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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.

 

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Dylan March 3, 2014 at 12:58 pm

I love your simile. And the result–the new chain necklace with the sharp blade. I once crocheted a bathing suit with stitches so tight, the thing stood up by itself. It had no stretch when I tried to put it on. And that is how I sometimes think of my early drafts: they have no resilience, no give, when I go back to weave in a new storyline or digression or add a new character. It takes me a long time to tease open some space; it’s like teasing apart those necklaces. (I get help from a deeply trusted reader.)

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Susan Henderson March 3, 2014 at 1:09 pm

Oh, I love that story, Dylan. And how brave, not only to wear a crocheted bathing suit, but to try to make one yourself. So right about needing to tease open space. And often the new ideas change something fundamental about the story that requires more than just space. So glad to have someone who understands and to know that one of the writers I admire most struggles with revision too. xo

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billie hinton March 3, 2014 at 1:27 pm

I love your description of the knots in the story and the knowing you have to untangle them but how hard it is sometimes to take that unraveling leap of faith, trusting that what you pull apart will be fixed in the revision.

I’m doing a whole book edit right now using Alan Watt’s 90-Day Rewrite book. He talks a lot about trusting the unconscious and trusting the story and being brave enough to tackle these story knots.

I will end up doing about 20 editing passes focusing on different aspects, but I absolutely know the feeling of realizing there’s a knot, it has to be untangled, and it’s going to make other things collapse temporarily. I usually identify them and then it takes a few days to get up the courage to go in and tackle the issue. It’s exactly like standing on the high board, knowing you just have to do it. And that once you do, you’ve done it. The dread is so much worse than the dive. :)

I also love that your friend put you back on your own path. IMO the very best editors and readers are those who ask questions but encourage the writer to go back into the story and find the solutions to any issues. If a writer has truly engaged in the writing of the first draft, the answers are in the writer. And I think the writer and the future readers of the book get cheated if someone else comes in and ‘fixes’ it. That’s not to say we can’t utilize good feedback! But I think sometimes we seek feedback to avoid the untangling of the necklaces.

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Susan Henderson March 3, 2014 at 1:49 pm

I do the same, Billie. When I know there’s going to be a domino effect, I try to identify which aspects of the story are likely to fall down when I push on the piece that isn’t working. Usually I tack up on my bulletin the problem area and everything I expect to come down with it and think about those pieces all together. I might walk but not write for three or four days just thinking on it all, and most times I like the new idea better than the original. But I don’t write until the fear is gone and the excitement is there. I write well out of many emotions, even rage, but not fear.

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Christopher Lincoln March 3, 2014 at 1:40 pm

All too often, I find the seed of a second story growing in my current WIP. Then I have to apply a little herbicide and simplify, simplify, simplify.

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Susan Henderson March 3, 2014 at 1:51 pm

I’m a big believer in simplifying too. Stripping the story to its essence.

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GC Smith March 3, 2014 at 2:35 pm

Short note: I’ve thrown several hundred ms pages from a deep sea adventure novel in the wastebasket. But, I saved some of the characters and the ended up in my novel, WHITE LIGHTNING; Murder in the World of Stock Car Racing.

Today and tomorrow a free GC Smith novel.

Monday March 3 and Tuesday March 4.

Two day free promotion IN GOOD FAITH, A Johnny Donal P.I. Mystery.
CLICKY

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Susan Henderson March 3, 2014 at 2:54 pm

Definitely have done the same over the years!

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Maury Feinsilber March 3, 2014 at 6:11 pm

Writing a novel in the first place is a tremendous leap of faith, just knowing — hoping — there will be a point where, after groping along, groping along, the end will somehow come into sight. Perhaps that initial trust and faith we have in our ability to achieve the miracle of a complete, first draft is something we must remind ourselves of when faced with entering the labyrinth of revision. Easier said than done, but each time I (so often) feel myself despairing, I remind myself that I’ve done it before in previous paragraphs that then became chapters, revised the blatant imperfection that they were into what, at last, I hoped for them to be, untangled the chains, shored up the walls that I moved from this room to that, so I just go on, keeping the faith, often just barely, but nonetheless, knowing that I’ll do it again. And then I do it all again the next day. And the next. And the next.

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Susan Henderson March 3, 2014 at 11:05 pm

This is just the thing I needed to read. And I’m going to read it again. And how I love my writer friends.

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Jim Nichols March 4, 2014 at 4:29 pm

Oh yes, knots…exactly. Or kinks, as in you stretch the story to the end of that first draft/second draft/whatever and when you reach the end and relax, it kinks up on you like an over-tightened rubber band. Then you (I) have to start at the beginning and work your way back through all those kinks (including the new ones) as many times as it takes until finally you can go all the way through and nothing bunches up on you and you’re done, except for line-edits.

I’m working through twelve independent stories, making them interconnected stories…you think you’ve seen kinks! I’ll show you kinks!!

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Susan Henderson March 4, 2014 at 4:56 pm

Ha! You have know idea how much I’m looking forward to your stories!

Up from the Blue began as linked stories so I know all about those kinks.

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Jim Nichols March 4, 2014 at 7:45 pm

I’d say just a jot less than I’m looking forward to your new novel!
Hurry up, wouldja?

Interesting about UFTB starting as connected stories.

(Anyway I sent the newly-connected stories off to the prospective publisher today, kink-free, I hope.)

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Susan Henderson March 6, 2014 at 2:05 am

I’m working on it! Every day.

Oh, and a HUGE congratulations for this: http://decembermag.org/category/news/

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Russell Rowland March 11, 2014 at 11:49 am

So much to love about this. But of course my favorite part is talking about being too stubborn to reach out for help. The cowboy way.

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Susan Henderson March 11, 2014 at 12:05 pm

Yeah, I’ll bet we both have a pretty big I-can-do-it-alone streak. :-)

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