

Though I did a thorough copy edit of my manuscript before I started querying, I am still printing out drafts and combing over them looking for errors. It’s a little disconcerting that I keep finding¬†errors, but at this point I¬†just correct them and move on. As I wait for rejections responses to come in, I’m digging into my next novel, because if it isn’t this one that gets published, it may be the next one. Thusly and thereforths, I need to keep working.

This road may be long and hard, but I love writing too much to just walk away without trying.¬†And now that I’ve started, there is no way that I’m going to give up without a fight.

Best Laid Schemes…

I’ve been meticulously methodical about sending my novels out for representation¬†to the point where, last month, I called myself out for being utterly ridiculous. And, as J.R.R. Tolkien said,

“It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.”

IMG_5062So, I decided to take March off from writing new things and focus on querying for Us. I knew it would be hard and that I’d be scared and maybe even polish off one or two containers of antacids before April rolled around, but this thing¬†won’t happen on its own.

I started out well. Then one day I unwittingly began to mull over some old cut material from a first draft of my fantasy trilogy. They were scenes I liked and plot points I enjoyed, so I hoped that one day I could resurrect them in something else. I chewed on bites and pieces of them over the next two days until something lit a fuse and my brain exploded.

tumblr_mrfuvtdMrC1s7y8efo3_400

It was madness. It was fever. In the space of a week I had over 90,000¬†words in a document, over 50,000 of that are brand new. And that word count doesn’t even take into consideration the 10k+ that I scribbled into my paper journals. One day I wrote for almost 10 hours straight. When I rose from my desk, I wandered the rooms hardly present, my head was clouded with voices and scenes from another world. I lost tons of sleep, had difficulty entering into conversations that did not involve me talking through the rough patches of my story outline, and¬†ignored my husband when he called me to meals.

Thankfully, it’s dying down now, as I’ve rough drafted all the scenes in my head and thought through the outline enough to know how the story is shaping itself. I’ve got three new characters I adore, one of which is probably my most morally complicated character to date.

So my departure date for the long trip¬†that is the publishing process is pushed back again because I love what I do too much. I sometimes have this morbid sensation that I’m going to die with over 20 completed novels sitting in files on my laptop.

…that being said, I think I’ll work on query letters after I finish writing this blogpost. ūüėČ

Quotes-Writing-VoiceoftheMuse

text © Rachel Svendsen 2016