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What I Am Learning about Revision from My Agent and Editors

  1. I try to keep a light heart: Revision can be an expanding part of the creative process. With the right editorial people, revision can bring out the best in a story.

 

  1. I slow my roll: I’m not gonna lie: seeing lots of “suggestions for improvement” on my work inspires many (ahem) feelings. I now read those suggestions, put them away, do other things, and come back to the work in 24 hours, rather than respond immediately. Considered overnight, most suggestions have turned out to be spot-on, but I couldn’t see that at first glance. The suggestions that still don’t seem right simply become points for discussion.

 

  1. I read differently now. I can’t read anything without seeing where tighter editing might have improved a work—not only my own, but everyone’s!

 

  1. True confession: despite having a master’s degree in English and reading voraciously for decades, I did not know that every scene in a novel is supposed to move the story forward. I really did not ever grasp that fact! After working on revisions for my first novel, where I was asked “What’s the point?” about a couple of scenes, I learned that “It’s funny!” is not enough justification for a scene to exist. This has been a game changer for me! Now, when I edit my own work before sending it in, I ruthlessly slash every scene that does not advance the story. Or, if I love the scene too much to cut it, I add what that scene needs to make it an integral part of the story.

 

  1. I am grateful for everyone who takes the time to study what I have written and make suggestions which I may or may not follow. Every writer wants to be carefully read.

 

Please share your thoughts on writing and revision here!

 

 

Starting a New Novel: A Metaphor

The 1980’s family is in the car, looking forward to their road trip. They’ve taken a couple of road trips before and the kids are dying to get going. But the driver—let’s call him “Dad”—is sitting up front fiddling endlessly with his roadmap.

The kids squirm. It’s getting hot in the car. “Can we just go already?” they whine.

Dad, the killjoy, won’t go until he’s selected all his routes, circled all his exits, and considered all the most interesting stopping places along the way. He knows the kids’ cry “Can we just go already?” will turn into “Aren’t we there yet?” before he gets to the first highway exit.

That’s just kids, he’s thinking. Wherever they are, they want to get to the next place. Dad is deliberate and steady. He’s not turning the key in the ignition until he’s thought it all out. Sure, there will be surprises and adventures he hasn’t pre-planned, but he’s not going to get his family lost. He’s not going to waste precious time on this trip.

Although to the kids, it feels like that’s all he is doing: wasting time with the boring map. They want to see stuff. They want to feel the wind in their hair. They want to take snap shots and have a good time. Sitting in the driveway, waiting for the fun, makes them want to slap each other.

Mom is alternately telling the kids to be quiet and let Dad concentrate, and then suggesting to Dad that maybe he has enough of the mapping done to get started. It is getting hot in the car.

I’ve been beginning this new novel for too long. That’s how it feels.

For my first novel, I used exercises from The 90-Day Novel, by Alan Watt, to plan it out. I also took an online novel writing course offered by Faber Academy in the U.K.

For my second novel, I used techniques from The Story Grid, by Shawn Coyne and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, by Donald Maass.

For my third novel, I am using methods from Story Genius, by Lisa Cron, and continue to refer to the other books listed above.

Maybe getting started on the writing of this, my third novel would have happened sooner if I’d stuck to methods I’d already learned, but I wanted to learn new things.

I have a huge pile of index cards for scenes and characters. I’m finishing up an outline which, like rules, is made to be broken. I’ve charted my plot points, but maybe I don’t have all the plot points I need yet, I worry insecurely. I’ve done a bit of research, but need to do more. I’m sort of ready. Not totally ready.

But hey. They do say, No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.

There does come a point when it’s time to fold up the map and turn the key in the ignition. That point comes today. We’re on our road trip.

The kids holler and cheer out the window.

Research for The Reluctant Fortune-Teller

 

As I was writing the first draft of The Reluctant Fortune-Teller (whose original title was How to Tell Fortunes with Cards), I thought I should go and get my fortune told. Research, you know.

When I was in my teens and twenties, I used to do this all the time. I won’t say it was all baloney, because it just wasn’t. While I did have many experiences of paying good money to hear pure nonsense, there’s no denying that there were also several times I was actually deeply impressed and knew that something I could not understand or explain was going on.

That was very cool.

Looking back, my impression is that there were a couple of straight-up scam artists, but the majority were trying to tune into their psychic energy and deliver a real reading.

Mrs. McKee was a neighbor in a little rural town I lived in. She read cards in her front room while her unemployed husband and teenagers sprawled before a blaring TV in the living room. She claimed that she’d been taught to read cards by an old Gypsy, and that this gift can only be passed down from a gifted clairvoyant to one, single, solitary person, and she was that chosen person. She said that one day in the future, when she was very old, she would pass it down to one person, too. There was nothing remarkable going on with Mrs. McKee, however. She was a sizer-upper of people, and a very good one. She just advised people using good old fashioned common sense.

There were others I consulted later on, in the 80’s, including a woman called Marge who lived in an apartment full of cats. She actually was able to tell me very specific things about people in my life—facts that I did not know at the time to be true, and only later learned were true indeed. I went into my first reading with her without my wedding ring, thinking I’d fool her by asking when I would get married. She dismissed the question easily. “You’re already married. You’ve already got your Sagittarius.” My husband is, in fact, a Sagittarius. Odds were one in twelve she’d guess that on the first try.

I stopped seeking out oracles as I developed more confidence in my ability to create my own future (or at least, some aspects of it). I only decided to try one more time, decades later, while I was writing Norbert’s story. I thought I should remind myself what it feels like to be the customer—or the “querent”—as Norbert would say. And I thought I should objectively observe the work of the fortune-teller.

I reserved 20 minutes with a “psychic” called Sue, who works at a local restaurant. She was seated in the back, behind some folding screens. She told me she was clairaudient, meaning that spirits spoke to her. She said, “Whoever shows up, shows up. I can’t request specific spirits. So we’ll see who comes forward for you.”

Fortune-tellers must be high tech now, because she asked me to state my full name clearly and slowly while she looked down and held her hand to her ear. I didn’t need ESP to guess that someone in another location was listening to me state my name, and was Googling me. Sue asked me to be silent for a moment while the spirits came forward to talk to her. After a couple of moments, she told me seventeen things, none of them true. All misses, and no hits. I wrote it all down.

She asked if I had any questions.

I went for it. “Actually,” I said, “I am writing a book.”

“Oh, really,” said Sue. “The spirits are nodding their heads. This book will be published. It will be very successful.”

“Oh, that’s very encouraging!” I said, hoping it was true. Maybe, I thought, she is a real psychic after all!

“What is your book about?” asked Sue.

“Well, uh, funnily enough… well, it’s about a man who has trouble making ends meet, so he becomes a fortune teller—even though he doesn’t believe in it—just to be able to pay his bills, you know…” I trailed off.

Sue’s expression had changed from a dreamy self-assurance to panic and watchfulness.

I felt I was being rude, so I broke off that line of thought, and instead asked her questions about her experience with spirits, just to let her regain her balance. Her expression went back to misty smugness again. She really was an interesting woman.

I’d done my research. I thanked Sue, and I crossed her palm with silver.