I’ve slowed down. Reading aloud the first eighty pages whizzed by, but now it’s dragging a bit. This is as it should be. As the story grows, more strands are woven in, and I must be more analytical to make sure I don’t drop a stitch (how’s that for a knitting metaphor by a non-knitter?). I notice things my characters, living the plot, would notice that I, merely writing the plot, overlooked. I see repetitions, some good (ahhh, Jesus first public reading was about setting prisoners free) and some bad (did I really just say ‘then’ again, dammit?).
Trying to work out the description of physical actions can stall me for a half-hour. First, I revise so I can actually follow what’s happening, then rake out two-thirds of the top-heavy revision, then review to make sure it’s still more accurate. (see all those ‘thens’?).
As I read dialogue aloud, I notice where my tongue is amending the words. That’s my brain, trying to help. It knows what dialogue sounds like, and it’s providing the right words. When that happens, I stop and amend the words on the page.
As I read for the first time the revisions I’ve made that Gretchen my editor suggested to clarify the plot, I see the manuscript deepening as well. The metaphors are swirling, rising into view and submerging. The theme winks in and out. It’s there, hovering, waiting to come together in an inevitable way at the end.
Also, it’s been quite a while since I read the whole work out loud, and coming to it somewhat anew, I notice this: a lot of work has gone into this novel. The throw-away lines about prior Marian visitations represent many hours of researching Marian sightings through the ages. Even one word—the correct name for a section of a steamboat—reminds me of the time I spent studying steamboat illustrations. The boiled chicken eggs reminds me: I had to research to see if ancient Nazareth had chickens.
All this work—correcting grammatical tics, refining physical movement, softening dialogue, researching for veracity—is for one reason alone: to allow the reader to believe she is following a Jesus who has returned to earth, his celestial energy shaped by a fleshy covering that, unfortunately, has hidden from him the reason he sent himself back to earth again. The goal is to not do anything that pierces the willing suspension of disbelief that Mary and her obstreperous Guardian Angel are in Memphis, searching for her son but running smack dab into a nefarious private prison project when all she wants is to find her son before harm comes to him—again.
Revising to retain the reader’s vision. I’m half way through. Wish me luck on the rest of it.
When I was young, my mother told me I’d gotten a phone call. I was whining about what terrible news it was certain to be, and she said, “How can it be good news if you don’t leave room for it to be good?”
I think of this every time I’m about to open a SASE. You know, the letter that, incredibly, some very high-end literary agents still use—no internet for them. My natural pessimism kicks in until I remember my mom, and I think, Ellen, you need to leave room for it to be good.
Today as I slit open the letter, I took it one step further. I said, whatever is in this envelope is good news. There’s lots of ways to spin this into truth, the primary one being he or she wouldn’t have been the right agent for me anyway. More importantly, it makes me read the letter looking for the good in it, which might otherwise slip by unnoticed.
I’m not going to identify the agent—she probably didn’t expect to be quoted, and I also don’t want anyone to be negative about her. To be clear, she did NOT offer representation. What she offered was hope.
She praised my characters, my writing, my keen observations, and my publishing credentials. I don’t mean to be blasé, but she is not the first agent to do so. What she did that hasn’t been done until this draft of the manuscript was to praise the storyline.
I have worked so hard on the story. I poured my heart into fixing the plot, making it work, pulling it into something desirable in a process that reminds me of my grandmother hand-pulling old-fashioned taffy, the taffy searing to the touch, Mamo working it into ropes before it cooled too much to be formed. To have someone say the narrative promises to be unique and entertaining is balm to my soul.
That’s good news.
here’s to creative synthesis . . .
For those of y’all following my novel(s) saga, I thought you might like an update. Also, I need your support—just getting it out here helps me feel I’m not all alone on this journey!
TRAIN TRIP: LUCINDA MAE’S QUEST FOR LOVE, HONOR AND THE CHICKENS, is being read and considered by four agents. Many queries are still outstanding, and I have about 25 more to submit.
MODEL FOR DECEPTION has been reviewed by my paid editor and, mercifully, she sent a mild revision list. She really liked the story, loved the character, and thought it had great “salability” as a women’s mystery. She now has my draft query letter, and I hope to receive her comments shortly. When I do, I’ll begin sending out that query as well.
I chose to revise IN THE NAME OF MISSISSIPPI next, and I’m now done with the final (God, that is such an iffy word) read. I will send this novel on to the editor as well. Who knows what she will think of it:
a young documentarian returns to the South to film a historic civil rights reparations lawsuit, but when the case begins to fall apart, the mixed-race young man must examine his own place in the world.
The manuscript up next will either be THE BONE TRENCH or JAZZY. THE BONE TRENCH should be a quick revision (famous last words) because I have revised it SO much already. On the other hand, I’m eager to get on to the Hurricane Katrina novel, JAZZY. While JAZZY is “finished,” that’s a mere technicality. I don’t even consider it a first draft—which smart authors say doesn’t exist until at least one outside reader has read it. Returning to the world of this young girl who lost her daddy and awaits the birth of a sibling as Hurricane Katrina approaches would be pure joy, a treat after the many months of revision.
In the meantime, the short story collection CAIN’T DO NOTHING WITH LOVE won an award in an independent publishers’ contest, the 2014 CIPA EVYY Awards in Audio Book! I’m so pleased for the success of this experiment I pretty much made up myself—Hey, why don’t I record a collection of stories, pair the stories with charities, and make the collection available almost exclusively for free online. The podiobooks.com listening site has had over 7000 (!) downloads with some wonderful comments. When you add listeners on YouTube, iTunes and the website, you get over 8000 downloads. I think that’s great for (1) short stories (2) that are literary and (3) very Southern. From this, I’ve learned (among many other things) what I want in a website; that many folks for whom English is not the first language can understand my Southern accent; people like my reading voice. It really has been an informative process.
About the website thing, I’m about to consolidate my web presence. Not to get too philosophical, but I feel the time has come to integrate the various bits of me that now exist on the web. From making crosses to this umbrella blog to the story collection site to my old ellen morris prewitt website—they need to be pieces of an integrated whole. My webmaster tells me I can transfer all of y’all to the new site, and no one will be lost. I certainly hope that’s true.
Thanks again for following my journey. I much appreciate it.
here’s to creative synthesis . . .
If you’ve been following this blog, you know I spent about fourteen months attempting to rewrite my manuscript, Train Trip: Lucinda Mae’s Quest for Love, Honor, and the Chickens, into a novel a particular agent could successfully represent. At the end of this process, the agent declined representation.
This is not her fault.
Every step I made along the way—to submit, to analyze her comments and conclude the manuscript could be transformed as she desired, to try and try again—all of it was the result of decisions I made. I knew what I was doing, and I chose to take this route. I do not blame the agent, who has 100% discretion in the manuscripts she chooses to rep, just as I have 100% discretion in the agent I choose to sign with.
In the end, the truism is true: it’s a matter of fit. What I want from an agent is a good fit. Sometimes it takes a while to discover you’re not as good a fit as you thought you were. That’s disheartening, frustrating, makes-you-wanna-holler upsetting. But I have to trust that, ultimately, agents know what they’re doing. They know what they can and cannot sell in the marketplace. That’s the business they’re in.
I’m in the business of writing.
Hopefully, at some point, I will write something an agent somewhere feels he or she can sell. Who knows, I may have already done this with Train Trip—the agent is out there, waiting to discover my manuscript made amazing by a fourteen month rewrite. If that happens, I’ll be glad. If it doesn’t, well, sooner or later, I’ll decide how to best get my work out there. In the meantime, I’ll keep doing what I do, which is writing.
here’s to creative synthesis . . .
How many words are there in the entire universe yet, in an 86,000 word novel, how many times in the last, read-aloud review have I run across the same word used again within a breath of itself?
“You, in point of fact, are still over dry land,” my observant friend pointed out.
Or words with an unintended rhyming effect:
“Not kill. Enjoy And you’d like for me to join you?”
Or words that are spelled one way—barbed wire—and a different way when repeated: barbwire.
Honestly, this is exactly the type of thing a final review should catch. What’s so frustrating is that this is not my first “final” review. I’ve done a final review. I paid an editor to do a final review. Yet, there it is, my small-town Mississippi heroine using five dollar words that she would never use; a reference to advance bookings that is no longer part of the plot; a segue into a new thought that needs more preparation.
You might have found differently, but for me the ONLY way to catch most of these is to read the document aloud. I hate doing this. It’s incredibly time-consuming. It’s boring (which is why I’ve now stopped to write a blog post.) Yet, it’s essential.
The read-aloud should be done last, I think, because it really is a polishing of your final revision. Of course, it’s hard to know when something is a final revision (see above). Having read a prior final revision aloud, I can be tempted to skip the read-aloud on the current final revision.
I shouldn’t, and I’m not. I’m just writing this post to remind myself of that.
here’s to creative synthesis . . .
Three years ago, or maybe four, a man I did not know arrived at my writing group, and during a long conversation about the first chapter of The Bone Trench, he said, “I’m ready to see Cat Thomas return.” I assured him Cat, who opened the novel in a brief scene, would be back shortly, specifically at the beginning of the next chapter. Believing his concern satisfied, I put it out of my mind.
During this recent revision process, I’ve been working on development of the Jesus character, trying to make Jesus’s scenes as active as Mother Mary’s. Problem was, I did such a good job that when I read the opening chapter with Mother Mary, I thought, why is this not working?
To answer that question, I did what I often do during revision (not during writing, during revision.). I pretended the novel was being filmed and looked at the scenes through the eyes of a film director. This trick immediately shows me when a scene is flat, static, and ultimately boring—I can just hear the film director saying, what am I supposed to be filming here? Nothing’s happening!
When I directed my camera on The Bone Trench‘s first chapter, I saw them . . . walking down the sidewalk. Jesus, by contrast, was hunting the Mississippi River, preaching to a gathering crowd, and being attacked by Demonittes. When I asked myself how to fix it, the man’s comment from long ago rose into my brain and, mirabile dictu, I listened.
Now Mother Mary meets Cat directly in the first chapter. The scene provides the action I wanted, but it also adds an additional layer to the imagery that will close the novel, a benefit I wasn’t looking for but received just the same.
So, in the immortal words of ZZ Top, to the man, whoever you are, who gave me this piece of advice, I thank you.
here’s to creative synthesis . . .
I want to work on my novel. They want me to buy Christmas presents. And wrap Christmas presents. And think about food for Christmas. And pack to leave town for Christmas.
But Vangie Street is stuck on the runway. She keeps taking a knee—is she Teebowing? Will anyone even remember that phrase in five years?—and popping up like toast. She grins, she prays, she pivots, she bunny-hops. I cannot get it right.
The novel is written. I’m revising. This is the opening scene. Did I mention I can’t get it right?
This year, Christmas is just gonna have to wait until I can get Vangie off the runway.
Remember: You Cain’t Do Nothing with Love
One novel is under consideration by two publishers and an agent. Another is with a final set of readers. I’m revising my first set of interlocking short stories. Suddenly, I’m running like a well-oiled writing machine.
These very early short stories are good. Their problems lie mostly in mechanics. Too many words to describe simple movements. Lots of thats. A few unnecessary clutterings.
But, for the most part, I like the simple, clean sentences. The tension that comes less from fear and more from wondering what will happen next. The almost absence of interior thought. The characters’ lying and stealing and drinking and sleeping around. The humor – okay, I always have an odd sense of humor.
These stories – entitled The Land Behind Pickwick Lake – are worth fighting for. One received a Special Mention in Pushcart. The others, at the time, had trouble finding a publisher. Because, I think, they had too many tiny flaws. Ultimately, I gave up on them because my agent at the time said no one was publishing short stories any more. My bad.
We’ve sold our house at Pickwick Lake. Maybe this led me to return to the stories – a very specific time is fading into the past. Regardless, the lesson is this: stand up for what you love. Even if it’s our own creation.
Come September and a new publishing period, these stories are going back on the market.
Here’s to creative synthesis . . .