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edits

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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If you haven’t taken advantage of this free contest, please consider it: Salt Cay Writers Retreat Merit Scholarship Contest.

And if you haven’t “liked” my FaceBook Author Page, just click here and then click LIKE.

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

 

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Question of the Month: Focus

by Susan Henderson on October 7, 2013

How do you keep your focus and momentum on long projects?

septemberedits

This is a picture of how the new book is coming along. (I’m big into bulletin boards!) Each weekday (because I’ve learned to take weekends off), I pick one chapter or theme or knot to tackle. I do many of my edits while hiking, talking my ideas into the voice memo on my phone, because my #1 motivator is getting outside and moving. And no matter whether my edits for the day are great or terrible, I always move on to something new the next day because my #2 motivator is seeing progress.

If this looks especially tidy or easy to you, that’s because I’m sharing only the tiniest glimpse of my writing process. Right now my energy is directed at these book edits. But sometime I’ll share more of the chaotic and nerve-wracking aspects of writing and revising, how some days it’s like untangling necklaces and other days it’s like blowing things up and seeing what survives among the ashes.

Okay, your turn. What tricks and motivators do you use to stay sharp, creative, and productive?

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Many thank you’s this month: To Jamie Ford for mentioning my book in the Barnes & Noble Review! I hope you’ll check out his latest, Songs of Willow Frost… #11 in this week’s New York Times Best Seller list. To The Book Blogger and Read A Book for writing nice reviews of the Dutch translation of my book. To Jessica Vealitzek for listing my book as one of her favorites of the year. And to Corey Mesler for placing my blurb of his newest book right under one of my great writing heroes:

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Thank you to Cathrine, who took this picture in a Norwegian bookstore:

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 And I’ll end with this: My husband’s band, Bad Mary, just released its first video. Now you can see some of the fine people who jam in my basement each week…

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Question of the Month: Big Picture Edits

by Susan Henderson on August 5, 2013

How are you with feedback? Do edits on your writing leave you feeling crushed or excited? Defensive or freed up to look at something from new angles and with new life?

MaxPerkins

My agent is now the one and only person who has read my new manuscript, and while I was braced for criticism, I found, as I usually do, the whole process of feedback and big picture edits to be hugely fun and creative. Part of what I love best about getting his feedback is that he’s not a soft editor. He’s not afraid to kick the legs out from under the table and give me ideas that might require re-thinking the entire shape of the work.

But, bless him, he always begins with the strengths, or what creates the bedrock of the story for him—in this case, the world of the story (“It’s a spectacularly drawn landscape—physically and emotionally.”), the main character (“I love her and the way she interacts with dead bodies.”),  and two key characters (“Their relationship, their history, their rootedness to the town, each other, and the main character are perfect.”). This all helps build my confidence and my sense of what’s working.

But the important part for me is what comes next—What’s not working for him? Where and how can I make this book better? And so we spent a lot of time talking about the story’s villain (“His personality is too outsized for the story. He overwhelms the landscape. He’s not sympathetic.”) My villain, as he helped me to understand, is kind of like a Marvel Comic Book supervillain trying to fit into a Carson McCullers story. And so we talked about this character and why he doesn’t seem to fit, and how this problem creates other problems with my plot and my main character.

ideas

I have pages of notes from our talk—notes of what I can explore more deeply, where I should slow down, and all kinds of tangents and questions and challenges. This is all thrilling to me! My mind feels on fire, re-imagining my story with these new questions in mind and this new blast of energy.

And here’s the thing… I wouldn’t have thought of any of these things. If I took two more years to edit this book, I would peck away at the sentences and trail off into interesting quirks and backstories, but I wouldn’t have taken this turn. While I sensed there was something I couldn’t put my finger on that the book was lacking, I didn’t realize how much of it radiated from a villain who isn’t organic to this setting.

dive

Getting feedback that inspires (rather than crushes or stunts or angers) takes having the right reader. And it takes trust. Trust that you and your early-reader can both take risks, be open to wild brainstorming, try out ideas that may fail spectacularly. I am grateful to have this kind of supportive but challenging feedback and psyched to get back to work. I can’t even slow down the new ideas, they’re coming in such a rush!

So talk to me. Tell me your experience with edits and editors, the good and the bad!

Let me close with some thank you’s: to June Sundet (The June Blog) and camillaho for kind words about UP FROM THE BLUE, to the chaperones on my sons’ AllStar tour for offering such love and care to the kids, and to the parents of MIT students who reached out to me to offer help and friendship for the journey that lies ahead.

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P.S. I had posted this a month or two ago on FaceBook but I thought I’d post it here, as well. It’s that important to me. I know I’m a little unusual in the way I use FaceBook and email, but for me, private messages are solely for my family and people directly involved with publishing my work (i.e., my agent, editor, and publicist). Everything else, including congratulations, questions about the business, requests for help, condolences, small talk and deep talk, belong in the public domain (in comment threads on my FaceBook wall or here at LitPark). Otherwise, I can’t keep up with all these many ways for people to reach me, and it causes me more stress than you could possibly know.

Here is how I said it on FaceBook:

A note about how I use FaceBook: I don’t read or respond to private messages. I do, however, enjoy interacting with everyone in the comments sections on my page. If you need to contact me for any professional reasons (interviews, blurbs, etc.), please go through my literary agent at Writer’s House. Thanks!

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Question of the Month: Drafts

by Susan Henderson on December 3, 2012

Tell me about your editing process, and where are you in your current project?

In May, I completed what I called a first draft of my new book—that initial dump of all of my ideas that resembled the shape and length of a novel.

Since then, I’ve been structuring, cutting, moving, shaping, developing themes and emotional layers, adding and subtracting characters, simplifying some things and complicating others, panning in, panning out, balancing the length and pace of the chapters. All the while, I’m reading, reading, reading to train my ear, to keep the bar high: Camus, Baldwin, Steinbeck, Brontë, Gaiman, Stoker, Irving, Wharton, Dickens, McCullers. I’m nearly done with this second draft, and I like what I see.

Though I’m close to my next milestone, I still haven’t, and won’t, show my manuscript to a single soul. I’m enjoying this time of creating and dreaming alone. I love marking up a chapter, editing it until all the marks are cleaned up, and then starting again. I imagine two more drafts before I send it to my agent for feedback—the third draft where I pay attention to the individual sentences, concentrating on language, imagery, and rhythm; and the fourth where I spend a few weeks living in the town that inspired my setting. (More on that later. No reason to go on about the fourth step when I still need to nail the second.)

So how about you? Want to say where you are in your current project or anything about your process? I’d love to see how you work.

In other news, I’m interviewed at length in a new book written by Chuck Sambuchino and published by Writer’s Digest Books. CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM is an incredibly fascinating and helpful book about how the publishing industry has changed and how writers can best adjust to the new expectations. I found myself underlining and dog-earing lots of advice, and there’s enough diversity of styles in the book to suit different personality types. I particularly like the interviews with Cal Newport and Lissa Rankin. Definitely worth picking up!

I’ll close with some thank you’s: Suder BlogEsmee-Jacobs, Girl Called BelovedRhody Reader, True STORIESBitch Media, and The New York Times. I appreciate the press!

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