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?

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!