Revising Your Manuscript: The Importance of Patience

After my two-month drafting frenzy in January and February, I was deliriously happy. Now I could finally stop thinking about it. Two months may not seem too long to think about a novel you’re writing, but of course I didn’t start thinking about it when I started writing it. I’d been thinking and reading and researching and outlining for many months before that. And getting to the end of the first draft meant that I could finally, for the first time in perhaps a year, think about something else. I closed the file, backed it up in two places, and went on with life.

Two weeks later, I was ready to start thinking about revision, my favorite part of the writing process and the subject of several upcoming blog posts over the coming month or so.

There’s lots of advice out there on revising and editing. Lots of great books about same. Just earlier this week, Kristen Lamb mentioned the importance of writing a quick draft and not getting bogged down in edits (and accidentally throwing out something that might blossom into something beautiful) along the way. She’s spot on. And the patience doesn’t end with the words “The End.”

Have you ever tried to bake bread that you haven’t left to rise quite long enough? Or been in a hurry to eat your homemade pad thai and thus not allowed the rice noodles to soak long enough before adding them to the pan? (Am I the only one to whom this has happened?) Or tried to enjoy an avocado that just was not ripe enough? It’s always a disappointing experience. Certain foods need time to just sit before they’re ready for consumption or else you’re going to have a heck of a time chewing them.

Likewise, our drafts need to sit awhile before they’re ready for revision. When we’ve been working closely with our characters and setting and plot, we need a little distance, a little time apart, before we can honestly assess them, before we can chew on them. Giving a story time to ripen and soften, allowing time for all the different threads and characters and subplots and symbols to get friendly with each other, like leaven working its magic in a lump of dough, and, most importantly, allowing our own minds to move away from the story for a while into something else–like reining in the out-of-control laundry situation and paying the bills–can give us the kind of clarity we need to honestly assess our work. Even stepping away from the computer for a couple weeks can help.

After two weeks away, I reexperienced my story (with the help of my friendly cyborg voice, Crystal) and did a thorough edit, exchanging good words for the perfect words, clarifying characters’ intentions and emotional states, adding important symbols earlier in the story, making motivation clear, and lots more (which we’ll unpack in other posts). I rewrote the ending to be more satisfying for the reader. I removed some pointless descriptions and smoothed the rough surfaces.

During this first revision, I had some fantastic epiphanies that make the story even better. But if I’d immediately started editing after I finished the first draft, I don’t think my mind would have been clear enough to see the possibilities that lay beyond the book I’d already written. The distance was essential in that.

The distance also allowed my mind to start wandering toward what I’ll write next. The day after I came to the end of the first draft, a plot for a new novel began to coalesce in my mind, and now I’m off and running on that one, doing the background reading I’ll need to do in order to plot it out. I had to get out of that earlier story world so I could start thinking about the next one. I’ve found a writing rhythm that seems to be working. I’m excited about the year ahead. A year that will be filled with waiting for readers, then editing, then waiting some more, then editing, then querying. And while I’m busy with that part of the journey for one novel, a little baby idea will be slowly gestating, ready to be birthed into a new first draft, perhaps round about the same time of year this last one was.

What about you? Do you find it difficult to be patient when it comes to revising your work? Does your eagerness to get everything perfect as you go keep you from finishing? Join the conversation below.

How to Take Criticism Like a Pro

This post on professionalism in writing is so good, I had to share it with you. The perfect follow-up to my post on beta readers. What do you do with that criticism you hope to receive? Read on…

Kristen Lamb's Blog

Image via Flickr Commons, courtesy of JonoMeuller Image via Flickr Commons, courtesy of JonoMeuller

One of the greatest blessings of being an author and teacher is I meet so many tremendous people. I feel we writers have a unique profession. It isn’t at all uncommon to see a seasoned author take time out of a crushing schedule to offer help, guidance and support to those who need it. I know of many game-changers, mentors who transformed my writing and my character. Les EdgertonCandace Havens, Bob Mayer, James Rollins, James Scott Bell, Allison Brennan are merely a few I can think of off the top of my head.

J.E. Fishman is another, and he offers a very unique perspective because he’s worked multiple sides of the industry. He was a former NYC literary agent, an editor for Doubleday and now he’s a novelist. His newest book A Danger to Himself and Others

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How to Get the Most Out of Your Beta Readers

Hey friends! Today I’m a guest blogger at The Creative Penn. Head on over there to check out how writing takes the same dedication and discipline as training for an athletic contest. And now, beta readers…

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Yesterday I finished my first revision/editing pass through my novel manuscript and sent it out to seven people to read. These are the first of my beta readers (another smaller group will read it in another month) and they are going to help me see my story as, well, as a reader would the first time through.

It’s important if you ever hope for your writing to see the light of day, whether you publish it traditionally or self-publish, to have someone read it before everyone reads it. Preferably lots of someones. If you are working on something that you want to show an editor or an agent, you really don’t want that person to be the first to read your novel.

When you write a book, even if it doesn’t take too long to draft it, you are still too close to your creation to accurately assess how a first-time reader will experience it. So beta readers can give you important feedback. But if you want to get feedback you can really use (and not just your mom’s adoring praise–sorry, Mom) you need to choose your readers well. In my group of seven, three are fellow writers, one has been a book marketer for fifteen years, two are avid readers (well, they’re all avid readers), and one I don’t really know about in terms of reading and writing, but his important function is his gender. You see, I want a good mix of industry professionals and everywomen and everymen, because every reader can give me unique feedback.

My male reader is important because he can tell me if I have a male character doing or saying something that a guy really wouldn’t do or say (I read a LOT of books by women and see a lot of movies and TV episodes where male characters say something only a woman would say).

Two of these readers are African American, which is important because I’m fairly sure there are more black characters than white in this novel. They can point out where a character may fall into an unintentional stereotype.

One of my readers is a historic preservationist and knows everything there is to know about old houses, furniture, and American history in one of the time periods in which the story takes place. She can tell me if there is a historical inaccuracy.

The reader who is a marketing professional is used to evaluating books for publishing boards and therefore knows what weaknesses might keep it from publication.

The readers who just LOVE to read can tell me if the book held their interest, dragged, was confusing, etc.

To guide my readers into giving me feedback I could use, I asked them to keep some simple questions in mind:

1. Note any place where the story is dragging or you find your mind wandering because it’s getting a little boring.
2. Let me know if something is confusing.
3. Let me know if you saw a surprise coming a million miles away.
4. Note anywhere where you are jarred out of the story for any reason.
5. Don’t worry about commas, but if you see a typo please mark it.
6. Are there characters you particularly like or dislike? Why?

And I gave them an ideal deadline for comments so that I could move on in the revision and editing process. My next group of readers will include a friend who is a sociology professor who studies race and class closely and another author who is both male and African American and has written books that have urban settings and urban problems. These readers will offer me an important critical view of the social structures in my novel.

If you’re thinking of having others read your work, I encourage you to do some thinking about what sort of feedback you need most. And then give your readers the okay to be critical. We don’t improve when we’re only praised (though it’s nice to be praised). Divorce yourself from your story a little and trust that the reader coming to it fresh is going to see things you can’t, and those are things you need to know about and take into account when you revise.

How about you? Have a good or bad experience with early readers? Care to share?

I am so, SO very proud…

So ecstatic to announce that my husband’s thriller is available for pre-order!

PlayingSaint

It’s a fast-paced, suspenseful read that had me guessing the whole time and utterly flummoxed when all was finally revealed. If you love suspense, especially with supernatural elements, this is your book. It will be in stores in October.

Photos of What I Wish the First Day of Spring Looked Like

Not that it looks like this outside right now, but who can resist imagining what spring will look like when it really gets here in mid- to late-April?

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A girl can be delusional, right?

One Morning In March

Spring is a time for poetry. And so I share with you what I wrote this morning.

One Morning in March

It is March,
still winter,
and the white sky
seeks to remind us of it,
hunching low over the bare treetops
like a fog.

Yet this day we recall
that we did not
settle upon a glacier
or the icy moon Europa,
but upon earth.

Grass,
brown and bored,
peeks from beneath
the serrated grimaces of soiled snowbanks,
so reluctant to give any ground
to spring.

Traffic lanes and parking spots
we had forgotten
grow at the margins of this white world
like the black beaches of some volcanic island
still forming.

The wreckage
of the ice storm emerges
like an ancient ruined metropolis.
Oh, yes, we say,
I remember that storm.
Only the snow made me forget.

I pick up the keys
I dropped in the driveway—
the first dirt
to work its way under my fingernails
since November.

Inside
the dog’s muddy prints
on the kitchen floor
don’t raise my ire.
I don’t sigh and say, “Sasha!”
as I might have.

We shake ourselves awake
at the birds.
Birds.
That’s right, we say
in wonder.
There are birds.

How to Write Your Novel’s First Draft in Just 2 Months

Late Tuesday night, I happily typed the final words of the first draft of a novel that I began 65 days before. 92,615 words, averaging out to 1,425 per day, though if you’ve been following this blog, you probably know that I don’t write every single day, and I don’t even advocate writing daily (though, if that’s your thing, more power to you).

Beyond writing, I do work full time Monday through Friday; attend church and teach Sunday school on Sundays; take my son to karate on Mondays and Fridays; teach ESL and attend choir practice and Bible study on Wednesdays; commute halfway across the state on Thursdays; and make halfhearted attempts to keep up on housework (well, sometimes).

So how? How can someone with a full life still find the time to write the draft of a full length work of fiction in a little over 2 months?

I’m glad you asked. Because I bet you can do it too–if you want to.

First, spend an entire year thinking about, researching, and sketching a rough outline of the novel before writing anything. Go ahead and make notes of scenes or particular phrases or dialogue you think of, but don’t start the real writing until you are ready. Really ready. So ready that you can’t hold back any longer. I put this first not only because it comes first chronologically, but because it was so obviously the most critical factor for me this time around.

Second, build in some concentrated blocks of writing time. I probably could have managed most days to write something on my manuscript, but to write fast and in the moment, I needed to have a string of empty days where nothing was on my schedule except writing. That’s how I got momentum. I took one week of vacation at the very beginning and another six weeks later. More than 50,000 words were written in those two weeks alone–over half the book.

Third, write first. Write before you go to work, before you do the dishes at night, before you collapse in bed and binge on House of Cards. Put the writing first for this limited amount of time while you’re working hard to get that first draft done. Now I have the whole rest of the year to relax a bit and enjoy life more while I edit at a far more leisurely pace. But if you don’t put it first for awhile, it will always get pushed back down the priorities list until it’s the last thing you do with the dregs of your energy–or it may fall off entirely.

Fourth, resist getting bogged down. There were times, especially near the end, when I had to slow down and look at the big picture again before I could see the way forward. But if you stand still too long in the muck in the middle of your book, you may find that you’re cemented there. Leave it too long, and you might give up on it. Push forward whenever you can.

Fifth, eliminate your biggest distractions. TV? Facebook? Video games? Friends? They’re all crouching on the sidelines waiting to devour your time and brain cells. Do whatever it takes to control these distractions. Have a friend take your TV and your X-box for a while. Go Cold Turkey on time-sucking Internet sites. Have your mom dog-sit for a couple months. Schedule some special times with your friends for a few months from now so you have something to look forward to.

I want to stress that I didn’t set out to write this draft at breakneck speed. I was fully expecting it to take at least twice as long as it did. The speed happened because the story wanted so badly to be told after my copious research. It was all wound up inside my brain and once I let it go, there was no stopping it. But along the way I had ample opportunities for it to get derailed. And that’s where the last three pieces of advice come in.

You have to want it. And you have to be willing to sacrifice for it, if only for a time.

I’m a pretty firm believer that a person can do almost anything for set amount of time. When I was running a lot, I convinced myself to go further and run longer by forcing myself to “at least get to the end of this song” and then “at least get to the chorus of this next song” and then “at least go one more minute.”

Can you give yourself a time frame and tell yourself that you can write for “at least this one hour today” or “every day for just this next week” or “1000 words a day for just this one month?” If you can do that, push yourself a little harder. Give yourself a deadline. Then beat it.

Getting to “The End”

In all of my writing life, from essays in school to writing back cover copy to writing a novel, I must admit that I have the most trouble with the endings. I’m a good starter. I love introductions, headlines that grab you, the set-up to a story. Maybe it’s the anticipation.

Middles are good too, though perhaps not as exciting to write. It’s in the middle where the evidence builds, the bricks are being laid, the meat of what you’re trying to say starts to come out. It’s where you build to your climax.

But I’m never quite happy with my endings. I’ve always felt that my conclusions to essays were the weakest part of them. I often struggle to find the right way to end back cover copy. With my short stories, knowing where to end was the toughest part.

This is probably why I was able to write 80,000 words of my current novel in the space of 8 weeks and now I’ve slowed to a crawl as I decide how best to bring it all home. By this time an outline can’t help me. What I wrote is far better than my original outline. Anyway, I have a clear idea of what I need to write. I just question whether the pace is working or if I’m leaving the reader hanging on anything.

Rather than press on ahead I’ve decided to take a small step back to look at the whole. I’m digitizing the entire manuscript and will listen to it this week before writing more. I would prefer to listen to it all in one day, but I have this thing called a job and a family, so I guess that’s out for the moment. One nice thing about this turn of events is that it will get me off my butt for a bit. I can listen to my text on my iPod while I do the laundry and hit the treadmill. (My intensive writing schedule has me feeling tremendously slouchy.)

So while I’d like nothing more than to post on here that the manuscript is done, it needs to cook a little longer. I guess it’s all part of the process.

And see, even now I don’t know how to end this post.