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Tag: rewrite

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.


The Good News

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 . . .

Thank you to my friend and neighbor Susan Cushman for tagging me at Pen and Palette to answer some questions about my writing. If you don’t follow Susan’s blog, go take a look. Susan blogs regularly on writing, mental health, and faith; her post on Shrinking the Monsters discusses her own writing process. Susan is a wonderful supporter of the writing community in Memphis, and we are all grateful for the wisdom and energy she offers us.

My goal today, should I choose to accept it, is to describe my writing life; what I’m working on; and why I do this thing called writing. I tend to mull over these questions a lot so I already have a metaphor (!) for my writing life: the spinning plates in the circus.

I wrote six novels seriatim. Having thrown these manuscripts in the air, I’m now revising them all at once. The novel TRAIN TRIP: LUCINDA MAE’S QUEST FOR LOVE, HONOR, AND THE CHICKENS is the first manuscript to survive this process. Two agents are currently reading the full story (YAY!!!!) while I continue to methodically send out queries.

The next manuscript on the conveyor belt is an amateur sleuth mystery (MODEL FOR DECEPTION: 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). This story is currently with the paid editor who is helping me with these revision projects. While the editor works (and I send out queries on TRAIN TRIP) I’m thoughtfully 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 must examine his own place in the world.) “Thoughtfully,” I say, because even though this novel was a semifinalist in the James Jones First Novel Competition, it was also the first novel I wrote, and I’m taking my time picking through what is on the page.

THE BONE TRENCH—which mixes Mother Mary and Jesus with the private prison industry—is far enough along to have been a Short List Finalist, Novel-in-progress, in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Competition, but it needs more attention . . . as soon as I can give it. I can’t wait to get back to my most-recently-drafted-novel, a Hurricane Katrina story about JAZZY, a young girl who evacuates New Orleans to ride out the storm with her dead dad’s crazy family in Mississippi. If I’m still alive, kicking, and writing, I’ll also revise my tear-jerker 1011 ST. LAWRENCE STREET, which explores the different lives led by two young North Carolina cousins—Casey, the beautiful outcast and Emily, the reluctant family favorite.

As I pursue the novel revisions, I continue to promote my short story collection released in audio which you can listen to at CAIN’T DO NOTHING WITH LOVE. From time to time, I also lead workshops based on my book MAKING CROSSES: A CREATIVE CONNECTION TO GOD (Paraclete Press, 2009). And, of course, I love to slap my thoughts onto this blog.

Spinning plates—I told you.

Why I write—the physical act of writing; the creating; the editing; the sitting down at the computer and banging away—is a question easy for me to answer: I write because it makes time stand still. The passage of time strikes me as the saddest fact of the universe. While writing, I cheat the ever-ticking clock. The harder question for me goes to the issue of the time and energy I’m spending trying to get published, something I pondered about the collective conversation of life.

On a final note, a conversation about my writing life wouldn’t be complete without my mentioning the weekly writing group I co-facilitate, the members of which have all experienced homelessness. I was the editor of the group’s ezine—The Advocate: A Voice of Experience—for three years. I also edited the group’s book WRITING OUR WAY HOME: A GROUP JOURNEY OUT OF HOMELESSNESS, which will be published by Triton Press later this summer. Regardless of whatever else happens with my writing life, if I’m in Memphis, you can find me every Wednesday at 1:00 writing with the group.

For the next entry on this blog tour, I’ve chosen quality over quantity. Next Monday, Marisa Whitsett Baker will be blogging about her own writing journey. Marisa has a beautiful blog at The Unwritten Word. You might catch a funny piece about her unpredictable aching back, an informational piece about gorgeous inks, or a beautiful entry about what she’s learned from her well-examined life. Enjoy.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

I Can’t Blame the Agent

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 . . .

As It Is Written

I have failed, utterly and totally. Yet I feel irrationally exhilarated.

The agent I’ve been trying to please with a rewrite for the last year and a half (!), just sent me a final rejection, door shut, not even opened a crack. Instead of feeling stomped on, I feel relief.

This is so strange.

As a result of the revision process she triggered, I have a better manuscript. She wanted a more commercial book; I added more commercial focus by bringing the plot front and center, cutting literary flourishes, adding a “ticking clock” feature for urgency, etc. I didn’t add enough for her (or maybe subtract enough for her), but I like this version of the story. I like it a lot.

This saga could read like this:
Agent discovers stand-out writer (“gifted” “literary star” “master of detail and description”), but writer is unable to produce marketable book.
Or like this:
Agent flatters writer (“gifted” “literary star” “master of detail and description”), causing writer to strive for too long to turn a manuscript into something it was never going to be.

In all honesty, I think it’s the latter.

Either way, I sally forth to discover a new agent, carrying with me the benefit of the paces she put me through, but hoping to find an agent who reads the book as it is written and sees the beauty of the story as it is written and takes on representation of the project as it is written.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

The Stink of Failure

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.

And I’m okay with that.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

Editing on the Moon

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.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

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