Writing: Getting My Money’s Worth

 

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It was clear what I was going to write about today–friendship, perhaps a specific friend, current or past. First I shopped at Goodwill with a daughter, then got a few groceries. I worried a bit about having the afternoon free to tackle my subject. Once home, however, I realized laundry needed to be done. After I got that going, I was hungry so took my time eating yogurt and some trail mix for a late lunch. Then I tidied up and that led to lingering over several childhood pictures I’d left on my desk when searching for my passport. Then I stared at the stacks of books and wondered which ones should go into a “Still to Read This Summer” pile. I was able to resist the urge to go through them that moment. Things could wait; I needed to write.

It was four o’clock in the afternoon and I hadn’t put one word on the page. How many more ways could writing be avoided? Not many more; I write something every day. Besides, I am committed to writing two prose pieces (one fiction, one non-fiction) and two short poems weekly for my blogs.

I have many topics for non-fiction. I don’t maintain a list but they gather and file themselves in my mind. From the moment I awaken cogitation about writing begins and today was no exception.

But one topic kept nagging me: how does one continue being a writer despite those dreaded black times when a project or piece seems to be going nowhere, few who know you even care, those who have authority deem your work less than worthy or worse, and your toil and effort seem wasted even to yourself?

I recently decided to pay a well-known editor to assess the first one hundred pages of my first completed novel, the one that I began in 1999 (perhaps before). I had deferred it a long while; it’s an expensive service. I had researched editors off and on, so when I finally found someone I respected, had met before and appreciated and who was willing to look at my work sooner rather than later, I dug up the money. Yes, you read it right: I cannot afford to pay for editing of over five hundred pages of my novel. It made sense that the opening chapters would provide enough material for J. to deeply scrutinize themes, some basic character development, voice, plot development and dramatic arcs, mechanics, and so on. I would take her evaluation and use it to improve things. Or not.

I had felt for the last decade that it lacked what it needed. I had gone through over the entire five hundred pages with a fine-toothed comb at least seven times; smaller cuts and alterations occurred sometimes daily. When sharing it in writing groups, I received mixed responses, much helpful feedback. Around five years ago I stopped revising and mulling it over. I was sick and tired of it, despite the devotion pledged to it. I was busy working on other projects, sending out other manuscripts. But my first novel, Other Than Words, sat untouched until I found J. I had to know if having had an excerpt published and nominated for a Pushcart Prize was a strong enough indicator that the novel could succeed, or if it needed to be rewritten. Or even trashed.

After two weeks J. got back to me with a six page summary and painstaking notations. Somehow, before I opened the email and documents, I knew to steel myself. Afterall, I’d been unhappy with it long before hiring her.

Essentially, she stated the pages fail in critical ways. They don’t move fast enough, offer enough dramatic hooks, are too interior, need more of a traditional plot structure than what I aimed to accomplish. Not only that, the female protagonist of this two-part novel was “unlikable and tiresome by page 100.” That was a bit miserable to hear although the character was supposed to be difficult at the start. She evolves over the course of the story and is even admirable, I think, and loveable–much later. But point taken. The reader has to empathize and be intrigued by charcters to even continue to read. How could I have missed that elementary truth?

I finished the summary of insights and suggestions. It was clear she had put in a lot of effort and given me clear indicators of strengths (there were a few of those) and weaknesses (more than I’d hoped). Her words carried the authority she has in the business. She also noted I have talent, that the concept is fascinating and she appreciated themes noted in the synopsis. I saw those words the second time I read her summary and it helped.

It needs a thorough re-write and I got what I paid for and more. J. gave it acute attention. The novel can only benefit. I started to consider other corrective actions I could make, ways I could re-write the story so it is no longer two parts, change the characters to better reflect the themes and, of course, add more surefire action. The editor’s feedback was crucial in clarifying where it stands, what it needs to deliver the goods and how I might hit the target when submitting to an agent one day.

Book by Pat Walsh
Book by Pat Walsh

I may not do a thing to it. A first novel is just that–an amateur’s attempt at writing a story that is predominantly autobiographical despite attempts to clothe it otherwise. If the basic premise is good and the storyline intriguing it has life in it. Yet how much more time and sweat do I have left for this?

And there are other parts to this story. That blasted tightness in the chest when reading J.’s words. The hope that the editing suggestions would get easier and perhaps gentler the longer I read. The realization that despite her stated appreciation of my ability, she was telling me it was not at all good enough. After read-through of the writing itself with edits, I felt first intrigued, then tired out. Then I felt the deep and irritating discontent seep into me, then the sense of doom that comes from fearing ultimate failure, and the thought blinding my mind in neon caps that no matter how hard I work, there will always be something that needs fixing.

And that overarching question came to the fore. Why bother writing at all? If it does not pass muster despite talent and hard work, if someone I so respect informs me it is not great quality, what then? More toil the next five years? Is there any guarantee it will be good enough then to snag an agent, perhaps be published? Since the fourth grade (when I garnered an award for writing and discovered writing’s intoxicating effects) I’ve spent my life working on the craft of writing. Sometimes submitting work and occasionally being published, reading my work at public readings, attending writers conferences and workshops, talking to other writers about their processes, reading books on writing and publishing. Tearing up countless attempts at mastery.

There is absolutely no guarantee any one will want to publish my writing or anyone else’s who is not already well-known.

I attended a couple of lectures at yet another writers conference this week. On the blackboard was: “Agents are our friends.” But they told us what I had already heard. Whose work is selected from a slush pile is random in that they never know what will stoke their curiosity, what will be deemed original and exceptional, what will be seen as marketable enough. Well, unless someone referred you to them or your work has been in literary journals of real note. There are just too many people sending manuscripts to them and limited time and staff.

Yes, they mean to support us in our quest for greater readership–it is to their advantage, as well. But who in that audience might be taken under their wings was a mystery. We all can name books that are published though poorly written or boring, then make a lot of money–and books that are excellent, make little and disappear. And millions of writers worldwide who strive to hone their craft yet don’t ever see a thing in print. It’s enough to stop anyone from wanting to be a writer.

Not writing doesn’t interest me, however. Habit alone dictates it after writing for well over fifty years. I didn’t find enough time or energy to intensely pursue publishing when raising five children and working, struggling as a single mother off and on. Now perhaps I do. All I know is that writing makes my blood run well. It sparks circuits of energy in my brain. It nourishes serenity and fulfillment. The work of writing opens up access to information about people, place, the very nature of creativity and the presence of God.  The actions of idea to hand to paper unveil new ways to experience the universe and our place in it.Writing is alchemy of a sort so potent that words have been able to change the course of history, heal, enlighten, entertain, educate, provoke, liberate. To be able to write and to read is revolutionary. I want always to be a part of it.

That heavy cloud settled a few days, then thinned. It has nearly vanished. When the discouragement creeps in I have to take a break from myself and pay attention to the bigger picture. My money was well-spent on J.’s expertise. I learned more than I expected. Now questions proliferate what I need and want to do now with my writing hours. I may revive Other Than Words once more–my unlikable female protagonist who was struck by tragedy still has good things to say. I might, instead begin a new novel–a title that popped into my head already has me plotting away. In the end I may stick other genres.

While I am at it, it might serve me well to re-read some of the best writing books I’ve accumulated. A few have stayed unopened; it’s possible within those pages I will gain more useful tips. But giving up has never been an option. Stories still arrive and allow me to tell them. This is why writers write, after all.

MISC. 8-11-12 032

(Thanks to brilliant as well as good-hearted J.M.)

Writing the Life of a Novel

They had a dream of a simpler life in Michigan’s northern woods after years in upper class Boston. But Sophia Swanson, a dancer for thirty years, cannot dance or even speak now. Thomas, a renowned biologist and her husband, pursues her relentlessly although he mysteriously drowned. And Mia, their adolescent daughter, tries to reconstruct her life far away with relatives, bit by salvaged bit. Keeping watch over everything is Daedalus, a Husky-German Shepherd mix who lives in the woods with Sophia. A year after the drowning, famous photojournalist Calvin Rutgers returns to Snake Creek after a lifetime away. He has lost his mentor to the depths of Amazonia and needs peace, a reconnection to family and history, and inspiration. He is welcomed home but Sophia isn’t so impressed. She waits to see who he really is and what he wants.

Other Than Words is a mystery,  psychological drama, and romance about lives being reclaimed; about trauma and healing; and about the arts as powerful medicine. It tells of a village that hums with seasonal rhythms and the complicated lives of its residents, who demonstrates a willingness to embrace the suspect and eccentric. Beautiful Snake Creek and Ring Lake are where old friends, new inhabitants and uneasy neighbors coexist.

I know this territory so well I can see every inch of the village, every part of the surrounding woods and waters. I am the creator of both place and people, or perhaps I am only the chronicler of their stories. I am a most happy captive.  They have been my dear companions.

In 1999 I became ill with a virus that left me literally reeling. I tried to get out of bed one morning and crashed against the wall and to the floor. Any light reaching my eyes made the room spin worse, so I covered my face with a blanket and blindly called my sister. I crawled to the front door when help arrived. At the ER, my diagnosis was labyrinthitis, a disorder of the inner ear. It took a good six weeks to be able to walk across a small room in a  straight line, but five months to recover enough to return to work.  In the meantime, I discovered if I sat very still at the computer desk and hold my head at just the right angle, the dizziness mostly abated. I could miraculously write for hours. And so, an old idea for a novel came to fruition and my life became a writing life, full-time.

Other Than Words was the result: twenty-five chapters told from two different points of view, with a surprising five hundred and seventy-two pages. I have revised it fully eight times and counting.  I have pitched it at a writers’ conference and had one agent “nibble”, so I went back to work on it again.  And again. An excerpt was published in an anthology, and then nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  I want to publish this novel. I love the characters and their rich life stories. Still, I have put off the tedious business of innumerable submissions and more revisions. I have a job as an addictions counselor and don’t get home until eight-thirty each night. The hours left over are few. But on Fridays when I do not work,  I try to sit down to write by two o’clock and generally write until nine o’clock or later. But it isn’t enough. I want more time to work diligently at the craft–to bring this passion for the written word into a potent, more elegant state of being. To make the stories vividly alive, moving, truth-telling.

Because I need  time to work on more fiction, I will be posting fewer posts on this blog, likely twice a month at most. That is, unless a very, very short story idea grabs hold and won’t let go,  or my addictions work presents something I find intriguing, or my heart disease/recovery experiences strike me as worth putting out there for others who share the diagnosis. There is always one more good reason to write; I run out of time, never topics!  But the desire and intention is to sail this novel into the world so it may reach people who love to read settle-into-your-chair fiction. There is already another novel ready for more revision, and a third waiting for release from my head and onto white pages.

Today I want to share with you the opening paragraphs of Other Than Words. I hope you enjoy them. Let me know what you think if you are so moved, or if you would be interested in reading more.  Another blog might spring up about the novel and the writing process, or perhaps even a website. I’ll stay in touch. But right now I better get back to work.

Other Than Words

Part I-Sophia

Chapter 1

After Thomas died, I stopped talking. I had everything to lose by not speaking, but muteness, unlike speech, is a force that can’t be controlled. It took charge and relegated me to tenant status because I had nowhere else to live but in this body. I was caught between “Before His Death” and “After”. It was disorienting, but not an impossible way to live.

His body was retrieved from Ring Lake not far from the place we lived, the chapel-house, so named because it was originally a chapel here in the northern Michigan woods. Thomas’ mother and my family–parents, two brothers, a sister–came from the east coast to mourn and provide my daughter and myself with rudimentary care.  They tried to make sense of the disorder they found. They wanted to think I had lost my mind from the shock, but were closer to believing I had just decided to stop speaking. I was, after all, a dancer and choreographer, given to strange fits of introspection and moments of  theatrics. It didn’t occur to them there might be things I could not say aloud. Not yet; maybe never.

Janice, my younger sister, paced back and forth, her muddy shoes leaving dark stains on the wooden floor. I shared the couch with Daedalus, who looked more Siberian Husky than German Shepherd. He watched her with mild interest, his blue eyes like cool oases in the humid afternoon. The footsteps reminded me of Rorschach ink blots. I interpreted fear, extreme impatience. Hers, not mine. I felt porous as a sea sponge, everything drifting through me, leaving barely a trace.

Copyright 2011 Cynthia Guenther Richardson