I’m slowly emerging from the writing cave. My eyes are adjusting to the light. I’m sweeping the cobwebs off the blog and making sure everything’s in working order. I’ll be ready to put the wheels back in motion this week with a book review for one of my favorite fall books, but for now, I just want you to know that I’ve missed you and can’t wait to reconnect.
Here’s the deal: I had an aggressive deadline for my edits for HEMINGWAY’S GIRL because in October, my foreign rights agent is going to Frankfurt where, hopefully, she’ll get some foreign publishers interested in the book. The agent needs the complete, approved manuscript by October 1st, so I had to get my edits back to my editor at NAL/Penguin ASAP to give her enough time to read.
Now, if I have to make more changes, which is entirely possible and maybe even probable, we’ll miss the deadline. If my editor can’t get through the million other projects she has before October, that’s the way it goes. All I could do was rely heavily on family and babysitters, neglect my house, and not sleep to get the work done–which I did–but now it’s out of my hands, and I am at peace with that.
I’ll keep you posted every step of the way, as promised, but for now I look forward to a return to semi-normalcy, blogging, reading other people’s books, and diving back into my new manuscript starring Zelda Fitzgerald.
For which the first three chapters and a full synopsis are due on Nov. 1st.
*Photo courtesy of traeton at DeviantArt.com
I’m a research junkie. I love digging around in history, searching for connections, lessons learned, and fascinating stories. It’s pure treasure hunting for me. I imagine that’s why I write historical fiction. It gives me a chance to mine for historical gold and find interesting and engaging ways to share it with others.
I was recently asked about my process for writing novels (from start to finish) so I thought I’d do a basic post on the process. Now seems like a good time to reflect on it, personally, because I’ve just finished my second novel, and I’m starting research on my third. Since I’m not yet ready to share my subject matter for the third, I’ll use illustrations from the mapping of my second for this post.
I’m going to use the points of Freytag’s pyramid to demonstrate my process since I also find it especially helpful in plotting.
Inciting Moment (Inspiration)
It was at the doorway to Ernest Hemingway’s writing cottage at his Key West house that I knew my second novel would be set there. I was overwhelmed by the tour, felt his presence everywhere, and knew I wanted to bring others to the house–if not literally, than figuratively. When my obsession begins, I know I’ve found my subject and my muse.
Rising Action (Research)
Now, the delicious fun of research (READING) begins, and my husband starts sighing as the books start rolling into our house. (I like to scribble and note my books to death, so I try to buy as many books as possible.) I spend a lot of time surfing the web for pictures, videos, and articles about my subject. I join message boards and societies, and figure out how I can visit as many places significant to my book as possible.
Aside from my visit to Hemingway’s home in Key West, I was able to get permission to research at the JFK Library and Museum, which holds 90% of the Hemingway archive. Hemingway’s personal photos and letters I read during that time were pivotal in my understanding of the author and his family life.
Once I have the time period I want to use firmly in my mind, I make a timeline of actual events. I stay as true to history as possible and use societal and environmental problems as key moments and themes in my book. Then I find my angle into the story: my protagonist–the creation of my imagination to tell the historical tale, while experiencing his/her own struggles to emotionally engage the reader.
Once I have an excellent handle on my historical subject and my characters, I start writing. The first draft is a purge of imagination. Aside from a rough sketch of major events on the timeline and some plotting using Freytag’s Pyramid, I generally don’t know what’s going to happen to my characters. I don’t make a formal outline because much of the fun of writing for me is how my characters and story surprise me.
The Drafting and Research Phases often weave in and out of each other. From large to trivial details, I always need more information while I write. Also, research often inspires scene ideas, so I write entire scenes from different places in the story when I’m struck by certain details in my findings.
I work with a critique partner throughout the process submitting 20 pages every three weeks for review, followed by conferences on the phone or in person a week after submission. I’m also in a monthly online historical fiction critique group who I met at the Breakout Novel Intensive. We submit 8-10 pages to each other once a month.
I generally end up writing nine or ten complete drafts of my novel.
Falling Action (Edits/Revisions)
If there is a step of the process I least enjoy, this is it. It’s no fun for me tear up sentences, rearrange scenes, and sometimes, delete and combine characters. The domino effects of revisions throughout the manuscript based on simple or complex changes always cause problems for me.
This is also the stage where I hire a professional editor and bring in the beta readers and book clubs, and while I love to share my story, it’s actually quite terrifying to send the book out into the world specifically looking for critical feedback.
But it must be done.
Denouement (The Business of Writing)
This step is also horrifying because it involves switching function from sensitive-writer-in-the-cave mode to thick-skinned-objective-out-in-the-world mode. In this step, I craft the query letter and synopsis, develop a marketing strategy, and ultimately, try to find a publisher so readers can actually read the fruits of my labor. At the end of the day, I want to entertain, engage, and inspire readers, and keep them coming back to my future novels.
Writers, how is your process similar to or different from mine? Which steps of the process do you love or hate? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
I’ve been stalled out on revisions this week because of a really boring scene in my book. It’s embarrassing for me to write this, but if I don’t out myself I’ll continue running on this mouse-wheel forever. Tonight, I give myself permission to cut the scene.
Yet I recoil at the thought. For some reason, I can’t part with this scene about a young woman taking a dress from her mother’s closet. I know! So boring, right? But it’s about so much more than that. It’s the particular dress she chooses. It represents a power shift. It shows a savvy move in a mother-daughter chess game. I have to find a way to keep it.
At the BONI workshop I attended with Donald Maass in September, he read us an opening scene in a novel about a man staring at a white ceiling in a hospital. It was riveting. He read it to illustrate the point that a scene about a man staring at a white ceiling can be compelling if it’s infused with emotional tension. He also told us that he believes good authors have instincts about what to include in a book, and those instincts should be respected. We have to devote a lot of work to drawing out the inner meaning of awkward scenes before we let them go.
I have to figure out a way to infuse this dress scene with emotional tension so the reader can’t tear herself away from it. That’s my challenge. If I don’t succeed before I go to bed tomorrow night, I’m deleting it.
*Photo by ~Evangeline-Theodora at DeviantArt.com
“The narrative part is over. What I want is to enrich and stabilise.” Virginia Woolf
Yes, thank you Ms. Woolf, I was beginning to feel very, very alone in my revision process. So many writers say they tend to over write first drafts. Hemingway recommended slicing off the first three chapters during revisions. Stephen King recommends cutting about 10% of your first draft for your second. I do this, but what I find more often is that I must add more to subsequent drafts. My first drafts are spare, action oriented, and plot driven. I tend to stay away from interior monologue, descriptions, elaboration, and motive. The scenes fall like dots on a timeline, broken only by dialogue.
When I turn in my work to my critique partner and my editor they usually ask for more. And yet, as my critique partner also tells me, “Trust your reader.” Don’t over-explain. Don’t give three sentences to describe it when it can be done in one. I find myself going mad trying to find the balance between too much and not enough, like some fumbling Goldilocks with a keyboard searching for “just right” within a house full of extremes.
I will say, though, apart from the difficulties of this balancing act, this has been a tremendously productive week for revisions. New scenes that add weight to characterization have emerged that provide a strong support for what’s there. New ideas have come that solve some plotting problems. I’ve found new ways to show my characters in action and provide more motives for their decisions. I feel like there’s more muscle in the draft, and it’s giving my manuscript balance and momentum.
Still, though, there’s a need for more. Much, much more.
Writers, I’m curious about how you emerge from a first draft. Do you need more or less? How do you find the balance between too much and not enough?
“Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is a common occurrence in all writing, and among the best writers.” E.B. White
I recently completed a first draft of my new novel. I let it sit for a bit, but now I’m back up to my elbows in revisions. This is a particularly depressing time for me since all the joy of finishing the draft is gone, and all the misery of the adding, deleting, researching, reworking, toning down, amping up, picking apart, and piecing together has begun. Revising is at once tedious and broad, small and large, rewarding and punishing, but always essential. The hardest part of revisions is knowing when to stop. And even when you know when to stop and the book is in print, there are still things you wish you could change.
I know this isn’t exclusively my problem. When I saw Tracy Chevalier speak about her latest novel, Remarkable Creatures, she said that there was a clunky metaphor in Girl With a Pearl Earring that she hates. In my first book, Receive Me Falling, I have a flashback of my main character’s family planting sea oats at their beach house. I used it to show their closeness, but to this day, I hate the scene and wish I’d used something else to show their relationship.
Writers often like to use the metaphor of the birthing process with their work. I always avoid this–for one, I’ve never broken my tail bone writing a book, and two, writing a book isn’t nearly as messy as childbirth. I prefer to use the analogy of the body when I’m writing. With this draft I have a skeleton with some tendons. Maybe I have an eyeball or thin layer of muscle at various places, but no more. With each revision or critique another layer gets added until finally, there’s a whole body. Once I’ve got the body complete, it’s ready for the query process. (Okay, that was a little gruesome to imagine, but much nicer than pushing out a baby.)
The good news is that, always, as I’m about to throw the manuscript across the room and abandon writing forever, I find a little section that makes me lose myself for a moment and say, “Yes, that’s right.” These moments sustain me and keep me going. Finding these little hunks of diamonds amidst the coal fuel the pursuit. I’ve never suffered addiction, but I imagine the gems are like highs. Perhaps that’s why so many writers have problems with addiction. But I digress…
Tell me–if you’re a writer is there anything you’ve published that you wish you could change or take back? Also, what gets you through revision? If you’re a reader, do you know of any other writers who’ve lamented something they’ve published?