E is for….Editing

I’m an impatient person. I want things to move quickly and efficiently. I’m also unrealistic in gauging how much time a project will take. And I get frustrated when my vision for how something should go doesn’t match the reality. (These are also just some of the many reasons why I meditate.)

Writing a novel is an exercise in inefficiency. There isn’t a one-to-one ratio in words written to words published. I have piles and piles of pages that will never see the light of day, storylines that will never be more than notes jotted on scraps of paper, novels half-started and then abandoned. But I also have material that climbed out of the morass and became something interesting. Something readable.

Before I was a writer, I used to think that books fell out of the brain fully formed. The writer was a conduit, nothing more. Now I know that none of the good stuff gets where it is without rounds and rounds of blood, sweat and editing. Here’s how I edit and rewrite:  I poke and prod at the characters, examining their motivations and identities. I hack unnecessary scenes, rewrite entire chapters and destroy villages. When I can’t take it further, it goes to beta readers and I revise some more. After that, it goes to my amazing editor, Rebecca Heyman. Then back again for more editing.

And yeah, it’s totally inefficient. This still frustrates me on some level. Then I remind myself that maybe efficiency isn’t the highest goal, that maybe the highest goal is writing the best stuff I can. Then I tell myself to shut up already and go write.


D is for….Discussion

The other day I wrote about the importance of beta readers in supporting my writing. Today I’m giving mad props to another group – the people who have been willing to discuss my work with me. My writing career has been marked by a degree of surrealism – there’s still a part of me that has a tiny out-of-body experience whenever I refer to myself as a writer. I think I’m waiting for everybody in the room to smirk and say, “Yeah right. Now what do you really do?”

So whenever anyone takes the time to have an honest-to-goodness discussion about my work, it sticks with me. It reminds me that there are people in the world who have confidence in my abilities to tell a compelling story. This in turn gives me the confidence to approach a blank screen and the doubts in my head every morning.

Some the best discussions have come from people who haven’t read anything I’ve written, but who are hooked by the premise of whatever novel I’m writing and off we go. I’ve spent hours around a bonfire, in a rocking chair in someone’s office, in a coffee shop and once on a rooftop garden talking about the worlds I created in my head.

My favorite discussions are the ones I’ve had with beta readers, however, sitting around a hightop at the local bar or on a walk in an arboretum or on an abandoned road in Wyoming, discussing the intricacies of my characters and their lives. For a time, my inner life becomes real to someone else, and that connection is magical.

What kinds of discussions inspire and motivate you, whether you’re a writer or not?

B is for…Beta Readers

What the heck is a beta reader, you ask? Beta readers are those lovely souls who read drafts of manuscripts prior to publication and provide feedback. They are the ones who find all of the plot holes, inconsistencies and gaffes. The best ones also couch their critiques in lots of hugs and “but here’s all the stuff I loved” comments. (Writers – especially this one – have fragile egos.)

Getting feedback from beta readers is a little like seeing a picture of yourself after you’ve only been catching glimpses in the mirror: “Oh my god, is THAT what my novel really looks like?” Writing is funny that way – you get to know your characters and their world so well that you lose objectivity and need others to help bring it back.

In your mind, your characters’ quirks, motivations and emotions are so obvious that you forget you haven’t translated everything in your head fully to the page. I had a few readers on Some Flew North who kept saying that my main character was inconsistent and too passive. My main character grew stronger through each round of drafts as I explored her motivations more, but she still has a long way to go, in part because I should have listened better to my early beta readers.

Beta readers also catch glaring errors, of which I have legion in all of my manuscripts. Like when a character’s middle name changed – twice – during the novel. Or when another traveled three hundred miles roundtrip (on foot!) and was back home in two days. Or when another one kept running his hand through his hair. Seriously. Every other page. Him with the hair. And even though this character has really good hair, it was a little excessive.

I can get manuscripts to a certain point (usually the third or fourth drafts for me) and I know I can’t get them any further without having several other pairs of eyes reading them and giving feedback. So no, I couldn’t do what I do without beta readers.

I’d like to end with a roll call of my beta readers – any omissions are my own error. The gratitude I feel toward them is without measure:

Jen, Sara, Sarah, Alyssa, Asli, Erika, Diane, Amanda, Kari, Jeff, Don (he knows why) and Leila (who also knows why).

And especially Chris, first reader and best love.