Just Write Cat

One Writer, One Journey

Some Things I’ve Realized… July 11, 2010

After three intense sessions with independent editor (and character therapist) Lisa Rector-Maass, I’ve realized a few things.

Some of my scenes, a few, are pretty decent.  The rest suck.  Not suck bigtime – well, maybe some.  More like suck, with potential.  Which is better than suck without any redeeming qualities.  So, I have hope.  And no, Lisa did not imply said suckage in any way.  It’s more of a personal realization.  She’s been nothing but encouraging and positive, which is really quite wonderful.

You can always push your characters more than you have.  Raise the stakes – both internal and external, turn the conflict and the tension up to high, push them to their breaking point.  Sometimes, it’s more interesting to see what happens if they actually break. 

You don’t know your characters as well as you think you do.  Lisa asks questions about their motivations, history, goals, desires, fears – and even though I have answers for most of her questions (though not for all of my characters), I learn something new each time we discuss my novel.  I’m struggling with my antagonist.  I can’t seem to get a handle on her past, which makes it difficult to know her motivations.  Lisa offered up this challenge:  Look at the first fifty or one hundred pages from the antagonist’s point of view.  My first novel is in first person, so that was something I never considered (or would have).  She provided several questions and things to consider while I tackle this challenge – which I’m working on over the next several days.

When you revise, it can help to do so in layers.  Read your scene and/or chapter several times – each time looking for or working on specific things.  Tension, pacing, inner conflict, story development – whatever needs attention.  Everything’s connected, but if you try to tackle it all at once – you’ll get overwhelmed.  Or maybe you won’t, but I did. 

When you find someone who gets your writing – an editor, a writing buddy, someone from a crit group – it may help to work only with that person for some time.  Otherwise, if you get feedback from several different people at once – it can make it hard to know what you should or shouldn’t change.  I’m not saying getting input from several readers is a bad idea – it’s not.  But there’s a point when you’re either doing deep revision or even polishing a scene – and if there’s too much feedback or suggestions coming from all different directions, you don’t know who to listen to.  Too much noise, and you can’t hear the one person you really need to  – yourself.  Yes, get feedback and be open to it – but it’s okay to go with your own instinct.  Oh, but you can listen to your characters.  They usually know best.

One other thing I’ve realized – what matters is writing the best damn story you can.  Being true to your characters, to their story.  Heck yes, I hope to have an agent some day soon.  And to see my book(s) at Borders 🙂  But right now – I’ve put those things out of my mind (as much as possible) and I’m focusing on my writing.  There’s a freedom in that.  And that freedom seems to…well, free me up to improve my craft.

And so the revisions continue.  More on working with Lisa after the next session (I’ve got several more to go)!

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A Different Type of Revision Process June 20, 2010

I start working with editor Lisa Rector next week.   Wednesday, to be exact.  And yes, I’m counting down the hours.  I’m super excited about working with her, even though I know there will be a great deal of revision work involved.  I don’t mind revision work (it’s so much better than writing the first draft, imo).  The hard part is finding someone who gets your writing and your story, someone who can guide you as you try to make your novel all it can be.  I posted about this last week – why I feel this will prove a good fit.  But basically, everything she said in her initial emails resonated with me.  My instinct tells me I’m going to learn so much about improving my craft…and you have to trust that instinct.

The way this is going to work is this – we’ll have a series of phone calls to review my completed manuscript Set ‘Em Up, Joe.  Each call will last between one to two hours (total of ten hours for the package of sessions).  We’ll handle about twenty pages per call, going over any issues/shortcomings.  I think the real-time feedback I will get as we review each page/line will prove amazingly helpful.  And efficient – I’ll be able to get immediate feedback on possible ways to change the plot/story instead of rewriting and waiting for the thumbs up or down.  I like efficient.

The really cool thing about this process – as I revise the pages we cover each session, I can resubmit them to her for a quick second look.  Also, I can send in chapter outlines, goals, ideas for changes – anything that might help us during the review sessions.  I really love that…it helps her see my vision/goals for each chapter and for the larger story arc.  And of course, with her guidance I’ll be able to ensure those goals are met (or change them if they’re not working).

In the contact email I sent to Lisa, I included the novel synopsis and first five pages.  In her reply she offered her initial thoughts on the pages.  And wow, just those initial comments helped me rethink some major things in my novel.  I’m going to include some of the things she mentioned, because I think it raises questions worth asking when reviewing any manuscript.  If readers are telling you the plot is not engaging enough or they don’t get why they should care – maybe you can apply some of the comments below to your own work.

(this is paraphrased, with my own comments italicized)

What is the larger threat?  Readers need to get an idea of that threat right away – in the first pages.  In other words, why should anyone care?  This is related to What’s at Stake?  Personal stakes, societal stakes – something has to matter, and in a big way.

There must be a sense of urgency in what’s going on.  Certainly related to stakes, but also to tension.  Readers must feel that things are happening, or might happen if the protag doesn’t act/do something.  Right now.

Conflict.  Stories are all about conflict.  Inner conflict, outer conflict, the intersection of the two (especially).  There can be no easy choices, no clear ways out. 

To prep for the first call, I went ahead and revised the first chapter to address the things mentioned above.  I made some major changes, and also worked on adding line-by-line tension.  I think it’s better, more intriguing – a stronger sense of why things matter (to the reader, to Joe).  I introduced a change to his existence, once that has him uneasy and uncertain of how to proceed.  Joe likes to be in control, to know what to expect…so hopefully this will start to address inner conflict. 

Rewriting those pages involved some work, but really – it was more a matter of approaching things differently.  Of trying to decide how to put Joe at a clear disadvantage at the start of the story.  And to set things up to get much, much worse.  Before, I wanted things to be sort of tough…but not too much at first.  That is not tension.  Certainly not enough to hold a reader’s attention.  I know I’m going to have to keep working at the tension aspect.  Putting Joe and the other characters – and me, for that matter – in places that are beyond uncomfortable.  Places that are ugly, places that most people don’t want to be. 

But that’s fiction.  It should be ‘more than’ real life.