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Patience

My birthday was this past week. I had dinner with family, and someone asked me if I’ve been making good progress on my life goals.

I thought about it. “No, not really.”

One of my goals I was thinking about was writing. To be fair to myself, this past year I drafted one novel, edited another, shopped a third to agents, and published a couple of poems.

But sometimes it doesn’t feel like anything’s happening. I sent out another batch of agent queries this weekend, and while updating my spreadsheet, I realized I’ve been sending out this book for a year now. And I started writing this book four years ago. I can’t remember how many times I’ve used the anecdote about Kathryn Stockett and her sixty rejections when friends ask me how my writing is going.

I also recently got beta-reader feedback on the novel I finished editing. And while readers liked the book and there were plenty of lovely comments, there’s also a lot of work to be done when I get around to the third draft. I first had the idea for this book twelve years ago, and I started writing it five years ago. Drafting those first pages feels like a long time ago.

None of this should surprise me. I remember reading somewhere—probably in a book on writing—that no other entertainment industry moves slower than book publishing except for film. And I work at a publishing house, so I see firsthand the many processes and people a book manuscript must go through to reach publication, never mind the many normal, human delays and hiccups. (And, yes, I’ve been that editor who’s left a query from a hopeful author unanswered in my inbox for three months because I’ve been busy with this, that, and the other thing.)

And yet I want things to be unreasonably fast and smooth with my books. I’ve been going through a period of generalized envy in my life, so it’s a mental loop I catch myself playing a lot right now. They’re getting their book published and garnering excellent reviews. Their life looks so much more fun and ’grammable than mine. They have/do/are [whatever it is I think I need to feel satisfied with my life].

When I start feeling this way, what this often means is that I need to start reading Pema Chödrön again. Or at least take a deep breath and remember to have more patience with myself and the world. And remember that it isn’t merely the hoped-for result of writing that’s important but also the story, characters, and craft itself. At any rate, getting too hung up on how people respond to my writing—even agents and editors—and using that as a barometer for whether I can feel “successful” or am “meeting my life goals” is an awful lot of pressure—both for me and for them.

My goal-oriented self wants to put a disclaimer here that, of course, this doesn’t mean that goals aren’t important and that I shouldn’t work hard for them. But I think these statements can coexist peacefully—to have big dreams and pursue them, and to be patient and content with what actually is.

Transitions

I’m reading through the colonial fantasy (read: pirate) novel that my sister and I drafted last year, in preparation for editing the manuscript. I’m having lots of fun revisiting the characters and world, and it’s always interesting to see how different the beginning of a first draft is from the end. At least for me, I’m often just getting to know the characters and not entirely sure about the shape of the plot when I first start drafting, whereas by the end of the draft I feel much more comfortable and confident as the storyteller.

The thing that’s really stood out to me in the first hundred pages of the manuscript are the transitions—or the lack of transitions. With two authors switching back and forth every chapter or so, we didn’t always leave off where the next person picked up. Or we would rehash too much of the same scene or relational content already worked out in a previous chapter, so there’s repetitive material that will need to be trimmed out. There are also a whole host of things—such as character names, city locations, and even personality traits—that changed over the course of the first draft, so some of our chapters reflect those changes while others don’t.

Transitions in fiction can be hard for me to manage even when I’m writing by myself. I’ve gotten better over the years, but especially in my earlier novels I struggled with authorial FOMO, where I’d write out scenes that might have some potential for character growth or plot advancement, but it wasn’t actually essential to the story that I describe them in full detail. One thing I’ve unconsciously done to help is set my recent novels within tight timeframes. My portal fantasy novel, for instance, takes place in less than a month. My alternate history WWII novel is about six weeks long. When I’m dealing with characters over months and years instead of weeks, I have a harder time deciding which scenes will string together to create a coherent plot and show all the significant moments of character change.

For our pirate novel, rearranging the material we’ve already written will also help with the fluency of the storytelling. For instance, my sister wrote the chapter that introduces Marin, who is one of the three main characters, but chronologically his first scene takes place before some of the action I wrote in the previous chapter. With minor tweaks and deletions, that scene could be dragged and dropped into the chapter I wrote, smoothing out the timeline and requiring fewer mental gymnastics from readers.

Reading through a manuscript for editing kind of feels like reading a syllabus on the first day of class. I get a sense for all the projects and work that will need to be done to get the result I want. It can be intimidating, but it’s also an exciting moment to take it all in and imagine what it will read like once it’s all done.

Changing Gears

I finished editing my portal fantasy manuscript Thursday, quickly working through the last few pages in between an outing to the art museum with a friend and packing to visit my sister this weekend. My brother has been reading the manuscript for a week or so at this point, and I’ve been discussing with friends what project I should tackle next. And yet it still hasn’t really sunk that my second draft is done. Even yesterday, I had this nagging feeling: I should probably get home from my sister’s with enough time to edit 1,200 words in the evening.

With the edits done, I’ve been able to carve out some writing time to attend to my alt history novel I’ve been shopping around, which I’ve been sadly neglecting. My spreadsheet where I keep track of who I’ve sent it to when—and when to expect responses—had gotten weedy, and there were some online agent listings I’d been meaning to follow up on.

But shopping manuscripts is a long, slow process, so the bigger question on my mind is what project I should work on next. My brother has been texting me outrageous factoids and historical quotes from his doctoral research on Italian opera and Gothic literature, and I’ve been feeling kind of homesick for the steampunk world my brother and I developed with another friend. There’s a whole novel outline we worked up full of kidnapped debutantes, enchanted opera gowns, and dastardly fashion designers just waiting to be drafted, with characters we’ve written and loved for a dozen years now.

I also have a middle-grade series burning a whole in my pocket since I last visited my Army brother in Europe. They had recently gotten a dog that their children dote on terribly, and somehow we started making up this whole backstory that their dog is really an Italian spy who busts up illegal catnip rings and hunts down international mob bosses. I started writing a first chapter on the plane home from visiting them, and since I sent it to my nieces, they’ve repeatedly asked me to write more.

Like every good aspiring writer, I’ve also been mulling over a retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with my sister. With everything from Bridget Jones’s Diary to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to the dragon-riding Heart Stone, the world clearly isn’t suffering from a lack of Austen fan fiction. But, let’s be honest: it would just be so doggone fun.

Realistically, and probably responsibly, however, I think the best plan will be to revise the pirate fantasy novel I drafted last year with my sister. I haven’t touched the manuscript in six months, so the first order of business will be to reread the book from beginning to end. Since I only wrote half of the book, too, it will be helpful to get a feel for the manuscript as a continuous whole. I thoroughly enjoyed drafting the book, so I’m looking forward to diving back in.

I also want to celebrate finishing my edits on my portal fantasy, though, so I’ve got homemade tirmisu on my to-do list, and I’m taking myself to see Verdi’s La Traviata this Friday. Should be a good week.

Night and Day

I read Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day over the past couple of months, finishing it while in Florida a few weeks ago. I’ve been a huge Woolf fan since I read Mrs. Dalloway in college, and I’ve slowly been working my way through her oeuvre. Some of her books are mind-blowing—A Room of One’s Own, for instance, and The Waves—while some of them I read too young—I have no idea what happened in Jacob’s Room or To The Lighthouse—and others are good but not necessarily must-reads—I think of Three Guineas and Orlando.

Night and Day is Woolf’s sophomore book, before Jacob’s Room, her first so-called “experimental” novel. And it’s fair to say that Night and Day is conventional: Its five-hundred-page narrative follows upper-crust Londoner Katharine Hilbery and a number of other young people as they navigate their early careers, love and relationships, class, and the pressing social issues of the day (such as women’s suffrage). There’s no hint of World War I, and with its obvious pushback against the Victorian priorities of the older generation in favor of Romanticism, Night and Day shares more in common with E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View than stereotypical postwar literature like T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

If the narrative style and social commentary are unsurprising and even sometimes on the nose—Katharine dislikes societal obligations such as marriage and prefers staying up late at night by herself studying mathematics—it is Woolf’s psychological insight that keeps bringing me back to her work. At the same age as Woolf’s characters, I can’t help but feel that she got the hesitancy, ambivalence, hope, and possibility of young adulthood just right, even though her characters are a hundred years before my time. The characters are young enough to think anything is possible and old enough to know that they can’t choose everything, that making the lives they want will require hard work. They are young enough to find fault with the older generation and old enough to understand why their parents made the choices they have.

As a writer who strives for “consistent” characters, I was also struck by how freely Woolf allows her characters to feel conflicting emotions, within minutes in the same scene or even in the same moment. The complexity of her characters rings true to real life but requires plenty of unpacking—or “telling” as it’s called nowadays. Certainly there are aspects of Woolf’s writing that feel dated, and as an editor of contemporary prose, I wanted to cut down a lot of her sentences. But she is fastidious about understanding her characters in a way that doesn’t feel longwinded but thorough, and at no point was I bored by her explorations of each character’s history and inner world.

The amount of space Woolf gives to the traffic and bustle of London stood out to me as well, partly because the energy of London is a through line with other novels like Mrs. Dalloway and The Waves. A couple of years ago I realized that war (loss, suffering, trauma) is a pervasive theme throughout my novels, and Woolf clearly loved London and was endlessly fascinated by the city. It will be interesting to see, as I continue to write, what other moments, insights, and sensations I will come back to again and again in my writing.

The Color Purple

Maybe eight years ago, I picked up Alice Walker’s The Color Purple from the library. I only got a few pages in, because (spoiler) the fourteen-year-old narrator is repeatedly raped by her father in the first chapter, and at the time I wasn’t ready for it.

Over the years, though, The Color Purple kept popping up on my radar. A book I read for my queer theory class in grad school included an extensive analysis of Walker’s classic. More recently, I’ve been slowly reading through Karen Baker-Fletcher’s Dancing with God: The Trinity from a Womanist Perspective, and she also works with some of Walker’s philosophy and novels.

A few things stood out immediately when I started The Color Purple for the second time. Typically I’m not a fan of dialect in novels (it seems distracting at best, and at worst it marks race and class biases), but Walker’s use of dialect is so thorough and so consistent that it’s a natural extension of Celie’s character. More impressively, Celie’s dialect slowly changes over the novel as she grows up and becomes more independent and confident—and it’s markedly different from the dialect of Celie’s better educated sister, Nettie, further affirming Walker’s controlled mastery of character and voice.

The typesetting of the novel (at least of the edition I read) has some conspicuous features as well. There are no chapter numbers or running heads, and without these usual novelistic markers, the reader subconsciously feels less like they’re reading a book by Alice Walker and more like they’re simply reading letters from two sisters. The paragraphs in my edition also weren’t justified, which gives the typesetting a less finished look and better mimics the way people deal with line breaks when writing longhand.

Walker’s story is short, fast-paced, and compulsively readable, and what I enjoyed most about it is how complicated and yet believable the characters are. The book covers about thirty years, and in that time the characters change in many ways and yet are still clearly the same people. The shifting relationships between Celie, Mr. ________ (her husband), and Shug Avery are particularly complex. And yet, even as the narrative showcases all their flaws and mistakes, I found myself empathizing with each of them and wanting them to thrive. Shug may be impulsive, selfish, and overly dramatic, but readers also see her vulnerability and her perceptive insights. Mr. ________ is abusive, lazy, and unfaithful early in the book, but he shows real growth by the end, and I wanted him to continue becoming a more healthy and giving person.

The way Walker handles spirituality also stood out to me. Spirituality comes up often (Celie addresses most of her letters to God, after all), and Walker can even get “preachy,” like when Shug lays out her theological outlook to Celie. But the spiritual content never felt out of place or heavy-handed. Many of my characters are spiritual (the lead in my WWII zombie novel, for instance, is mostly lapsed but was raised in a devout Jewish home), but I feel like I still haven’t figured out how to integrate their spirituality naturally into the narrative. As in many other areas of fiction writing, there’s plenty I can learn here from Walker’s The Color Purple.

Disney Magic

I was in Disney World last week for a family vacation, and I just got back yesterday. I enjoyed plenty of time in the pool and hot tub, basked in the sun, boated around the lakes, and of course visited the theme parks.

A few years back, my brother and I wrote a memoir titled We Grew Up at Disney World, which isn’t actually too much of an exaggeration. Most years during my childhood, my family would go down to Disney World for a week and camp at Fort Wilderness. The memoir is full of inside jokes and family drama, obviously, but more than anything, it’s a memoir about Disney World’s influence on the sorts of storytellers my brother and I have become.

Disney isn’t coy about the fact that they are selling their guests a story. Both the fireworks shows I saw at Magic Kingdom and Epcot—“Happily Ever After” and “IllumiNATIONS” respectively—are introduced by a voice-over that invites guests to become the heroes of their own story or join a global story of belonging and progress.

It’s the little things too. Standing in line for a ride like the Jungle Cruise, I find myself looking at all the old packing crates and bottles and wondering how many of them are genuine antiques and how many of them were made specifically for the ride. One of my brothers is deep into virtual reality technology and “immersive storytelling,” and really that’s what Disney World is. The rocks may be fake and the “artifacts” from various expeditions to Mount Everest fabricated, but they use this accretion of little details to create an environment that feels internally consistent and believable.

Even the resorts are all telling stories to the people staying there. From its live jazz band to its new flapper bar to the retro furniture, the Grand Floridian tells a story about turn-of-the-century opulence. The Polynesian Village Resort tells its story with plumeria shrubs and carved tiki statues and a fake volcano overlooking the swimming pool area.

Maybe it’s because I’m a writer that I see things as a writer, but I get the feeling that Disney’s Imagineers also think in terms of plot, setting, character, detail, description, theme, point of view. They work with buildings and rides and resorts and experiences rather than books and writing, but I think over the years I’ve learned a lot about my own craft from them. Even the physical space in my portal fantasy novel—where the protagonist travels to lots of little worlds with their own distinct cultures and languages—is probably subconsciously modeled on Epcot’s World Showcase, where different “pavilions” highlight the architecture and merchandise of different countries like Italy and Morocco.

The Mexico pavilion in Epcot includes an interior space called the Plaza de los Amigos, which is decorated to look like an open-air market at night. There’s a restaurant to one side and a Mesoamerican temple nestled in fake jungle in the distance. I snapped a pic and sent it to my sister with the caption, “Passing through Boca di Dios,” which is a locale from the colonial-era fantasy novel we drafted last year.

Out of Office

I’m on vacation this week, reading books by pools, drinking iced coffees, and generally unplugging. But I’m sure I’ll return next week anxious to get back into my manuscript and full of writerly thoughts from the books I’m taking with me.

–J

PENCON

I was down in Nashville this week for the sixth annual PENCON, which is (as far as I know) the only conference for editors working specifically in the CBA market. PENCON was in Grand Rapids last year, just minutes from my publishing house, so most of our editorial staff attended. This year I was the only representative from our team.

I was also on faculty, presenting two sessions on “Editing for Suspense in Fiction” and “Fiction Techniques in Nonfiction.” Since I’m a fiction writer as well as an editor, both sessions were fun and personally enriching to develop. I expected to be very nervous—the last time I presented an academic paper at the Children’s Literature Association, I felt sick the whole day—but I felt surprisingly calm during both sessions. (I did feel like a total impostor sitting on a faculty panel next to Bob Hudson, who worked at Zondervan for thirty-plus years and is a legend in the CBA world, but that’s another story.) Presenting at the conference reminded me that I do miss prepping lessons and being in the classroom, especially leading discussion, so I need to find more outlets for my dormant teacher side.

I was able to attend many excellent sessions as well, on everything from the physiology of proofreading to upcoming genre trends to foreshadowing in speculative fiction to the minutiae of publishing style (is it Jesus’ or Jesus’s?). I learned lots of new things, took lots of notes, and was given lots of fresh ways to look at editorial problems I come across on a regular basis. Spending a couple of days intentionally analyzing the nuts and bolts of editing and discussing best practices gets me excited about the work and ready to jump back in.

PENCON was also a great chance to catch up with some industry friends I haven’t seen for a while, and to make new connections. Several freelancers who edit projects for my publishing house were there, and I got to put faces to names and learn more about them personally. I brought home a stack of business cards too and a long note on my phone of people to send proofreading tests to, editing resources to share with people, connections to make between people I met at the conference and others at my publishing house, and so on. Some of my favorite conversations were the random moments between sessions or in the hallway where I’d get to chatting with someone about the significance of the changing seasons in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms or whether Western culture is still stuck in a modernist mind-set (rather than postmodern one).

Like many (most?) editors, I’m quite introverted, so it’s also good when the conference ends, and I get to go home and get some alone time to recharge. But there is something important about getting together with my “tribe,” comparing notes, and geeking out about books. PENCON is one of those conferences I hope I get back to.

Am I Making My Manuscript Better?

I’m well into editing Act III of my portal fantasy manuscript, and I’ve reached that point where I can’t tell if I’m making the book any better or not.

Since my initial read-through, I’ve known the final hundred pages are where the major edits need to happen. But now that I’m in the thick of it, I keep on second-guessing myself. Does deleting this scene pick up the pacing without sacrificing characterization? Do the changes I’ve already made to the timeline now make this plot point redundant? Will reintroducing this character from Act II make this sequence more cohesive, or will it simply add noise?

I’m partly shook up because this week I received feedback on my query letter and sample chapter for my zombie novel from someone who works in the industry.  Which, don’t get me wrong, is great. I’m very appreciative for professional feedback. However, I was disheartened that she basically said, “There’s too much exposition; there’s too much description; the pacing is too slow.” If anything, I’d previously wondered if too much happens in the prologue, so to have someone suggest the complete opposite has me questioning my judgment as a writer and editor.

It also doesn’t help that many agents’ form rejections include some version of, “The publishing industry is subjective; just because I don’t resonant with your story doesn’t mean another agent won’t want it.” In other words, what one person finds compelling may not grab a different reader, and what someone considers fast-paced may just be normally paced for another. This becomes self-evident if I simply talk to my friends about what movies and books they’re currently enjoying.

As an editor, I’ve been on the other side of the desk and wondered the same thing. I can be deep into an edit—on a nonfiction or fiction project—where I’m restructuring content, suggesting significant additions, streamlining the prose. And I catch myself asking questions: Will readers engage better with the content after these edits? Will this strengthen the storytelling? Am I staying true to the author’s voice? Of course, at some level these questions are simply good practice to keep editors in their “place” as supporters. But the implicit question under the questions remains: For whom are these edits better? After all, not all readers are made equal.

I remember reading a blog post from N. K. Jemisin after she published The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. She described how she worked on several manuscripts that she thought were the “right” kind of books for the market, but they never went anywhere. Then she decided to write the book she actually wanted to read, and out came Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It was a positive blog post, encouraging new writers to write for themselves and write from the heart. And on good days, I agree with her.

But when I’m 230 pages into editing a manuscript and not sure whether I’m making it any better, I instead ask: It’s fine and dandy that I like what I’m writing, but will anyone else resonant with it?

Foreshadowing

I’ve been making an effort to weave in more foreshadowing and callbacks into my portal fantasy manuscript.

Quest narratives, by nature of the beast, come with a lot of location changes and secondary characters who only show up for one scene or chapter, so I’m having trouble making the manuscript feel cohesive. I worry that the individual episodes are too disparate and don’t move the main quest farther along enough. Especially because the protagonist is so doubtful that her quest will lead where she hopes, the middle act has an aimless quality that is both true to the character and potentially frustrating for readers.

Perhaps I’m banking too heavily on foreshadowing to help pull these middle episode into a satisfying whole, but I’ve long been intrigued by how automatically the human brain seems to take foreshadowing in stride. If I mention a character’s green V-neck shirt once on page 20 and bring it back on page 210, readers will instantly remember the first mention of the shirt and begin making connections between the two scenes (provided the shirt has been described in enough detail to make it stand out as significant to the plot, of course). Even the use of an unusual word can remind readers of an earlier moment—again provided that the word hasn’t been overused throughout the manuscript and so lost its specificity.

On a broader level than words or objects, part of the structure of recurrence I’m trying to build into the manuscript revolves around the protagonist’s husband’s backstory. Her husband hasn’t told the protagonist key aspects of his history, but these details are slowly revealed throughout the novel. Readers get the protagonist’s incomplete understanding of her husband’s story in the first few chapters, but then other characters tell alternate, fuller versions of his story. These callbacks (hopefully) help to drive the main quest forward while also building suspense, as crucial information is still missing until the end of the book.

Now that I’m writing this, I wonder how much I’ve unconsciously modeled this aspect of my book on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. My favorite part of Azkaban is Harry slowly unraveling the truth about the Marauder’s Map and who his parents were as teenagers. The different memories of friends and rivals create a complicated and contradictory picture of Lily and James that is only resolved satisfactorily for Harry during the confrontation in the Shrieking Shack.

We’ll see how my theory of foreshadowing works in practice once beta readers who aren’t familiar with every detail of the manuscript start offering me feedback. If the callbacks are too far apart, or not highlighted enough, readers may read right past them without picking up on their significance. Or if I’m too heavy-handed with the foreshadowing, readers may feel less curious about the withheld information and more frustrated that I didn’t have more compelling action to keep the plot going. Like so much in life, I suppose moderation is the key.