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.
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.
For those of you concerned about me after my Great Public Failure (I didn’t get an agent, to put this in perspective), here’s my current game plan:
* send the Train Trip query to the paid-editor for tweaking: STATUS: DONE
* send Model for Detective (When her model partner disappears, a Memphis fashion model uses her “clothes whisperer” skills to investigate the case, only to discover clues to the murder of her long-lost favorite cousin) to the paid-editor for a reader’s review: STATUS: AWAITING PRICE QUOTE
* continue revising In the Name of Mississippi (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 questions his own place in the world.) STATUS: IN PROCESS
* use breaks in revising In the Name of Mississippi to send out Train Trip queries in batches of 20: STATUS: JUST AS SOON AS I GET THE QUERY BACK (or sooner if I can’t wait on her)
* send the Train Trip query to my old agent (yes, I once had an agent when this novel was so grossly unfinished as to be embarrassing) to see if he wants to get back on board with a new, polished manuscript STATUS: IN THE MAIL TOMORROW
* decide whether a hybrid publisher (manuscript review/project acceptance/paid publication) might be the answer for me (moves me off square one; gets the work out there; puts me in control of the order of publication, offers me agent introductions if appropriate to the work; offers publication to manuscripts trad pubs would probably never touch, such as The Bone Trench (A controversial private prison project brings Mother Mary and her son Jesus back to modern-day Memphis where Mother Mary is determined—this time—to protect her son from harm.) STATUS: INQUIRY DRAFTED; MULLING SENDING
On my other blog, I posted a mocku-resume (“Holder of the French Legion of Honor”—after all, who can say what actually happens in France?”). One of my created talents was plate spinning. You know, that thing they do in the circus involving a long pole and frantically scurrying women in white bodysuits.
All I can say is, the subconscious is an amazing thing.
I have just sent—for the last time—to the interested agent Train Trip: Lucinda Mae’s Quest for Love, Honor, and the Chickens. After three (count ’em, three) prior attempts, I have either successfully managed to revise the manuscript into a “market ready” product or I have not.
I am telling y’all this because I need to share. I’m not sharing my success. I’m sharing my possible failure.
See, I often don’t tell y’all what I’m attempting to do. Contests I’ve entered, submissions I’ve made. If I don’t disclose what I’m trying to do, you won’t ask, Hey, what happened to the ABNA submission (FYI, I didn’t make it into the third round.) I won’t have to face the questions and admit I’ve failed. This is good, because of course I don’t want to look like a failure.
Yeah, I can talk a good game—”I advise from failure” is one of my standard lines—but that’s admitting failure IN THE PAST . . . after I’ve demonstrated success. This position is similar to what I’ve observed about being poor: everyone’s proud of growing up poor, but no one brags about it while they’re still in it.
So here I am—in the midst of becoming a success or on the verge of failing again. I don’t know which way the weather vane will spin. If it’s not good, I’ll try something else. Ultimately, I have faith that it will all be good. I just want to admit, right now, while the jury is still out, that I may be about to fail. Again. And again. For the fourth time again.
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.
I’ve found a rhythm. While my editor in Oregon has Train Trip, I’m working on another novel. The first round, I was in Memphis and I revised Bone Trench, a Christian fantasy novel set in Memphis. Second round, I was down in New Orleans so I finished (!) Jazzy, a Katrina novel. This round—hopefully the last—I’m revising A Model for Deception, the first in a fashion model detective series.
When the editing on Train Trip is complete, I will send the manuscript back to the agent who expressed an interest (i.e., sent me a lengthy email on what needed to be done to make it publishable), thus setting in motion all this editing. Once Gretchen (my editor’s name) finally hands over Train Trip, I will send her the next novel to revise.
All things being equal, I think I’ll send her A Model for Deception. The tone and subject matter are similar to Train Trip, so it would be a logical follow-up. I will repeat the approach above: rounds interspersed with working on the other novels.
Of course, all of this could derail if (a) the agent reads the labored-over Train Trip and says, naw, it won’t do. Or (b) she has no interest in the Model for Deception. Or (c) I get hit by a bus. Or (d) whatever. We can’t plan everything but we can make a plan.
I’ve made a plan.
I feel good.
I hate to admit failure. So what I do is re-define reality.
No, I didn’t fail to place as highly in the contest as I’d hoped. What I did was to learn a major truth about my revision process.
I am trying to shift my novel-writing from voice-driven, told story to scene-based, plotted story. I say “shift” but it’s more like those old draw-bridges that don’t open upwards but swing to the side— a screeching, rusty, grating to the ear process.
The revision I’m searching for entails, first of all, cutting. If I stop there, however, I’m left with a story leached of everything that was interesting. I must return to the manuscript and strategically add that which is me. The fun, the pun, the spot-on description, the endearing parts. The Bone Trench failed to do well in the contest because—so proud of my new-found shears—I stopped at the cutting stage. What I submitted was, in fact, the bones. That’s okay. Now I get to have fun. I get to add the soul back into the book.
I gave the words a last once-over, focusing on the new scenes designed to make the novel vibrate. Scrolling, I called it finished and exported the Apple Pages document to a Word document. Hitting “Send,” I sailed Train Trip: Lucinda Mae’s Quest for Love, Honor and the Chickens to the editor.
The editor, who lives in the Pacific Northwest, is eager to get started. Ready, she says, to “focus on Lucinda,” referring to the central character. This is our second go-round of edits, the editor and me. The first edit, she instructed me to “do this.” And I did it, revising a paragraph, tweaking a scene. We are now in a place so radically different it might as well be the far side of the moon.
This round of edits was launched by a “road-map” email from an interested agent. I took the email and broke it down into bullet points. The agent wanted a better outline, deeper character development, more urgent plot, tightening of the prose. When I read the list, a friend’s comment on rhubarb pie rose into my brain: You put enough sugar on anything, it’ll taste good, but why start with a rhubarb? Which is to say, with so much work to be done, why try to repair this novel? Why not start over with something more basically, functionally sound?
The bottom line: I am forging ahead because the agent saw enough in the story to generate the road-map email. A professional, she believed the novel worth revising. Plus, she was interested. To throw the novel back in the vast, deep ocean of potential rejection when I have received the elusive nibble of personal, dedicated interest—well, that takes more faith than I possess.
So I took the novel in hand. I turned a jaundiced eye on it. I outlined plot and emotional arcs. I revised into a more traditional structure; I abandoned a tone I had once found integral. I expanded characters; I added back story; I looped around and used what was already lurking in the story, unexploited. For better or worse, there are no more loose ends in the novel, no more vignettes designed purely for fun. Everything does service to the plot. I have, against all proscriptions I’ve ever read, written a novel that parallels my short stories: you think you’re reading color or detail or comedy. But it’s more.
Now I’m hoping my upcoming experience with the editor—who intends to lead me back through much of what I’ve described above—will educate me. I’ll learn the hardscape of writing a novel. I’ll be smarter about what I’m doing.
Right now, the editor is in Seattle or Portland, reading. Me, I’m on Train 58 bound for Mississippi. Rain trickles down the window. In the passing swamp, bent knees gather around cypress trees like young ‘uns at a mother’s skirt. I wait for word on how I did.
“Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.” Susan Sontag, courtesy of A-Word-A-Day
“Revision must honor the creative impulse that led to the words that strived—neck stretched—to achieve something the intellect—sitting in the bleachers, watching the race—can only glimpse.” Ellen Morris Prewitt
I am refilling a manuscript with a contest I entered last year at this time. To do so, I must justify the refilling, describing how the manuscript has changed. Thus, I’ve had occasion to review what last year I thought was a nearly complete version of The Bone Trench, this novel I can’t seem to give up on. This earlier version of the manuscript is terrible. This, as my husband would say, makes me happy as a squid.
So much of the time, writing to me seems like slogging through quicksand: lots of hard work with no discernible progress. in this light, encountering something I thought was nearly finished, only to read how thoroughly unfinished it was, could have been very depressing.
Instead, I read the chunks of exposition, the dearth of scene detail, the unnecessary switchbacks in narration, and I rejoiced: I’m making progress!
This euphoria was immediately squelched when I began a simple, final review. How could the character know this person’s name? What was the tiny professor really trying to say? Why on earth did a reference to the Renaissance Project pop up 41 pages in?
Three days later, I (again) felt the manuscript much improved.
Now, here’s the bad news: last year, the terrible version of The Bone Trench was named a short-list finalist in the contest. While this might lead one to conclude I’ve got a really good shot at going higher with a better manuscript, therein lies the problem. I’m secretly a “chicken-counter.” As in, don’t count your chickens before they hatch. I do. I count my biddies before the mama hen has settled her butt on the nest.
So I’m hoping to file the manuscript and forget about it. Just put it out of my mind. Ignore those little peeps. Go work on something else—wasn’t I supposed to be recording my short stories for podcasting?