Posts Tagged ‘manuscript’

I’ve signed a book contract for FAINT PROMISE OF RAIN. This is a fabulous, dance-a-jig worthy event for me, after years (and years) of work. And yet, there is also a part of me that has gone into a panic. A panic about actually sending the book out into the world for people–real, live people–to read. And possibly not like. And possibly post devastating reviews about. I remind myself of all the wonderful and complimentary comments I’ve received on the manuscript by well-established editors (who nonetheless declined to publish it), but still.

It has been a decades-long and enriching journey to get to this point of showing my work, my writing, to others. But it remains, nonetheless, terrifying.

Imagine this scene: 9th grade, English class. Our teacher, Mrs. Fournier, gave us a writing assignment. It was a single word: Solitude. In classic French fashion (for this was taking place in France) she told us to take that one word, and fill 4-6 pages. I remember the feeling that came over me as I wrote it. I was giddy with joy at the assignment, and worried that someone would notice. The assignment took very little conscious thought. The words flowed, I loved the feeling of the fountain pen sliding on the smooth paper. I turned it in, feeling confident I had done solid work. But I was not expecting what came next.

The teacher handed back the papers, but not mine. I wondered if it had gotten lost. Then she said that one student’s writing had stood out, and she wanted to read it aloud. All eyes turned toward me, and I wondered how they knew. I felt my cheeks flush. It was the proverbial want-the-floor-to-open-and-swallow-me moment. She read the piece, and as the words came out of her mouth I pictured the story again, the old man in his dim home, at the Formica table stained with coffee rings, the memories of his wife lurking in the corner with the dust bunnies. It was more Loneliness than Solitude, but it worked. The line between the two is blurry. At the end, Mrs. Fournier put the paper down, and there was silence. A roomful of fourteen year olds was silent. Then she said: “Very few 9th graders can write like this.” I felt proud, embarrassed, unworthy all at once. And also awed by the effect that words could have on people, and that I could put these words together myself.

Solitude_Essay
It was a long time before my writing was shared again with anyone other than teachers. I preferred it that way. Besides, I didn’t actually do much creative writing. Some poetry, written in my journal, in my room, then stashed away under layers of clothing in a drawer. That type of thing. I wrote, of course, for college courses, an honors thesis, my work in economic development consulting, my graduate studies in urban planning, my Master’s thesis, and people said lovely things about my writing, but I left it at that.

Then, at the age of 30, moved by my recent travels to Rajasthan, India, and by my classes in kathak dance, I started scribbling again. An image that I found in, of all places, a travel guidebook, sparked it. I researched the background of the image, began recreating a place and time. The faintest outlines of a story started taking shape. It was months before I realized I was writing a book.

I had three chapters drafted when I found out I was expecting a child. I knew I needed to get more on the page so that the body of work accomplished would be large enough, important enough, to call me back once I had given birth to the baby and ensured that she was healthy and thriving. I also knew I needed to acknowledge out loud, to my family and my friends, that I was writing a book, in order to make it real. Not real for them, but real for me.

The baby, K, was born. I worked during her naps. The manuscript crawled along. Finally, I had a full draft. It was summer, the child was three, I headed to France with her to visit my parents, and I left a copy of the manuscript with my husband, J, for him to read for the first time. I couldn’t bear to be around while he was reading it, so I asked him to do it before he joined us in France. He read it on the flight, and on the train down to La Ciotat in the South.

It was a sparkling sunny day on the Mediterranean coast. K and I wore flouncy skirts that danced around our legs as we waited for the high speed train on the quay. It arrived, slowed, stopped. The doors opened in unison, and I scanned the flow of passengers disembarking, blinking at the bright sun, clutching their suitcases. J appeared and we ran toward him, but something made me stop short. He bore a strange expression. We hugged, but he felt distant. What’s wrong, I asked. I was reading your book, he said. My chest tightened. He hated it. My book was awful. I had wasted hours and hours, years. He was disappointed in me. “No, it’s really good,” he said. “It’s just, I was at that really intense and kind of disturbing part.” And I smiled. There it was again. What I’d written had altered someone, at least temporarily. As it had in that 9th grade classroom. “Come,” I said, taking his free hand. “My father’s opened the rosé for lunch.”

Later that summer, I enrolled in a 10-week workshop, Novel in Progress, at Grub Street Writers. It was my first time sharing my writing with strangers, with people who knew nothing about me, probably little about India (where my book is set), even less about sixteenth century northern India. Presumably, they would be candid, unconcerned about hurting my feelings. I was exhilarated, and tremendously nervous. There were twelve of us, adults working on our (for the most part) first novels. On the first day, three students were to read out loud from their work. I was one of those first three. I was happy to get it over with at the beginning, but wished I could hear a few of my fellow students’ work first to know what I was up against. Not that it was a competition, of course.

One person went before me. I recall being generally impressed with the writing without being bowled over. This was good, promising. I felt I was in good company. (And in fact, I was.) These other writers were solid, dedicated. When my turn came, my lips went dry, my voice felt wobbly. I read for my allotted five minutes, acutely aware of how unpracticed I was at reading out loud, wishing I’d thought to put a cup of water in front of me. When I finished, the room was quiet. I avoided everyone’s eyes. Part of me feared they were all simply trying to mask their horror, to think of something kind to say. But part of me knew that was not true. Finally, one of them spoke. “Wow.” That one word broke the ice, and others started commenting as well.

For me, that one word told me that I would be alright. Over the course of the 10 weeks, and then over the course of the years of revisions and rewrites, the dozens of rejections from agents and then from editors, the moments of self-doubt, the times my friends, my writing group and others told me that things weren’t working, that the voice was too distant, the plot twist unbelievable, the character arc missing, I held onto that moment when I got goosebumps reading my own few pages, when a roomful of strangers was reduced to a single “wow.” That is why I write, for those moments, however few and far between. And they cannot happen if I do not show my work.

 

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An original manuscript page from J.G. Ballard's CRASH, found at http://www.fountainpennetwork.com/forum/index.php?/topic/164727-j-g-ballards-pen/

An original manuscript page from J.G. Ballard’s CRASH, found at http://www.fountainpennetwork.com/forum/index.php?/topic/164727-j-g-ballards-pen/

There is true magic to be found in good editing. If you are a writer hesitating in the least about spending money on an editor, I say this to you: Do what you can, and spend what you can afford, for the best possible one. It’s the single greatest thing you can do for your work.

In order to get my manuscript in as tip top shape as possible, I conducted some extensive research and found a gifted editor who also turns out to be a gem of a human being. His name is Steven Bauer, and you can find him here. I may have worked and reworked my manuscript for years, all the while receiving valuable feedback from critique partners and writing teachers and agents, but nothing has come close to the depth and breadth of the insight I received from this editor. And now that I am going through the line edits, I see unfolding before me pure wizardry.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit I’ve always been a sucker for playing with words. In eighth grade, our English teacher gave us “précis” exercises, paragraphs we’d have to whittle down to a set number of words without losing any of the meaning. I reveled in this challenge, and in the satisfaction of coming in just under the word limit. Perhaps this is why, just a few weeks into joining Twitter, I’ve come to enjoy the 140 character limit so much. The challenge is all the greater for the purist (stick in the mud?) in me who shies away from the usual text speak abbreviations, of the “R u going 2 go thru b4” ilk, although I greatly enjoy and admire folks who have found their own, creative ways to put colloquialisms into short form, à la @djolder.

Anyhow, I’ve spent the last few days going over every single edit that the above-mentioned fabulous editor marked up. This was his second reading; the first resulted in a 20 page developmental report which, in thoughtful and articulate prose, summarized the plot, themes and characters of my novel with breathtaking clarity, and highlighted a few very important issues which were holding the manuscript back from being the best I could make it. Best of all, it contained concrete suggestions for how to fix the problems, thus leaving me encouraged and chomping at the bit to get down to work, rather than despondent at the massive morass of undefined work ahead.

This current round of edits constituted the line edit of the revised manuscript. Some pages were chock full of tiny suggested changes, and I accepted every single one. When three pages went by without any edits, my heart leapt. Either the writing was tighter, or it was just strong enough to lose the editor in the “continuous dream” of which John Gardner writes, and make him forget his red pen. Here’s an example of a paragraph that stands much improved after his touch:

Before:

My heart jumped at this, for I wanted nothing more than to greet the morning alone in the quiet of the temple, without his shadow over me. I skipped out of the room, then tiptoed past Ma in the kitchen. Something gnawed at me inside, the way it did when Bapu did, or made me do, something of which I knew Ma did not approve. But this time I pushed that feeling aside. I parted the bead curtain at the front door as quietly as possible, but not quietly enough to escape Ma’s hearing.

After:

My heart jumped, for I wanted nothing more than to greet the morning alone in the quiet of the temple, without his shadow over me. I skipped out of the room, then tiptoed past Ma in the kitchen. Guilt gnawed at me, as when Bapu did, or made me do, something I knew Ma did not approve of.  But I pushed the feeling aside and parted the bead curtain at the front door as quietly as I could.  Ma heard me anyway.

See how those slight changes make the paragraph so much stronger? And here are a few specific ways in which to get rid of extraneous words:

Things swirl together, they don’t need to swirl around together.

You don’t have to feel your way around the room, you can just feel your way around.

A single bell on a piece of string is also a single bell on string.

Don’t focus your mind on something, just focus on it.

Don’t listen to the sound of bangles, listen to the bangles.

Sit on the ground, don’t sit down on the ground.

 

It seems obvious to me now, as I read these examples, but when you are immersed in 98,000 of your own words for the umpteenth time, trying to make sure the story arc is complete, the main characters have changed, the dialogue is smooth, the tension is high, there’s very little of you left to pay attention to the extra words. But that’s what an editor is for.

 

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For over eight years, my writing was anchored in a single novel. I wrote the first paragraph, the prologue, in 2002, after reading a factoid in a travel guide which conjured up a strong image. Here’s the paragraph, the only one which has not changed one iota in the many (MANY) rounds of revisions:

In Rajasthan, a five year old child is likely never to have seen rain. Five hundred years ago, like today, the monsoons were elusive. In the royal palaces, the walls of the children’s rooms were trimmed with black and blue cloud designs, so that when it finally did rain, the little ones would not be afraid. Less fortunate children, those who had grown up looking up at thatched roofs and endlessly blue skies, would remember all their lives the fear and hope they felt the day of their first rain.

I had no idea I was beginning a book. I just felt compelled to capture the image. The timing was everything: I held that image in my mind just at the time when I was being introduced to kathak dance, and its history. And I had recently returned from Rajasthan. The three together started to form something. A setting, a starting point, an ending point, some characters. Without even realizing it, I had embarked on writing a novel.

Then I did what many novice writers do: I wanted to tell a specific story, and I tried to create the characters who could tell it. I imposed upon them my own goals. The story had to begin at a certain place, and end at a certain place, and certain events had to happen at certain times. Inevitably, I got stuck a few times. And each time, the only thing that allowed me to get unstuck was to try to think about what my characters would really do given the circumstances in which I had placed them. It was tricky, trying to keep the essence of what had compelled me in the first place to write the story, yet letting the characters lead the way. They did not always take the paths I wanted to take, and I had to learn to accept that. And so some plotlines receded, and others came to the fore. One character I loved died much earlier than I’d wanted. Another whom I’d created as a secondary character ended up shining. And after I’d finished the book several times over, I went and changed the point of view.

Now as my manuscript undergoes some edits in the hands of my agent, I am turning to my Next Book. It may well be the next in this “series,” and I put that in quotes because I mean it loosely. It will not be a sequel, but rather a continuation with different characters, set 300 years later, i.e. in the mid-1800s. As I look at the considerable amount of research I already put into this new project over the past few years (each time I foolishly thought my first book was finished and that I had time to look to the next one), I see that I have learned something over the past eight years. (So at least there’s that.)

My first realization is that my ideas to date have been too broad. I’ve thought to encompass too many different worlds and circumstances, too many different characters, too many years. And so, here I am, asking myself the kinds of questions that I didn’t bother to ask myself the first time around, the ones I now feel I should ask myself so as to be more efficient and a better writer: what, really, is the story I want to tell? And whose story is it? And how will that character change over the course of the story? And from whose point of view should it be narrated?

Suddenly, I feel as though I am on a boat at the water’s edge, with endless possibilities. I can sail wherever I want! I can let the wind take me this way, then tack the other way. I can make up any story. I can fashion new characters out of any shred of my imagination. And boy does this all feel daunting! After eight years of writing and revising, working with actual words on actual pages, I need to re-acquaint myself with an entirely different workflow: just thinking. Spending two hours pondering and musing, perhaps picking up a book or two from my shelves and leafing through them, most definitely surfing the Web, and reminding myself that this is as valid a part of the process as the writing and the revising. (It is, right?) I’m giving myself the summer to hone in on the main characters, the specific setting(s), the timeline. This was so much easier the first time around, when I was completely clueless! A little bit of knowledge is a difficult thing to handle.

I wonder, how do others go about launching into new creative projects of this scale? This may be my second book, but it’s nonetheless a new experience. Which is what makes it so exciting.

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I signed with an agent this week. It’s official. I can now say I am an agented writer. I am excited, but in a this-is-too-good-to-be-true sort of way. I have to admit, it feels a bit unreal. The agent is very enthusiastic and energetic and engaged, and I’m delighted about that. She read my manuscript in record time (under 24 hours) and offered me representation on the spot. I walked around in a daze for several hours after receiving her email.

I’m still in a bit of a daze. After eight years of working on this book, researching and outlining and writing and re-writing and re-writing and re-writing (and in the meantime freelancing and giving birth to two children—not to mention raising them and occasionally feeding them—and helping run a non-profit) I had begun to feel as though I would be working on the same manuscript, living with the same set of characters, for the rest of my natural life. Now all of a sudden someone else is taking ownership of the process of shepherding it, and them, out into the world, and it’s the oddest feeling. Not a bad one, mind you. Not at all. Just… different. Throwing me off balance. It’s allowing me suddenly to imagine writing other things, creating different characters, picturing a writing career. Part of me is rushing ahead, already planning creative ideas for book signings, thinking of ways to market the book. Another part of me is pulling in the reins, cautious to get my hopes up, remembering just how many manuscripts land in editors’ in-boxes these days.

A friend was just over and while our children ran around under a sprinkler in the unseasonable heat, she told me of the recent bad news from her agent. After having her first book on submission to editors for 18 months and not getting a sale, the agent read my friend’s next novel that she wrote during that time, and doesn’t like it. (The dreaded “this isn’t quite working for me.”) Now my friend is wondering whether she should work to fit the book to her agent’s liking, or scrap it and write yet another one. Yikes! A year ago, this friend seemed in such an enviable position to me. Agented, one book on submission, already part of a draft of a next book. (I still envy her: that she has what it takes to buckle down and write another book, and has ideas for yet another, and can sit and write for hours without getting distracted.) It’s a reminder to me of how things can change, how each step in the process brings its own challenges and highs and lows, and how doggedly one has to keep at it.

It’s a roller coaster ride, this writing thing. But I wouldn’t dream of not pursuing it.

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