A Love Letter to my Novel

Last night, I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking about a million things (how should I refinish the vintage end table I just bought? Do I have to go back to work? So stressed . . .) But one of the things going through my mind was the problems I’m having with Nicky.

Nicky is the protagonist of my young adult novel. I’ve been writing this for about three years now, and while sometimes I think I’m getting closer to finishing – sometimes it also seems that the end is further away than it was three years ago. I’ve been struggling with the plot (there isn’t one), the secondary characters (they’re not doing enough) and a ‘middle’ that has zero forward momentum. It’s become a nightmare, a quagmire of doubt.

But once – once I loved this novel.

So while I was awake anyway, I started reading Author in Progress, a collection of essays by authors on how to get past some of the major issues we all face as writers. And then this little scrap of advice leaped out at me:

Write a love letter to your story and characters. Capture the feeling so you can use it later for fuel. You’ll need it!

I’ve been thinking about that all day. A love letter to your novel. 

So here goes:

Dear Nicky and the novel you’ve helped create: 

I remember the first time I ‘saw’ you. It was late October, 2014. I was on a walk, on a crisp, sunny fall day. I was taking that Young Adult Fiction class from Oxford and that week, our tutor had asked us what we would never want to write about, and I’d answered “History and racism – because I spend all day teaching history, and racism is so emotionally draining for me. I need the escape of magical realism and urban fantasy, so that’s what I want to do.” 

And then you arrived. That houndstooth driving cap and the matching coat that just about dragged the ground, with your pants legs rolled up and held in place by suspenders that had holes stabbed in them – I knew those weren’t your clothes! That spattering of freckles across your nose and those green eyes – but I barely noticed they were green. What I saw was the challenge. The certainty. The dare. And I heard you, loud and clear “Hey you. Lady! Yeah. You. Write my story.” 

Five minutes later, I knew enough to run home and get started. I knew what drove you – love of family, a need to take care of them and to make your dad proud, and an intense fear of losing it all and being sent to the poor farm, of being separated from your twin siblings and of having your mother locked away. I knew you’d do whatever it took to keep up the facade that everything was all right – even something illegal. I knew you’d take it as a challenge. 

And paired with what I knew of the 1920s and race relations and Prohibition . . . 

This novel has challenged me in ways I never thought possible. The research has been intense, and if I’m honest, it’s not done yet. That could be part of the reason why I’m not able to see the way out of the woods yet. But I know the bigger problem is this:  I want to protect you. I want to keep you safe, because I know the beginning and the ending of your story and I hate it. You’re too damn smart, and at the same time, not smart enough. You can’t turn away, and  you can’t keep your mouth shut, and I adore that about you. You are the me I wish I was. 

But you’ve got your own problems and relationships to deal with, and I’m not trusting you to navigate them on your terms. And this novel can only be written on your terms. I know that. I knew it from the moment you came to me. I have to let go. I have to trust you. I have to let you be yourself. Whatever comes – I have to let it happen. 

As for Hargrove – I know I’m not being fair to him either. Not letting him do what he should be doing. Simon, too, and Bobby. Simon’s conflicted. He doesn’t tell me about that, but he is. Letting you go running all over, risking your life week after week – he knows, Nicky. He knows, more than you, what the dangers are. He lived through Tulsa. To you, it’s just a story. To him, it’s the thing that wakes him up in a cold sweat night after night, his throat raw from screaming. How can he do this? He asks himself that night after night. How can he let the son of his best friend risk his life for money? He’s gotten you into this. He asked you to run for him. He helped you build Abby. He makes the whiskey and the deals. If he quit that, you’d have no choice but to quit, too. Pastor John asks you once, how much money is enough. Simon asks himself that, too. 

But for both of you, it’s not just about the money. It’s about the freedom. Independence. Simon’s his own man; no white man can tell him what to do in his own house, or with his own business. And you, Nicky – all you’ve ever wanted was to be able to save your family, to be seen as the adult you think you are. Running gives you that. And there’s nowhere on earth you’re happier than when you’re behind the wheel, outrunning whoever thinks they can catch you this time. 

I do love this novel. I know it has issues, but the issues are mine. I need to give you all – ALL – more freedom. I need to have more trust that you all – ALL! – know what you’re doing. I have to get back to why I started this to begin with – which was simply to tell the story. Your story. Crashing a Klan rally. I haven’t written that yet, because you already crashed one Klan lecture and frankly, I’m not sure how many you can get away with. But this seems important to you, so all right. We’ll do it. I have to tell this story on your terms, not mine. 

Even if it breaks my heart. 

 

Here’s a link to Barnes and Noble’s site for Author in Progress:  http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/author-in-progress-therese-walsh/1123233497?ean=9781440346712

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Those Dreaded Revisions — You Can Do It!

Last week, I showed you how to give critiques to another person, using a real-life example.  This time, I want to share a few tips I’ve learned about editing your own manuscript.

I realize — maybe better than anyone — that this new novel you’ve just written is your baby. You’ve spent the past three months? Six? Eighteen? giving birth to it. Nurturing it. But that draft is just the beginning. No one can write a first draft and then expect that first draft to go out into the world and survive. It’s really exactly like a baby:  you don’t expect a week-old baby to be able to go get a job, do you? Then why do you think that brand-new manuscript can be published just as it is? It doesn’t matter if you’re querying agents or planning to self-publish on Kindle, you need to edit and revise, probably more than once.

There is no right or wrong way to revise. If you’re a “pantser” (meaning “write by the seat of your pants,” with no plotting ahead of time), then your revision process will probably be different from someone who spent months plotting it all out and then writing. You actually go through the same process as a plotter, only in reverse. By the time your first draft is done, you’ll see the plot holes, where you can put in more twists, where you can ramp up the tension, where you can use a character (or even cut one!) to better effect.

I’m visual, so I like to take the manuscript and Post-It Notes and “plot” that way. Each scene gets a Post-It Note, and they get stuck on my office wall. It helps me see where scenes could be moved, where I have too many that are too similar, where I need to add in something to balance out the different plot threads.

There’s also no consensus on whether you should revise on your computer or on a hard copy. I prefer hard copies, the same way I prefer real books. I like to take a pen and make notes, to cross things out and jot new ideas in their place. Others prefer to work on their laptops so they can make changes right then and there. That’s okay, but make sure you’re saving that as a new file! If you permanently delete something from The Only Copy of You Novel, and you want it later — you’re screwed, my dear. That’s another reason why I prefer hard copies. Even if I do delete something, I always have that hard copy and I can retype it.

And on that note:  MAKE BACK-UPS OF YOUR BACK-UPS. If you start a new draft, SAVE IT TO MULTIPLE PLACES. Not just your hard drive. Not just your flash drive. BOTH. A really good way to save your work is to create an email account for yourself with Yahoo or Google, and email your drafts to yourself there (though you have to keep the account active, or it will be deleted — and with it, your work). Even if your computer crashes, you have it Somewhere Else. You may think I’m paranoid, but when you lose your novel and have no hard copies and no back-ups . . . Yeah.

Here’s a neat trick I discovered this year:  save your work as an ePub file and load it on your e-reader. It makes a world of difference! (For one thing, it makes you think “Holy freaking cow, this looks like a real book!”.) Typos jump out at you. Paragraphs and sentences take on a new life; you aren’t as tempted to skip over things, because you’re seeing it in a totally new format. You’re forced to confront things that you may have just shrugged at earlier. There are several free ePub converters online; the one that I’ve found works best for me is http://www.2epub.com/ I have a Nook HD+, and this is the only converter I’ve found that properly converts my Word documents into something that works on my Nook.

And let me get this out right now:  whether you’re doing a beta read for someone else or revising your own work, read it as close to one sitting as possible. Otherwise, you run into this problem called IDon’tRemember-itis. It’s when you read the first few chapters, set it down and go live your life for a few weeks, then remember you have to get this thing read, so you come back to it, but you don’t remember the first three chapters, so you have to re-read them. Then life comes calling again, and a few weeks later, you remember the novel, and you have to go re-read the first three chapters over again, and it becomes a never-ending cycle. How can you read for plot continuity if you can’t remember what the plot even was? Or know if the MC is acting out of character if you can’t remember what she’s like? You can’t. You’re doing yourself (or the other writer) a huge disservice if you do this. Do. Not. Do. It. Also, don’t read something else while you’re editing. You’ll get confused. Or worse, you’ll get tempted and fall right back into IDon’tRemember-itis.

Next week, I’ll let you have a peek at my own revision process. Hang on. It’s full of multicolored pens, Post-It Notes, scribbles, and harshness. 🙂