Revising Your Manuscript: Clarifying Motivation

Last week I shared the story of a shooting near our house. If you haven’t read that post, hop on back and read it first, then move on to this one.

When the dust settles after a tragedy in which the human will was involved–as opposed to a natural disaster–the very first question we ask ourselves is WhyWhat drove the villains of innumerable wars and genocides and school shootings and kidnappings and murders to commit such heinous acts? We want a reason, even if it’s an inadequate one, for the crime. And when we don’t get it, it makes the tragedy more frightening. Whatever the reason, it is so much easier to process and understand if it isn’t random.

When it comes to storytelling, motivation is key to understanding characters, accepting the plot, and fully immersing ourselves in the story. If there’s no clear reason for an action, the reader will be continually on the lookout for it. Now, if we want to make unclear motivation part of the tension for a while, that’s fine. But if we never manage to explain to a reader why a character, say, betrays his brother or cries when he sees a field of ripe wheat or sabotages his best friend, we’re betraying their trust in us as storytellers.

In high school I was in a number of plays and musicals, and beyond the very obvious difference of one having musical numbers and one not, I noticed a very pronounced difference in stage direction. In a play, if I stood up and walked to another spot in the “room” for no apparent reason, the director would call me on it. I needed to have a reason to change my position beyond me just feeling like the audience would be bored if I sat the whole time I was delivering these lines. In fact, it was so ingrained in me that it has affected my enjoyment of other productions! A common problem when memorizing lines and movements for a play is to answer the question What’s my motivation? because, of course, as an actor you are given lines and stage direction in a non-organic matter. To you, they did not arise naturally. Someone else wrote them out and you have been tasked with performing.

In contrast, the director of the musicals needed little reason for movement beyond the need to get people into the proper spots to start the next dance number. If you’re manipulating events in your manuscript just so you can get to the next scene that you planned, step back a moment and examine each character’s motivation. Would someone really act that way, say that line? Why? What would drive them to do that?

Using my example of the recent deadly shooting from the post on tension, after the shooter was taken into custody our questions changed from Who? and Where? to Why? Why the pharmacist? Was the shooter attempting to steal drugs? Was he under the influence of drugs? Why his neighbor? Had they been at odds?

The day after the shooting I was attempting to organize my desk (because deeper thought eluded me, preoccupied as I was with the events of the day before). This process involved going through a stack of items to be read and filed, including several issues of The New Yorker. I was flipping through them for articles and stories and comics I wanted to rip out and keep when I ran across an article about Adam Lanza’s father. I didn’t want to read about Sandy Hook, especially after the experience of my son’s school being on lockdown. But for some reason I began to read anyway. The article essentially attempted to explain what created a killer and a scenario like Sandy Hook. It talked about Adam Lanza’s childhood and teen years, his slow descent into a mental prison, the enabling actions of his mother, the frustration and despair of his father, everything, it seemed, except personal motivation. And that’s because that’s all we’re left with when a mass murderer kills himself and leaves no explanation. We’re left to grasp at wisps of clues and will never know the full truth.

But as writers, we must know why our characters are behaving the way they are, doing the things they’re doing, saying the things they’re saying. Read through each scene of your work in progress. Are the motivations of your characters clear? You don’t have to tell the reader outright why someone did something. You just have to make it easy enough for them to figure out on their own.

In my current manuscript, I wasn’t happy with one aspect of the ending. A young character committed a heinous act because I needed another character to suffer the consequences of their actions. The only problem was, I didn’t give this young character enough motivation. I tried adding a bit here and there, but what he did was so awful, my sprinklings of motivation were not enough, and I knew it. Rather than change the ending so that my other character didn’t suffer the consequences of her actions, I simply switched the young man’s target and made the consequences to the other character accidental. Problem solved.

Not everything needs an explanation of course. You don’t need to tell us why your protagonist rescued a dog from a shelter. It’s a pretty common thing humans do because most people like pets. However, you might have a reason for your protagonist choosing a large and imposing dog rather than a little yippy one. Or choosing a dog rather than a cat. That may factor into the plot or it may simply tell a reader something about the character that’s important.

Remember, if your character moves stage left, there had better be a reason for it or the spell you are trying to cast will be broken. Your audience will remember that they’re reading a book. And that’s exactly what we don’t want them to do.

Revising Your Manuscript: Increasing Tension

As I was headed to the post office late Monday morning in the pouring rain, I couldn’t help but notice half a dozen police cars and twice as many police officers in an otherwise empty parking lot in front of Rite Aid. Yellow police line tape cordoned off both the parking lot and the building, which is situated uncomfortably close to my house. Uncomfortably, because of what had happened there to necessitate the police presence.

I got to the post office in East Lansing and called my husband for a phone number I’d forgotten to write down and mentioned the strange situation at the Rite Aid. As we do nowadays, he proceeded to look up what information could be gleaned from online sources. Very little, as it turns out. A pharmacist, a kind man who had filled prescriptions for our family, had been shot in the face 30 or 40 minutes earlier and died. The shooter fled on foot into a residence on a nearby street, a street we used to use daily when our son was younger as we took him to daycare. There the shooter had apparently shot someone else just fifteen minutes later. Several schools were on lockdown. But my son’s school, closer in distance to the now supposed location of the shooter then the other schools listed, was not on the list. A call to the school went unanswered.

I finished my business at the post office, ran through the downpour to my car, and headed for his school. Thankfully when I got up to the front door, the building was locked. The principal let me in, I quickly made sure they knew what was going on, and then I left.

In the tense hours that followed, news was sketchy. “Isn’t this what Twitter is for?” I wondered in frustration as my husband and I scanned every news site, every feed we could think of, reloaded articles every two minutes to see if anything had been added. Robocalls from the police department and the school came ten to twenty minutes after events had already been reported on the Internet. We got the call that the school lockdown had been lifted, but still could find no indication that the police were positive that the suspect was in the residence that they had surrounded with cops from three cities, S.W.A.T., a U.S. Marshall, K9 units, and armored vehicles.

I second guessed myself for leaving my son at school. Why didn’t I ask if he could come home with me? What if he’s in danger? With every half hour that passed by with still no updates, anxiety mounted within me. A headache came on. I erupted in tears a few times (folks, I rarely cry). I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I was steadily losing it.

Let’s pause this story here and take a look at the facts.

By the time I drove by the Rite Aid and saw the tape and the cops and the cruisers, everything except the apprehension of the suspect had already taken place. Two men were already tragically dead. The shooter was already barricaded in the location of the second shooting and surrounded by law enforcement. The only thing yet to be decided was whether he would give himself up, go out in a hail of bullets, or shoot himself. He was contained.

But I didn’t know that. And my baby was not home with me.

Tension–severe and almost unbearable tension–can happen even when nothing is actually happening. Tension stems from uncertainty–not knowing someone’s true identity, not being able to predict what someone will do next, not understanding why something is happening, not knowing if a loved one is safe, not knowing when something will end, not knowing how someone will react…not knowing the end of the story. In our writing, tension is as much about what is not apparent to a character as an immediate physical threat to a character. Stories with absolutely no big action can have more tension than the most explosive big-budget Hollywood shoot-em-up ever made. Yes, there’s Speed, but there’s also Phonebooth.

Inside the Rite Aid, there was a brief moment of tension. An argument perhaps, the sight of a gun. But when that poor pharmacist died, the tension for him ended.

Outside the Rite Aid, every parent in two cities was terrified and anxious and even hysterical for over three hours. Each child in those locked down schools was wondering why their teachers were so tense and why they had a Code Yellow. People at work or at home within a five mile radius of all the action, including the campus of Michigan State University, were told to “secure in place,” stay inside, lock the doors. For tens of thousands of people outside, though they were not directly involved in any of the tragic events of the day, the tension worsened with every moment that passed with no information and no resolution.

Tension kept my husband and I reloading scant articles online. Tension keeps a reader turning the pages. And if tension stems from uncertainty, as writers we need to keep readers in suspense as long as possible.

It can be uncomfortable to write like that. We naturally desire resolution. Even a song that ends on an unresolved chord can drive us nuts. But in order to keep a reader engaged, we need to resist the desire to explain. Tension is in the pauses, the silences, the moments before the Moment. Have you ever read For Whom the Bell Tolls? That entire book ends on an unresolved chord! And it’s the ending that makes the rest of the book worth reading at all.

Take a look at your work in progress, scene by scene. Do you allow tension to hang heavy in the air? Or do you resolve problems as quickly as possible? Is your story lacking tension of any kind? How could you add tension? How can you increase the uncertainty of a situation? Raise the stakes? Make the consequences more dire? Give the character (and the reader) less information? End a scene sooner? Pay special attention to the ends of your chapters and try to end each one with an unresolved chord. Compel the reader on to the next chapter by leaving them unsatisfied in this one.

That’s what makes a thriller a page-turner. It’s not the action itself. It’s the uncertainty. And you can use that to your advantage even in a quiet book.

Back to Rite Aid. When my husband left the house to pick up our son from school, word filtered through that the shooter had given himself up. He was in custody and the threat had ended. I texted my husband to let him know, to ease his anxiety and break the tension. It took me the rest of the evening to truly recover from the day. And in the light of the next morning, the big question became one of motivation.

As I said, this story is still developing. Here is a good article about the first victim and here is one about the second, men who had dreams and families and were made in the image of God, cut down in the prime of life. Why? We don’t know. And that is the subject of my next post on revising your manuscript…

Revising Your Manuscript: Solving Plot Problems

You know when you watch a movie and you find yourself asking “but why wouldn’t he just…” and you can’t enjoy the rest of the show because everything hinged on that one thing that doesn’t make a lick of sense?

Congratulations! You’ve identified a plot hole. Spend much time on IMDB.com and you will find thousands of threads about plot problems in popular movies. Some of them are little, and rabid fans quickly explain them to the not-so-observant watcher. They’re the potholes, something we Michiganders are intimately familiar with this time of year. They make the ride clunky, but they’re not going to ruin the trip altogether.

Others are, well, like this.

li-ott-sinkhole620

For the pothole type, you probably just need a patch. You find a reasonable explanation for why this character did X or why Y caused Z and you work it into the story. For the sinkhole type, you may need to do some intensive structural repair and rerouting.

The sinkholes are the things we wish we could ignore because fixing them could alter everything else in our story. So we pretend they don’t exist, convince ourselves that we’re worrying about nothing, and in the meantime they swallow up the whole story because no one can get past them. Sometimes we need others to point them out to us, so we know–for sure, now–that yes, this is tripping up everyone else as well.

As painful and labor-intensive as they may be to fix, they must, must, must be fixed. And here are a couple ways we can approach them:

1. Go back to the beginning and prepare us.

Want to keep that plot device? Then you need to go back and lay out for the reader why it has to happen that way. Give the reader signposts and clues and reasons. If adequately done, then when we come back up to where that sinkhole was, you may find that it’s disappeared. Everything makes sense and falls into line and we go trucking right along to the next chapter.

2. Go a completely different direction.

Just can’t get your mind around how to salvage your plot and not fall into the sinkhole? Turn around and go another direction. Choose that direction according to the natural flow of the story. What would really happen next? And next? And next? Make that happen. Maybe you’ll get to the place you had wanted to be in the end anyway. Or maybe you’ll discover an even better ending in this new direction. I like it when the latter happens, because those are the endings that can both surprise us and still feel inevitable. They never feel tacked on.

What about you? How have you handled big plot holes in your own work? Do you find they tend to pop up in the same places, like the muddled middle or the ending that you just never quite thought through until you found yourself there and had to wrap this blessed tale up? I’d love to hear from you!

Revising Your Manuscript: Cutting the Fat

When it comes to revision, writers have a lot to say about what to leave in and what to leave out. Kill your darlings is a common way of describing the process of cutting out the parts that are pretty or clever but do not move the story along. But there are other things to cut out as well if we want our writing to sing–the boring stuff, the repetitive stuff, the needless stuff.

Long exchanges in dialogue that you might have in actual life, but that no one wants to read about.

Words we all use when we speak, like um, well, yeah, so, but, etc. that slow our dialogue down and require all sorts of commas (which also slow the reader down).

Words that happen too often. In my current work in progress, it was “ma’am.” I think I cut about a hundred of those out after a beta reader pointed them out to me!

Overexplanation of the setting. This may be hard to gauge, but consider that, in most cases, your reader doesn’t need to visualize a room or vista exactly as you do to understand what’s going on. None of us goes into a room and then catalogs in our heads everything in it. Pick one or two features that make a place unique or represent a place’s ethos that a character might notice. Need an example of overdoing the setting? Read the first chapter of A Separate Peace. Mr. Knowles, we get it! It’s a private school in the Northeast with old brick buildings. Now put away the map and move on.

Needless physical description of characters. Eye color, hair color, height, weight, body type, manner of dress. Does it matter? Sometimes. But sometimes it is plain overdone. What do readers have to know in order to understand your character? Can they see it in action as a character changes? I’m of the opinion that a reader can identify more with your protagonist if they are not over-described. Because the moment a protagonist is a willowy blonde with “eyes of violet that changed with her moods” I think, well, this person is certainly nothing like me. Or anyone. Because eye colors may look different depending on the color of someone’s shirt, but seriously, it’s not an optic mood ring.

How do you tell what needs to be cut? Usually, you need other readers who are not so close to the story to show you where you’re making them yawn or sigh or scream in exasperation.  Each sentence should serve to move the plot forward, help readers understand something about a character or the setting that is truly germane to the story (and in most cases it is more engaging when you can show it rather than tell it), or speak to the story’s theme. When you (or your reader) find something that can be removed with absolutely no harm to the story, it’s probably not needed.

Cutting the fat is how you get your story down to its true essence, which helps the reader better interpret and understand the point you are trying to make. None of us will ever do it perfectly. But try to keep it in mind as you read through your manuscript. You may be surprised by just how much you can lose without losing your story. And once all that dross is consumed by the fire, what’s left shines all the brighter.

Here are some links to other sites with great advice on cutting useless words in particular:

Common Redundancies

Five Tips on Cutting the Clutter

Five Words You Can Probably Cut Altogether (Mostly)

 

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?

The Intentional Writer: Finding the Time, Space, and Inspiration You Need To Write

I’ve mentioned it a few times on the blog and now here it is. Inspired by the presentation I gave at the Breathe Christian Writers Conference last October and bringing together some of my best blogging and writing about writing, I offer you The Intentional Writer.

Intentional Writer ebook CVR FINAL

It’s available on Kindle now and I will soon be working on formatting the print edition. Here’s the description of what you’ll get inside:

You can make creative writing a regular part of your life—without making it a rigid daily requirement.

If you are trying to make creative writing a more intentional—and yet not tyrannical—part of your life, The Intentional Writer will help you to pursue your goals, hone your craft, and get your work out there into the hands of readers. This entertaining and informative book will help you analyze your motivations for writing, put yourself in the path of inspiration to keep your ideas flowing, deal with both internal and external distractions, reshape your surroundings and your schedule to aid your process, and take your work from first draft to final publishable product.

From encouragement and insight to the nuts and bolts of storytelling and editing, you’ll find something in the following pages that will change your writing rhythm for the better.

Your Novel as a Garden: 14 Ways Writing Fiction is Like Growing Your Own Veggies

I’ve once more been in the throes of novel revision during the past couple weeks, adding subplot and subtext, honing here, shaping there, putting everything just so before sending it all off to hands waiting in the cybersphere. At the same time I have been forced to pay closer attention to my vegetable garden as the heat and rain combine forces, spurring on quick growth and a crop of weeds that must be eradicated.

It occurs to me, as I consider these two activities, that writing a novel is much like plotting out and planting a garden. If you start with nothing, just a bit of land and some muscle power and some seeds and plant starts, you can, through hard work and sweat make bare dirt into food. You can make this happen…

Growth

And if you start with nothing, just a blank Word doc and some brain power and the barest germ of an idea, you can, through hard work, make bare creative impulse into engaging fiction.

In fact, here are 14 ways writing a novel is like growing your own vegetables:

1. You till the soil. You prepare your mind to be receptive to writing ideas (these are your seeds) so that when the seeds are planted it is into a mind that is already at work helping them to grow. In gardening this means removing rocks, adding nutrients, and loosening the soil. In writing it means removing obstacles to creativity (like, say, forgetting to worry about the state of your house or waistline for awhile), adding muse-bait (taking more walks in the woods, traveling to some interesting places, or playing hours of Mario Cart–whatever helps you think creatively), and loosening up your writing muscles (by blogging, writing short stories, writing poetry–heck, even a Twitter tirade could get you loose).

2. You plan the layout. You can’t just dump a bunch of different seeds together and expect your garden to grow. You have to plan. For some people that may look like lots of drawing and erasing and drawing again on paper, scouring reference books for light requirements and companion plantings, and whipping out a protractor and one of those chalk line thingies. For others it’s just getting everything in line in your head before diving in head first with a shovel. Whatever your method, whether you’re a compulsive outliner or a free associating free spirit, you need to have some idea of your goals and how all the different parts of your garden will interact with each other. Otherwise you end up with a big mess on your hands come August and a lot of extra work as you try to fix your errors.

3. You plant the first seeds. These are the cold-hardy seeds that just need some thawed ground and the strengthening spring sunlight to get started. They’re your strongest ideas, the ones you can’t get out of your head, the ones that persist despite bad weather and not writing them down. Don’t worry about a late frost. Just get those suckers in the ground so they can get growing. Seeds don’t grow unless they’re planted. Your garden, your novel, will never happen if you don’t take a leap of faith and trust that the strongest ideas will survive.

4. You water. Here’s where you give those seeds a little push. When you write, what is it that helps you develop your ideas into something approaching a story? Whatever that is–giving yourself a word count or time goal, doing character sketches, etc.–do that.

5. You wait. Put your work away for a bit and let things start to happen. In the garden, beneath the soil where you can’t see, roots and shoots begin to grow. In your mind, the same thing happens when you put your writing aside for a while, get some distance, and let things develop beneath the surface.

6. You plant the next wave of seeds. While you were waiting, I bet you got some new seeds, didn’t you? Plant those when the time is right. Some seeds can’t be planted until the soil is warm. Some ideas don’t occur to us until we’ve already gotten started and the story gets going.

7. You water. Again. Keep an eye on those little ideas you’ve planted and don’t let them struggle for life on their own.

8. You wait. Again. No matter how much we may want to sometimes, we can’t force a garden to grow and we can’t force a good story to develop faster than it should. Time is a writer’s best friend and we should try to work with it.

9. You plant some baby plants. Remember that scene you cut from your last writing project? That subplot you’ve been dying to find a place for? Those are your baby plants. They’re already pretty far along and sometimes you can find just the right place to plant them in your current writing project. Don’t force them in if there’s not enough room for them. But sometimes they’re just what you need to make your garden whole and productive.

10. You water. Again.

11. You wait. Again.

12. You weed. Ah. And here is where it can get tricky, time consuming, and hurt your back. Sometimes you won’t know what’s wanted and what’s a weed. Very early on, it’s really hard to tell sometimes because seedlings can look very much the same. But if you let all these ideas develop a bit (through watering and waiting) eventually the weeds will show their true colors. Those things that stick out, don’t belong, and aren’t productive? Pull them out! And when you look over your work again and find that a new crop of weeds has popped up, pull those out too! Don’t let weeds take over your garden or your crops will suffer (and it will just look like one big mess).

13. Repeat steps 10 through 12 as many times as necessary. I’ve lost count on my first novel MS. But the number of times isn’t important. What’s important is that you  repeat these steps as often as is necessary in your particular story garden.

14. Finally, you harvest. At some point, if you have been diligent and attentive, you will have a harvest. A lovely, verdant, productive garden that you are eager to share with others (because you can’t keep all that great food to yourself!). What you do with your harvest is up to you. Self-publish? Find an agent? Give it away for free?

But one thing is sure: you’ll never have anything to share if you don’t plan, plant, have patience, pull up the weeds, and put your back into it! So get out there and get dirty.

Editing Out the Cowbirds

nestLast week my husband, Zach, and I were over at our friends’ house. While our sons tore around the house and our husbands scrutinized slabs of meat on the grill, my friend Kristin told me with a little glint of excitement in her eye that they had a bird’s nest in their juniper near the front door. She knew that I, the consummate animal-lover, would want to see it, so we went down the porch steps to the blessedly quiet outdoors.

Being allergic to juniper, I allowed Kristin to part the boughs and I peered into a small nest that held five eggs: four tiny blue eggs with speckles on one end and one creamy egg with speckles all over.

“You need to get rid of that white egg,” I said.

Kristin looked at me, her face a swirling mixture of puzzlement, suspicion, and intrigue. “Why?”

“It’s a cowbird egg. It’s a parasitic bird. The cowbird chick will be larger than the others and will push them out of the nest or eat all the food and the other babies will starve.”

Now Kristin looked positively flummoxed. “What?!”

“Yes, they lay all their eggs in the nests of other birds. You need to get rid of it.”

After I assured her that the mother bird would not reject the nest if it smelled like human (besides vultures, birds actually have a very poor sense of smell) it was decided that Kristin would fish the offending egg from the nest so that I wouldn’t break out in a hideous and persistent rash, but I would be the one to heartlessly dispose of the egg. I tossed it into the backyard where it could become a tasty treat for a blue jay, crow, or garter snake.

As a child, such an act would have seemed to me to be very harsh, cruel, morally reprehensible. To even squish a bug was a sin to me. But I am an adult and my sensibilities have been hardened by the knowledge that we have plenty of cowbirds in Michigan and if that nest contained the brood of a rarer bird, like a warbler of some sort, the threatened species was the one that warranted my protection.

Not surprisingly, there’s a lesson to be learned here (beyond the avian one).

In our interaction over the nest, Kristin was the writer, I was the editor, the nest was the piece of writing, and the eggs were content.

When we act as writers, we love the piece and everything in it. Then we share it with someone else, looking for critique. When we act as editors, we see a problem the writer does not. We helpfully point it out (hopefully with tact). We explain why it’s bad for the rest of the piece to leave it in there. And then it’s the writer’s job to trust the editor and actually pluck the offending egg out for the greater good. Sometimes the writer needs an extra push here and there, sometimes she needs reassurance that it’s the best course of action, and sometimes she needs the editor to be the bad guy. (“Yeah, I loved that part too, but my editor said it had to go.”)

When you’re writing for eventual publication or public consumption, you can’t go it alone. When we write, we need others to look at our work and identify the cowbird eggs, the parasitic parts that need to be removed so that the good eggs will survive and mature.

Who is editing your work? If you’re thinking of self-publishing, this is an essential component. Yes, self-pubbing is relatively easy and very cheap, and maybe you have an awesome platform to help you market your book and sell lots of copies. But don’t make the mistake of going it alone. Every writer needs an editor. And there are a lot of freelance editors out there.

If you have trouble finding one, let me know. I kill cowbirds for a very reasonable price.