I’m Back – Why I’ve Started Working on My Novel Again and What I am Learning

After a long break, I’ve returned to the editing process of my novel, From a Distance. Some of my readers have been with me from early days and I am extremely grateful to you for your patience. As writers, we know this is a complex process that involves many different components, not the least of which is believing in the value of our story.

For awhile I took a side-trip into journalism and almost gave up on my novel. I questioned whether I am actually a novelist. What caused me to return to it now?

I simply decided to apply the most basic truth about writing, namely, the butt in the chair principle. No amount of talent can compensate for time spent refining the craft. I simply said to myself that I am not going to give up without doing the hard work.

After I doing everything I know to do…I will see what progress I have made.

So, this is the beginning of the process. After doing everything I know to do, after spending a year, with an average of two hours of writing on my novel a day, I will see what progress I have made. I’m not allowing myself to quit this time.

I think I have found a new faith and grace to write. It happened after I watched a movie last night. The main character reminded me of my main character and her challenge was similar to my character. I began to feel like I had a worthwhile story to tell. This is what every author needs.

I spent about four hours editing my first chapter and I thought it sounded pretty good, so I called my husband into the room. He is turning into my editor, support, and critique group, all rolled into one. I didn’t get halfway down the first page before he was correcting me.

“You have too many pronouns. Who is “her” and “she”? The reader is being taken out of the action.”

I looked at my paragraph and it was indeed filled with pronouns. It was an easy correction to make, but I missed it on my own. I began to see how badly I needed another set of eyes.

A little while later he commented, “I like that. I like what you did there.”

Good. I thought that part was done well, too, and I really appreciated that he noticed. My reader was in the action, feeling what my character was feeling.

Before long I had another pronoun issue but then we ran into something bigger. Too much telling, not enough showing. I’ve had this critique before. It is a critique that most, if not all, new writers get.

I was sharing back-story. I had too much back story, another very common mistake. You can really only afford to have a couple of sentences of back story in your first chapter. I shortened the paragraph and tried it again.

“It’s probably alright to “tell” when it’s backstory,” my husband said.

He is the reader, I acknowledged. I need to pay attention to how he feels when he is reading my story. If he thinks the amount of telling I did was alright, then it’s probably OK.

I was beginning to see how these little adjustments were making a big difference.

But his next critique was more difficult to digest. He didn’t like several paragraphs describing what was going on in the setting, and highlighting the scenery.

“What’s the point?”

In other words he was asking, Who cares? Long ago a critique partner did some serious damage with the same question, because, after all, I care. I care a lot. Everything I’ve written affects my character’s experience and the development of her story. I’ve tried to get my reader to enter into my character’s world.

Evidently there is a more effective way to do this.

I swallowed and took the critique in stride.

It’s not uncommon for writers to burst into tears or experience something near tears when their laborious efforts are effectively trashed. We are supposed to develop a thick skin, supposedly. It’s not what most sensitive writers have. But we can have an open mind, which is probably just as good.

Parts of my writing distracted the reader from the main story, which my husband saw clearly. I didn’t want that to happen, did I? So, how could I correct this?

I felt troubled. Should I just delete these segments? Delete part of them? Shorten them? Combine them?

We had reached the end of the chapter and I returned to editing.

I did all of the above. I cut my chapter from 1800 words to 1200 words and ended with the main part of the story as the focus.

An hour later my husband kindly listened to another reading.

“That’s great. You did it.” He was almost emotional. “You’ve got a hook, now.”

The hook is the all important thing readers need from a first chapter. It is the thing that makes them want to read the next chapter.

In the first chapter a writer has to accomplish the task of making the reader feel invested in the character. They want to know what happens next to her. This is not as easy as it sounds.

Needless to say, I was encouraged. But now I am looking at the rest of my book and asking, Who cares? What’s the point?

Writer’s Support

It’s amazing how far a little encouragement will take a writer. This is the reason each writer desperately needs a support base of readers who are in love with their writing. Among these readers we look most eagerly for those who interact with our work.

I have published blogs and a few articles and short stories and am working on a book. It is so encouraging when people respond to something I have written. At a conference I attended there was a new emphasis on writers establishing an email mailing list of readers. You share your latest writing accomplishments with your readers and they in turn tell you how your writing impacted them.

At this stage I have not yet joined a writer’s group and I hear this is really the best way to connect directly with a group of supportive people during the actual writing process. I suppose the fact that I have not sought out and joined a group says something about my personality. Like most writers, I am afraid to show my work to others and to have it critiqued.

I have become braver lately and on occasion even dared to read some of my work to family and friends and listen to their critique. Painful as it is, a good critique can be a writer’s best friend. Critiques have moved my writing forward. In their own way, critiques are a show of support.

Recently I wrote four songs. Yes, I am a song writer too. One of the songs is intensely personal. I have yet to determine whether it is art or merely “raw reportage flung splat on the page,” as Mary Karr describes inferior writing in Art of Memoir. But, I take courage in the fact that even raw reportage is a start. And listening to lyrics on the radio today, one wonders if art is a requirement at all to get a record label.

Time and distance often help to tell if the writing is good. When I go back to my writing and find it moves me this is a good sign. If it moves others, that is even better.

One has to be careful with critiques. When a writer’s art is in the embryo stage it needs to be protected from harsh judgment. When it is polished, it is time to share it. A writer must have some level of confidence in his or her work or it may never see the light of publication day.

Kate Bond wrote eight novels and basically never showed them to anybody before she recently won a contest for a screen play. This is an example of how timid writers can be and that is why we need support. Bond submitted her play in an effort to get over her fear. She says, “I think it was this idea that it was a low-stakes way to send a piece of writing out into the world; that some stranger, some third party will read it and it will help kind of alleviate this great phobia I have of showing anything to anybody.”

I started this blog in a really good season when blogs were a new thing. Now we are literally flooded with millions upon millions of blogs and sorting through them can be fatiguing, if not overwhelming. Recently I came across one that I find particularly worth reading, Brain Pickings by Maria Pavova. This lady does much more than “splat on a page.” Pavova says she puts hundreds of hours a month and thousands of dollars into her blog yet the only advertising on her site is in the form of links to books on Amazon of which she gets a small percentage of the sale if people buy them.

When people love our work, they praise it and better yet, agents publish it and readers buy it. Bloggers don’t have the advantage of publishers to promote their work and they don’t get a percentage of sales. As an alternative to posting random ads, Maria Pavova respectfully requests financial support from her readers. I hope people consider donating to her. But for starters, simple praise is what most of us need to be inspired to move ahead and that only costs a few minutes of intellectual investment.

In the writing world it is essential to build relationships and learn how to support and promote one another. I have made many great connections by attending writers’ conferences and find it takes an effort to move to the next level where you really benefit from each other’s skill set.

I am interested in knowing how others have built a support base. Who do you show your writing to? At what point do you show your writing to someone? Have you found the perfect mix of support and critique in a person with whom you have shared your writing? Have you had a shocking experience when you shared your work? Are there online sites you recommend for sharing writing? Have you found a creative way to share your not yet perfect drafts?

If any of my writer readers would like to share their work with me, I will give you a gentle critique and I promise some encouragement too. You may email me at friesentina@gmail.com. Send a Word document as an attachment, please. It can be a blog article, song lyrics or poetry, short story, or up to ten pages of a novel, double-spaced. Write a little about why you wrote the piece. I will respond to the first five scripts I receive.

Orienting Your Reader

I am currently on holidays in Manitoba for a month, visiting family and attending two weddings, as well as my mother’s eightieth birthday celebration.

While I am here I am also trying to carve out some daily time for writing. This is more easily said than done. I don’t have an internet connection so doing research presents a challenge. But the library is not far away.

Recently a friend loaned me a book I wish I had known about years ago. It is Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. If I had studied this book early on, it would have saved me countless hours of editing I am now required to do on my novel.

Techniques of the Selling Writer was published in 1965 and reads like a college textbook, so you have to be prepared to plod through it, but it is well worth it. It has more practical advice than any other book I have found. I would say it is a must read for every beginning novel writer.

Like the old saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” We all have gaps in our knowledge and we don’t know what they are. As I read Techniques of the Selling Writer I recognized many of my gaps. It was thrilling for me to learn why some things I was doing were not working and to find out what I could do to improve my story. I am not yet finished the book and every time I pick it up I learn something new.

One thing I learned was that with every scene, and particularly in the beginning of the story, it is important to orient your reader. Give your readers a sense of time and place. It sounds simple, and maybe you have always done this. But I looked at my story and went, at what point does my reader realize that the story happens in Portland, ME? It was way too long before this became evident.

Also ask yourself, what time of day is this incident happening, and then slip in a clue. Sometimes you make a clear statement like, It was six o’clock, on Friday, March 6. But more often you’ll probably say something like, Sally dried the last of the dinner dishes. Or, The sun was sinking behind the trees as he turned into the driveway and saw Jayne sitting on the front step with the twins. Earlier you have clued the reader in to the fact that your lead character looks after the twins every other weekend.

Think about seasons too. Is it cold or hot with humidity? You could state, It was January in Chicago. Or, maybe the month isn’t that important and you simply want to give your readers a sense of the weather by saying, He wrapped his woolen scarf around his neck as he bent his head against the wind and blowing snow. Here is another example, Dark clouds loomed in the sky. Maria slapped a mosquito on her arm as she sat down on the grass and opened her lunch bag. The reader knows it is noon, there is the threat of rain and it is warm enough to sit outside on the grass without a coat.

Our readers will appreciate this small consideration. It will help them to relax and get into the story. If we tell them early on, then they will not feel jolted by information that came too late and didn’t match their assumptions. After you do this for awhile it becomes second nature.

If you are serious about writing, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Techniques of the Selling Writer. I’m sure you will make some surprising and helpful discoveries.

Writing Update

I am two and a half weeks away from the Oregon Christian Writers’ Conference. Last year when I went to the conference for the first time–my first ever writers’ conference–I submitted my novel to an editor who said it was too “edgy” and “not suitable” for the publishing house she represented. I’ve since learned that “Christian” novels have to be “squeaky clean.” My, there is a lot to learn in this business of writing. (People who know me well probably can’t imagine that I’d write anything but squeaky clean, but that just goes to show how little “reality” is allowed in these houses.)

In the past year since I started considering an actual career in writing I have learned sooo-oo much! It has been an extremely exciting journey.

Of course, now I have been working on figuring out how “edgy” my book is going to be and I have been looking at other Christian novels (I confess I don’t often read Christian novels) to see how they do it. Maybe this is the time to admit that I don’t really like Christian novels a lot and so you are probably wondering why I would write one. Well, I thought The Shack was kind of original, although I don’t really like the spin-off theology, as in ‘imagine your God to be whatever works best for you.’ I also liked John Grisham’s The Testament, and I liked Have a Little Faith, by Mitch Album. OK, these are not “Christian” books, maybe not even “Christian” authors. And so maybe I shouldn’t be looking at a “Christian” publishing house.

I thought I might write an enjoyable romance that just shows normal Christianity without being preachy. Not that this hasn’t been done before. But for some reason I have not found these books. I believe that there are a lot of people out there, who, like me, are looking for good values and a sprinkling of spiritual content in their reading.

I also wanted to see if I could set my story in a church and give people an idea how churches work. That is turning out to be difficult, especially since the way we are ‘doing church’ is often not really very effective.

As an update, I had my first ten pages edited for the second time and came away discouraged over how little I know about how to write a novel. Novel writing is very different from writing a blog, believe me! A friend of mine told me I need to have a ten year plan, and that helped. I’m not going to learn this in a day, or a year for that matter.

At the same time, it can be thrilling when I finally “get it.” I’m getting better at “showing” versus “telling” so things are looking up. There are actually a number of things I am doing right.

A big problem has been understanding my POV–point of view. For those of you who don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, I will explain what I have been learning about POV in another post. Suffice it to say, you need to have one “point of view” character at a time, and nothing gets put on the page that the POV does not know. It’s not as simple as it sounds.

One of the hardest things for me has been to know where to start my story. I imagine a couple of people, like me, might not know that it is actually a good idea to start in the middle, not tell the story from beginning to end, chronologically. This means that there is a lot of “back story” that one needs to weave into the “real” story. Another big learning curve here. (I know you seasoned writers are probably rolling your eyes now in disbelief, but hey–we all start somewhere.)

This book was completed last year, and, naively, I thought it just needed a little editing. But now it looks like it needs a major engine overhaul and there are days when I wonder if it is worth it, especially when I would much rather be blogging. =) Maybe I am a “non-fiction” writer as opposed to a “fiction” writer. They really do seem to be two entirely different animals!

When they don’t like you

Recently I was on a blogger’s site where another blogger posted, in no uncertain terms, that he did not want this blogger to follow him. There was a lot of outrage in the following comments, but then I saw a comment that I thought was very appropriate. It went like this:

Wow, (blogger). Sorry (this person) came at you like that. You’re correct to say it’s counter-productive for anyone to attack their supporters. It’s not in their best interest. Both on my blog and on Twitter, I have people following me I have disagreements with politically, morally, and spiritually. But anyone willing to lend me an ear or extend me a hand of friendship will receive mutual respect. There are people I interact with I struggle to understand on a host of levels, but does that close me off from them? Heck no. Every once in a while, someone with an opposing or different viewpoint shares something with me that impacts me a great deal.

This was by News Burp (used with permission =)).

The blogger who was “attacked” responded by saying that he liked discussion and even a good argument but that he brushed off hostility. He chose instead to focus on improving his art with the hope that next time the reader’s response would be different.

In my last blog on “stars” I mentioned the sensitivity of some authors towards reviewers who give them ratings of less than five stars. We may disagree with our reviewers, but, before we criticize them, let’s remember that they are also our readers, our audience. We may not understand why they respond to our writing as they do, but let’s consider that their experience of our writing is a valid one, maybe even one that merits our careful attention.

Only four stars?

Recently I came across an organization that distributes books to readers on behalf of new authors in return for a review.

I have not yet received any books for review, but today I read on the website that authors have been hurt because some of the reviewers gave them only four stars.

It is a delicate situation for the host of the site who does not want to offend the authors who are giving reviewers free books.

Having the occasional lower review may actually be a good thing. Andy Traub explains why in his article entitled,  Why five star reviews aren’t as powerful as four star reviews on Amazon.

Buyers will look at the overall balance of reviews. If there are only five star reviews then the book has no credibility. It needs 80% five star reviews and the remaining 20% will likely be spread out through one through four star reviews.

Readers want objective reviews. As authors we need to brace ourselves and accept that not everyone will like our books equally well.