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.

 

 

Getting Past the Fear

Last night, at 4:00 a.m. I finally pressed ‘Send’ and submitted my first ten pages to the Oregon Christian Writes Manuscript Submission program. For $5.00 you can have an editor or agent look at your first ten pages when you attend the conference. They may or may not want to meet with you and possibly ask for your complete manuscript.

Before I go on, I’ll just give you a brief summary of what has happened since I dropped off the scene for awhile. I hope we can be the kind of friends who can pick up where we left off because that’s the kind of friends I mostly have. We are in this for the long haul and know there will be interruptions for various reasons.

I have been doing a lot of thinking about the direction of my life and during the last three years I took two different admin assistant jobs. Previously when I was blogging regularly (2012) I was between jobs and very focused on moving ahead with my writing.

Working at these jobs made me realize that I have a very strong admin gift, as I have been told, but that my passion is not so much in the area of keeping a machine running as it is in connecting with people and finding ways to make meaningful contributions. I like to contribute in many ways. Hosting a meal, planning a birthday party, interacting with children and seniors, finding and sharing significant information, decorating my home, creating beautiful paintings, taking photos, building memories with loved ones, problem solving, and enriching my marriage.

While I was working I kept thinking that I was wasting my time. I know I wasn’t actually wasting my time, but maybe I was missing opportunities. I felt I was missing the things that only I could do. However, I had to counter-balance this with the fact that I was helping others on my job reach their goals and that is very significant to me. I love to help others in this way.

But now I feel the time has come for me to start my own business, in a sense. This is the second go I am having at building a writing career and to tell the truth it scares me. I could have pressed ‘Send’ at 10:00 p.m.yesterday but I had a fear of putting my work out there. When you are younger, I think, your mind doesn’t go so many places and consider so many possibilities before making a decision. In other words, you basically just think, if I mail this, then I might get a publishing contract. What could be more exciting?

But me, I was sitting in bed thinking, is this really how I want to be perceived? Is my novel saying what I want it to say? Am I being true to my characters? Would I be embarrassed if so and so read this? If so, why?

I have a lovely friend, a published author, who is nudging me along with my writing. She even came over this week and helped me sort out my first ten pages. I was completely stuck. I have spent a very long time trying to find out where my novel starts, how much is back story. After sending her several different chapters, because my book is mostly complete, she finally said, “That’s it! That’s where your book starts!” I was so relieved, until I tried to figure out how to move ahead from there and suddenly it looked like none of the rest of the book fit. Thankfully she was able to help me out with that too.

It’s an understatement to say I’ve learned a lot in this process. But one thing I do know. I keep getting excited about sharing what I have learned with my readers, right here, on this blog. It is what I have finally discovered to be one of the things I love the most. As I said before, I love sharing significant information. So, I am keeping this thought in the back of my mind and trying to figure out the best way to do this.

Back to last night. With those questions rolling around in my mind I took another look at my writing, and specifically my last page, because I felt uncomfortable with it. My friend, Gail Sattler (check out her novels-she writes humor), had helped with my edits on these ten pages and really improved my writing. She has a lot of experience and knows how to put the feeling on the page, unlike me. But, as I looked at the last page I saw it wasn’t me. I had to take out the things I loved that she had suggested and turn it into my writing. When I finally did that, then I was able to press ‘Send.’ Incidentally, she is also the kind of friend who says, “I’ll mail yours with mine.” I wonder why?

Writers can relate to the fear of putting ourselves out there. There are so many ways to fail. My plot might be weak, my middle story might lose the reader’s interest, my writing style might be boring, or I realize I can never write like so and so.

Nobody in my family is a writer. I am breaking new territory. I admit I am afraid of what people will think of me, of my writing. I want to be seen as a thoughtful intellectual, but maybe I am just a hopeless romantic. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and that is confirmed by book sales. I am just trying to find the courage to put myself out there, whatever it is.

I read something helpful today in Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight V. Swain.

Don’t try to be all things to all men. Universality of appeal is a myth….Quit wasting your time pretending that it doesn’t exist, or that there’s some esoteric way around it….You can’t change yourself at will to suit a given public. You must accept yourself the way you are. Then, seek out an audience that sees the world the same way you do. Can you be sure that such an audience exists? You can. Individual you are indeed; and different. But not that different, for you’re human also (p.117-118).

“You must accept yourself the way you are.” Haven’t we all heard that a million times before.

I didn’t want to hurt Gail’s feelings by taking out those really good bits, or re-wording them. But the writing process is about helping the writer become the best they can be and that means the best THEY can be. Gail gets this. She’s awesome.

I truly hope that I will be able to write here with some consistency over the next months. But, one of the best things that I have learned this past year is that this is a dialogue. It may look like the conversation has ended when bloggers stop posting for awhile. Maybe for some it is. But others just need to re-group, decide what they want, figure out the best way to move forward, and trust the timing. The break may be exactly what was needed.

 

Will your voice sink or swim?

OK, enough about me and my journey. Time to get back to what I love to write about. I love sharing my discoveries about writing with my readers.

I am excited because I just read an article in the September 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest that has been particularly insightful for me on the subject of voice. I hope it will help you as well.

The article is an excerpt from the book, Creative Nonfiction (1996), by Gerard Philip. In it Philip quotes Bob Reiss as saying our writing will sink or swim, based on our voice–a sobering thought.

So, as writers, you can see it is critical that we understand what is meant by voice.

According to Philip, voice is the cumulative effect of the following:

  • the words you choose
  • how you craft your sentences
  • the form in which you write
  • how you do your research, and even
  • the questions you ask in an interview.
    • An excerpt from Steven Harper’s book, Writing the Paranormal Novel (2011), printed in the March/April 2012 issue of Writer’s Digest, adds that voice is also about:

    • how your words sound on the page (rhythm)
    • the themes you explore, and
    • your emotional response.

      Philip says, “Voice is what the reader hears in his mind’s ear, the strong sense that the words of the story are coming from another living, human personality with a unique perspective on events.”

      I agree with Philip that you can’t fabricate or “overlay” voice on your work–“It is intrinsic in everything you do from the moment an idea occurs to you until you turn in the finished draft.”

      You bring your unique perspective and attitude to the story. Philip quotes Bob Reiss as saying voice is, “You’re kind of sensitivity. You’re kind of anger. You’re kind of whatever the dominant thing is in you.”

      In other words, it is everything that is you. Everything that distinguishes you from another person.

      Finally – Something helpful about finding your voice

      Thank you Jeff Goins! In his article, What You Write About Doesn’t Matter as Much as You Think, he writes “Most writers are concerned with the wrong thing. They have a simple, misguided belief that holds them back from creating….They mistakenly believe that what they write about is more important than how they write.”

      Naturally this statement caught my attention. You can find the whole article at Goinswriter.com. It is worth reading. Here is an excerpt that was particularly helpful to me.

      Finding a worldview

      Everyone has one. A paradigm. A perspective. A code of ethics. It’s how we all live our lives, whether we realize it or not. This is what sets a person’s voice apart from the rest of the noise vying for our attention: not what they say, but how they say it.

      I hate to be the realist here, but look: There is no subject you could write about, no niche you could target, that hasn’t been reached before. So for crying out loud, stop trying to be so clever and original (it’s not working).

      Instead, focus on the how, the worldview of what you write. What about the way you see the world is different? What would resonate with some and cause others to disagree? Write that.

      Write something that’s worth fighting over. Because that’s how you change things. That’s how you create art.

      So, voice is about having a unique point of view. It sounds so simple. Your voice is what you bring to the table that is distinctly you.

      Yes, voice has to do with writing style, but it has more to do with our experience, our passions, our perspective. Each of us has a different story which shapes our writing. Think about the home in which you were raised, the schools you attended, the friends you had or didn’t have, your religious beliefs, your successes and failures, your joys and sorrows. All of these influence your writing and make it uniquely your own. The DNA of your life is unlike that of any other person.

      When you write from your unique viewpoint, some people will love your writing and others will not.

      Cec Murphy, who has published numerous books and articles, both as an author and ghost writer, says he would rather have people hate what he writes than be inauthentic, or untrue to himself in what he writes, and be loved.

      We tend to want to show only a certain acceptable side of ourselves. Our culture has taught us to compare ourselves, to be “politically correct.” Writing with your own voice is not for the faint of heart. It takes being able to handle both the accolades and the criticisms. But you may be surprised how others will identify with what is the real you. They may love your originality. Along with Cec, I want to be appreciated for who I really am, as opposed to who I might pretend to be. 

      More on voice

      Does anyone else have this problem?

      I find myself all over the place when it comes to writing. Today I wrote an article on True Confidence. Day before yesterday I wrote a short story. I seem to be doing anything but editing my novel.

      Yes, I am still writing, and I suppose that is a good thing. If I were to analyze myself, I might say that I am not comfortable with my novel. Maybe I don’t want to publish it? If not, then why? Is it just my critical nature? Is it my fear of exposure?

      I am going back to my article regarding voice. Does my novel represent my voice? I think this is the real reason for my avoidance. I question whether I am saying what I want to say in the way I want to say it.

      I need to dig deeper. We all talk about finding our voice. How do you actually do it? Or is it just a matter of recognizing it when you find it?

      I feel like there are layers and layers I have to go through to find out the truth about what it is I want to say. Does anyone else have this problem?