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March 2014

Question of the Month: Untangling Necklaces

by Susan Henderson on March 3, 2014

Ever tie your story or novel into a knot trying to revise it?

disneyland

My parents took me and my brother to Disneyland when we were three and five. I have foggy memories of twirling inside a tea cup and floating past singing pirates, though maybe these are not memories but only associations I’ve made from photos I’ve seen and songs I’ve sung.

All I know is that on that trip, I got my favorite necklace ever. (The closest I could find to it was this photo on Etsy.)

smallworldnecklace

The necklace was a little Dutch girl made of painted wood. She even had little painted braids that fit into holes in the sides of her head, and long after one of the braids fell out, I continued to wear it.

tangled-necklace

Have you ever thrown a bunch of your necklaces into a jewelry box, and then on the day you want to wear one, you open that box and find that they’re all in a knot? That’s what eventually happened to my little Dutch girl necklace. I tried to work the knot apart using fingers and toothpicks, trying not to break the chains. All the while, I considered which necklaces to sacrifice in order to save the ones I loved best.

I bring up this story because the revision on my latest book has felt like untangling necklaces. Staring at knots and wondering where to begin. Sacrificing one thing in order to save another.

How did these knots happen? During my revision, I changed the opening, reworked a key relationship, tightened this, cut that, pulled this plot thread over here, added a big new event and a character to go with it, gave the setting its own plot arc. And in most ways, the story dramatically improved. In fact, I’m very, very excited about this one because I’m trying to write the book I’ve always wanted to read.

But there was a giant knot.

I’m being kind to myself. There were many giant knots leftover from the revision, and I pinned the stuck places up on my bulletin board and stared at them for days with no idea of how to move forward.

tinkerbell-2

In a strange way, this is my favorite part of editing. It’s where the magic happens but only if you’re able to risk the whole thing collapsing. It’s that close-your-eyes-and-jump moment.

But like someone who stands on the high dive for too long, feeling the fear and anticipating all that can go wrong, what got me stuck was not so much the knot itself. True, to untangle it, I knew I would have to throw out ideas I liked and discover parts of the the book I had yet to conceive.

I stood there, frozen. Rather than thinking, This could be fun. I’ve done this before. I wonder what I’ll discover? I started wondering, What will so-and-so think if I take a step here, or here? And I could imagine the distrustful sighs, the lack of faith, the poorly hidden disappointment.

I began to be tepid. Fearful. I took baby steps. I made safe but uncreative choices. I didn’t trust the magic. Or me.

Do you have a voice like this perched on your shoulder?

This is a long post. Sorry. I’ve saved it up and that’s what happens… too much to say at one time. But here is what happened with my plot-knot. I finally reached out to a friend.

I don’t reach out very often. I come from a long line of cowboys. We are stubborn. Loners. Work horses. Never weak or needy, or if we are, we don’t admit it. But I reached out, thinking I needed editorial feedback. What I got instead was a giant pep talk and help kicking the gloomy and doubting voice off my shoulder.

The next day I was writing so fast I couldn’t keep up. I made daring changes and let the ripples begin. I wrote about things that I’m emotional and obsessed about. I scrapped parts of the book that were good in order to reach for something that made me giddy.

Am I done? No, but I’m on my way and feeling good about it.

ball chain

If I could go back to my little Dutch girl story for a moment… I was never able to rescue that necklace, but I did free up a ball chain and then hung a pocket knife to it, and that became my new look. It took being blocked from my original goal to discover something brand new. My new look was little more fierce, and probably more genuine, as well.

Amy Wallen, Rick Moody, Melora Wolff, Susan Henderson, and in back, Eber Lambert.

 Amy Wallen, Rick Moody, Melora Wolff, me, & Eber Lambert.

Speaking of revisions, I’ve been reminded recently that our stories and our processes for discovering and revising them are so personal and varied. Talk to the writers you know. Think about the writers you wish you could know—Marilynne Robinson who publishes a prize-winning book every twenty years, Jodi Picoult who publishes a big concept book every other year, Alice Munro who stays with short stories no matter who says they’re an unpopular genre. This process and this very personal time table, to me, is as  fascinating and valuable as the final product.

Over a long dinner a few weeks ago with the fine group of people you see above, we talked about revisions and finding a book’s opening and the glorious inaccuracies of memory. We talked about novels and non-fiction and movies and music and bridge closures and everything under the sun. Not the greatest picture but the only one of an exceptionally lovely night—a shot in the arm, a safety net appearing below, all the best parts of being with incredible and creative friends.

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Okay, let’s hear your revision stories! It’s good to have the company.

 

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