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?

Update on My Novel

To my dear readers who have followed my story…thank you for your incredible patience.

It would almost make a story of its own for me to document my writing journey these past months. I finally decided that at the end of the year I will put my novel aside. In other words, it must be finished by then. There are other things I want to be freed up to do.

My biggest struggle has been that I want to write non-fiction. I don’t feel like I am a novelist. I’ve had to greatly adjust my writing style in order to write fiction. Many times when I have been blocked I have read a variety of books on writing, or I’ve read novels, or I’ve picked up Writers’ Digest magazines. I always find the magazines extremely motivating.

However, lately none of the above have helped me get out of my slump. I’ve had a series of revelations, however, and these are now beginning to motivate me to keep writing.

First of all I realized that I was embarrassed to be writing a “fluffy romance.” I actually kept thinking of people who I DID NOT want to have read my novel. My husband insisted that many people loved books by Louis L’Amour, and they were not profound treatises. He kept reminding me that I was a good writer. He told me he enjoyed the parts I had read to him, and that my writing was as good or better than published authors he’s read. “If you can do that, over and over, then you can write a good book.” Don’t underestimate the importance of novels, he’d tell me.

But, I argued, that is not all there is to a book. All of the pieces have to tie together and be in the right order, and you have to keep track of all the threads, and round out all the characters, and build the tension, etc., etc. It just seemed like I would fail, and worse, I might not even know where or why I failed.

I’ve had segments of my work edited and it has proved to be a very humbling experience. However, I decided I needed to move on from there by thinking about how much I learned, how my writing changed and improved, as a result.

I read somewhere that I needed to love my book. Someone pointed out that I had a bit of “self loathing” going on here. In other words, I no longer believed in my story, nor in my ability to tell it.

One day, when I felt particularly low–the day that my editor friend told me that my main character sounded pathetic (in other words), and that my language sounded like something from twenty years ago–yes, I was really told that…I drove to the ocean and was ready to delete my book and cancel my plan to attend a writers conference in August. The thing that held me back was that, for no reason I could put my finger on, I just believed that God actually wanted me to go to the conference this year. If I believed that, then I needed to go. I don’t want to live with having failed to have the courage to do what I needed to do.

Even deciding to love my book didn’t help me keep writing. I still wanted to quit more often than not. The truth was I didn’t believe what I was writing was significant.

I had been trying to dig deep, to get in touch with my characters’ feelings. Yes, there was some good writing. I could tell when it was good and that I needed to do more of that.

I think the breakthrough came when I realized that I knew my book inside and out. I had lived with it so long, I understood my characters better than my editor. And I had grown. I was able to recognize pathetic now and use it. That day I wrote back to my editor friend and told her that, yes, my character starts out with weaknesses, and she knows this, and it bothers her. I told her that maybe I am writing in a twenty year old style, but I’m OK with it. I’m probably not going to change that.

I began to see strength in my story. I took ownership.

I had taken pieces out of my story. Now I began to integrate them once again, in a different way, because I could see they contributed something vital. I slashed whatever didn’t serve a clear purpose. I made a list of what I wasn’t sure I should include and as the weeks passed the decisions became clear. I finally had a sense, not only of where I was going, but what I was doing with my story.

If I had not put a time pressure on myself, I would not have been pushed up against a wall. I would not have realized how much I hated my story and how I was actually seriously avoiding finishing it.

Most of all, I would not have come to the conclusion that I was the only one who could prevent it from being pathetic. I was the only one who could make my story as strong as I wanted it to be. I was the only one who could say, this was how I intended it and I love it now. It is now a true representation of me as a writer.

I finally found my strength and the strength in my story and it motivated me. I saw that I could write a book I would love. And this was the book I wanted to share.

 

 

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!

To unravel or not to unravel

My mother, who suffered a stroke a year ago, has recently taught herself to knit. I keep in touch with her by phone because we live a thousand miles apart.

I admire her spirit. She is determined not to let her physical limitations get her down. I have learned so much from my mother. One thing she has taught me is that if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well.

The last time I spoke with her she told me that she had unravelled the scarf she was knitting because it was uneven, as you would expect from a beginner. Now she intends to do a job she will be proud of.

Some of the things I have been taught by my mother I have had to unravel and re-do for myself because they were not quite right. The old adage about doing a job well, to me started to sound like, “do it over until it is perfect,” or, “if you can’t do it well, then it’s not worth doing at all.” No this is not the same thing, but I think you can see how the progression can happen.

There are times when refusing the urge to perfect something can be a good thing. I have listened to writers who were so concerned about getting it right, that I seriously wondered if they would ever finish anything.

In a writing workshop I spent hours creating what I thought was an outstanding short script. My instructor’s comment to me was, “Is that the way you talk? You are trying too hard.” He did not want me to work so hard at achieving perfection that I did not even sound like myself.

Unravelling our writing can take a lot of time that might be better spent on a new project. I attended a watercolor class where the guest artist told us that he forces himself to throw away half of the paintings he produces. In my writing I also need to be willing to discard pieces.

On the other hand, denying myself the urge to perfect my writing, and still sharing it, can teach me to live with my imperfection.

My mother is now proudly wearing her knitted scarf. The call is yours–to unravel, or not to unravel. 

Editing – it’s happening

I just had to share that I started editing my novel yesterday and it went well. I rounded out a scene. I did some research. I read up on plot versus character and I mapped out my plot on a large sheet of sketching paper.

Mapping out my plot was very revealing. I saw that a lot of things happened to my main character, but she was not really defined by what she did. I saw that I had left two characters dangling. I saw that my story is a story with a lot of medium-sized peaks and that I need at least one large peak. I also saw the possibility that one of my dangling characters could do this for me.

I read a bestseller recently in which the main character re-made herself. It was a good read. But what set her on this path was a bad experience with a man in her life. Throughout the story I kept thinking how satisfying it would be for her to meet up with this man as a changed woman. But it never happened. This made me think that when we get our audience to bond with someone early in the story, even if it is a villain, it  would probably be good not to drop that character.

Every character has to have a purpose and needs to further the plot in some way. I think it’s best to have as few characters as possible. My story has a lot of characters because the setting requires it, but I will take another look and see if anyone is dispensable.