Know your Ending

Once when I was young and read a novel with a fabulous twist at the end (I’ve forgotten the book, but I recall its effect), it hit me that the writer had to have known the ending all along. He’d planted clues throughout, but as a reader, I hadn’t put two and two together until the end, and when I did, wow. The story blew me away. Remembering the title would be a bonus here, but my point is that on that day, although I was only in elementary school, my wow moment had to do with craft.

Shortly after recovering from that wonderful wow, I recall that I felt sorry for the author. Poor thing. When you know your ending up front, doesn’t it spoil the story? Doesn’t it ruin the enjoyment of reading it? Of writing it? And when I realized that all authors would have to know their endings while writing their beginnings, I felt sad for all of them. Why would anyone want to become a writer? Imagine having to spend all that time writing a novel when you already know up front what the ending will be. The anticipation is lost. How dull. Why bother?

Okay, so I was a kid. I was impatient. I liked to write stories (nothing lengthy), and I never read books twice. As soon as I finished one, I was on to the next, excited to enter into a new world and find out how another set of characters would survive or thrive… or not.

As an adult I’ve developed lots of patience and have re-read plenty of novels, but the purpose of second go-rounds hasn’t been entertainment. I’ve wanted to study how writers do what they do, how they invite readers to suspend disbelief, how they merge ordinary worlds into extraordinary ones, how they pick up the pace, how they hook readers and make us care.

While drafting this blog post, I’ve perused articles about how to write endings, and I’ve linked to two that I thought were good. Click on the images above to read the articles; Lakin looks at literary fiction and Smith (Writer’s Digest) at commercial fiction. We’ve all heard that Margaret Mitchell wrote the last chapter of Gone with the Wind first, and according to this article, a number of successful authors, including John Irving and J.K. Rowling, have done the same.

In the month ahead, I’m going to take Lakin’s and Smith’s advice and draft an ending to my latest work-in-progress. I’m currently wallowing in the muddy middle, and it’s hitting me that if I want any chance of getting out of the mud, I have to know how this story ends. Once I figure it out, once I see and hear what the characters do and say in the final scene, I suspect that my newfound knowledge will cause me to rewrite the opening, too. But hey, it’s all good, right? It’s all about loving the process.

Do you know how your current WIP ends?

Happy writing, y’all!

Editing for Emotional Impact

This week’s Writing Show, “Editing for Emotional Impact,” presented by James River Writers, was like a cornucopia of craft tips, everything overflowing, spilling out, and the crowd eagerly eating it all up. I had a great time. Here are my favorite take-aways from the evening:

Sadeqa Johnson urged us to listen to our characters. Really listen. Be open to what they have to say. While writing a scene, she’ll pause to ask a character, “What’s up?” Time and again she finds herself surprised by her characters’ answers. She tries to figure out what makes each one feel vulnerable.

Anne Blankman stressed the value of understanding what the protagonist wants, then taking that thing away, or at the very least, threatening its safety. She told us to think of a novel like an amusement park ride; readers have bought tickets and will feel cheated if the ride doesn’t carry them up and down and make their hearts pound.

Love in a carry on bag

Algebra of Snow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ginger Moran reminded us that every story contains an element of mystery: there are details the reader doesn’t know and is curious to discover. Sure, yes, of course the author needs to figure out the backstory, but the place to begin is where the heart starts beating. She said, “Keep asking if you’ve gotten to the bone. Does the story hurt yet?” The hurting places—the vulnerable spots—are where readers connect.

Robin Farmer

Robin Farmer

Moderator Robin Farmer had clearly anticipated that the discussion might drift in an angst-ridden direction, and came prepared with a challenge from novelist Carrie Brown, whose article “The Difficult Art of Happiness” you can read at Glimmer Train. Robin asked the panelists how to ensure that stories include some degree of happiness, that characters exhibit a variety of emotions, not just tough ones. From that question came the suggestion to step back from a manuscript and color-code pages with markers or sticky-notes to glimpse whether you’ve written one shade of emotion or a rainbow.

The panelists and a member of the audience offered these titles for digging deeper into craft: The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel by Robert Ray, The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lopate, and 5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing by Lakin, et al. 

I was so glad I’d brought paper and pen. From behind me in the packed Firehouse Theatre came the soft sounds of someone at a keyboard. I wasn’t the only one taking notes.

This panel was James River Writers at its best. A gold mine. Now I’m headed back to my own mine, and it’s not gold—it’s more like a trench—but there’s a manuscript down there, yearning for me to lift it up and out and into the sunlight.

 

Ruta Sepetys on Multiple Points of View

 

 

This month, I caught up with Ruta Sepetys, recently home from a two-month book tour for her latest historical YA, Salt to the Sea. It’s a gripping World War II story of a group of teenagers running for safety while the Russian army marches toward Germany and American bombers fly overhead. Set in 1945 in what is now Poland, the story leads up to the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea, the greatest tragedy in maritime history.

 

 

In this video clip on Ruta’s website, we learn a bit about the family history that inspired Ruta to set her novel during WWII. Watching this clip is well worth four minutes of your time:

Ruta notes that “empathy is one of the greatest and most beautiful contributions that we can achieve through writing.” Empathy. Yes! So necessary when it comes to crafting a character, and especially when writing multiple characters and multiple points of view. I’m thrilled to have Ruta here to tell us how she did it.

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Ruta. So glad you could share your thoughts about craft and process.

Ruta Sepetys: Thank you so much for having me!

ABW: Let’s start with that awful Alfred character—awful and oddly funny. The story is tense and Alfred provides a lot of comic relief in circumstances that are otherwise bleak. Was Alfred part of your early drafts, or did you weave him into the story later when you realized the need to lighten things up? How did you go about crafting him? To what extent is he based on someone you know?

RS: Oh yes, awful Alfred was a main player in my very first draft. I think of Alfred as a study of visibility. What happens to a young man who is isolated, rejected, invisible for much of his life and then suddenly he is given a uniform and becomes visible…if only in his own mind? In my early drafts, Alfred was quite humorous and sad, but during revisions it was suggested that I take a darker route with Alfred, showing him as someone with a perverse sense of superiority, someone who feels entitled to possess beautiful, innocent things like butterflies…and Hannelore. I liked that idea. Readers who may be familiar with Hitler’s teenage years will find many direct parallels in Alfred. Hitler wrote letters to a girl and never mailed them, etc. Alfred is not based on anyone I know (thank goodness), but was partially inspired by John Fante‘s character of Arturo Bandini.

ABW: His creepiness really came through. I hated him, but I also laughed while reading his chapters, and I appreciated those moments of levity.

I found the alternating voices of your four protagonists compelling, and wanted to ask about your process in developing them. Each is unique. Which voice came to you first, and at what point along the way did you settle on alternating between these four?

RS: Alfred’s voice came to me first and Emilia’s voice came to me last. I decided on the alternating structure well before I wrote a single word. As I was researching the sinking, evacuation, and time period, I was fascinated that the same event when described by people from different countries could be so drastically varied. But of course we all see history through our own cultural lens. So I decided well in advance to present the story through the alternating POVs of four cultural lenses: Lithuanian, East Prussian, Polish, and German.

ABW: Nice. The maps in the end pages were great, too. They helped me keep track of the geography and the paths the characters were taking.

In the FAQs on your website, you say that you often write in bits and pieces, jotting dialogue as it comes to you, or recording thoughts during long drives. Can you say more about your process?

RS: I spend a lot of time thinking about a story before I begin writing. I take walks and think. I drive and think. I jog and think. I keep a journal for every novel, and that journal becomes my bible for the book. I write all of my plot ideas, random thoughts, emotions, comments, and dialogue bits in the journal and date each entry. When I’m on a research trip, I capture all of my research notes in a little spiral notebook.

ABW: Once you have all of these bits and pieces, how do you go about organizing them? How do you transition from pieces to a uniform whole?

RS: At the beginning of a project I may create an initial spreadsheet to keep track, but ultimately, I always go back to the journal. History provides a basic framework, but I don’t outline heavily and I never have the whole plot figured out when I begin. That’s true of my earlier works, too—Between Shades of Gray and Out of the Easy. I love the creative process and allowing the story and characters to emerge as I’m writing.

ABW: I assume that at some point while writing Salt to the Sea, you had the story figured out chronologically, then you started in the middle and wove in back-stories as the characters had reason to think about the past. But am I wrong about that?

RS: I wrote Salt to the Sea sequentially, just as the reader reads it, swapping and alternating the voice in each chapter.

ABW: Okay, wow. That amazes me—that you wrote the chapters in the order they’re published. The voice and point of view—the feel and cadence and sound—clearly switches from chapter to chapter, and the back-stories flow seamlessly through the narrative. Really well done.

In the video clip above, you mention the value of having a writing group. You’re fortunate to have met kindred spirits for the journey.

RS: Yes, I have a wonderful writing group and community of author friends who are so generous to brainstorm plot and story with me. I owe a huge debt to Courtney C. Stevens who sat at restaurants and hotels with me on tour, brainstorming details and backstory. Also, my brilliant editor, Liza Kaplan, gave me fantastic revision notes that made the story and characters feel very real. I love working as a team on a book. It makes the whole process much more fun.

ABW: And the process produced a fabulous book. Thank you so much for taking time to answer my questions, Ruta! It’s an honor to feature you and your writing on my blog. While you were doing the book tour, I was following the travels of my good friend and writing colleague, Meg Medina, who met up with you at the Tucson Festival of Books. Here’s to festivals and the book you’re working on next…!

Meg Medina and Ruta Sepetys at the 2016 Tucson Festival of Books

Meg Medina and Ruta Sepetys at the 2016 Tucson Festival of Books

For more about Ruta and her books, check out the author videos and more on Ruta’s website.

Ideas are Overrated

People often ask writers: where do you get the ideas for your stories? And I say: ideas. Blah. So overrated.

I’ve blogged about this before, but still find myself slipping into the idea-trap. Recently while reading slush-pile submissions for a literary magazine, I found that other writers slip, too. It’s a sure recipe for rejection.

On some level, stories will always be filled with ideas, of course, but when an idea is important, the reason it’s important—its value—is that beneath it, there is a deeply-held emotion. The idea matters on some fundamental emotional level, and it’s the emotion that readers connect with. The books we like most are the ones that speak not to our heads, but to our hearts.

When we think about things (ideas), we’re at least one and possibly many steps removed from the things, themselves. When we think about a moment, we’re interpreting it rather than living it, and when we write interpretations of scenes, readers feel the distance.

Keith Urban

Keith Urban

Recently I posted a quote on a pale yellow sticky note above my desk: “Raw is a good place for an artist to be.” On American Idol, I heard judge Keith Urban say those words to a contestant. Raw. His comment spoke to me as a writer: stop thinking about the song (or the character or story) and feel it. Live it. Sing (write) from your soul. Let yourself be vulnerable. Be real. Be raw. Urban and the other Idol judges do a good job of pushing artists to dig deeper, and in the process, they’ve pushed me.

Years back, when I set out to write novels for young readers, I had no idea that I would have to dig so deeply into my soul—into really raw places—to tell stories. As hard as this journey has been, it’s also rewarded me in unexpected ways. I’ve felt alive. Connected. A raw place is an honest place, and when it comes to writing fiction, honesty is everything.

Salivation and Satisfaction

When I was a student in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I heard Jane Kurtz, the author of more than thirty books for young readers, give a fabulous lecture called “Salivation and Satisfaction.” The gist of her talk was that for a novel to work well, the reader must salivate (must care about the protagonist and hunger for more), and must feel satisfied at the end. The sense of satisfaction comes when there’s a match-up between what the writer sets up for the character and what the character gets. The protagonist won’t necessarily get what he or she wanted, but the questions the author has raised at the start need to be answered by the end.

This wisdom was on my mind one morning this past month, a morning when I woke feeling heavy. You know… it’s great when you feel rested first thing in the morning. It’s great to slip into your desk chair, take a sip from a steaming mug of coffee, and start writing, writing, writing. But I didn’t feel rested that morning. I had the whole dang plot of my novel sloshing through my head.

From years spent writing, I’ve learned that when I wake thinking about a particular scene, something is wrong. Maybe it’s a tidbit of dialogue or a character’s motivation for his/her action. Whatever it is—the scene needs fixing, and I end up feeling grateful to my subconscious for finding the problem.

But when I woke mulling over the whole plot…? Ugh.

Jane Kurtz

Jane Kurtz

Then Jane Kurtz came to mind, and I found my notes from her lecture. I asked myself: what questions did I pose at the beginning of this story? Have I answered them? What does my protagonist want most of all, and does the action in the climactic scene have anything at all to do with that desire? How sympathetic (or not) is my main character?

I got back to work.

I did a lot of free writing that morning. I set aside my computer and wrote by hand, stream-of-consciousness. I looked at the structure of the story and asked which parts were necessary and which could go. I pulled two full chapters and slid them into a might-use-later file. I wrote a new scene in which characters laugh at my protagonist, replacing a scene where the protagonist got angry. (Anger doesn’t engender sympathy the way humiliation does.)

Two months ago, I thought this novel was done. This month, it’s getting lots of work. It still needs work. But it’s getting better.

And to Jane Kurtz and Vermont College of Fine Arts, I say: thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you for more than you know!

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley on Craft

Last week, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley won the Newbery Honor Award for her middle grade novel, The War that Saved my Life, and just this week she’s learned that it’s hitting the New York Times bestseller list. The book was also a co-winner of the Schneider Family Book Award, and the audio version won the Odyssey. Wow. Congratulations, Kim!

Kim and I “met” online after she blurbed Brotherhood (her lovely words appear on my book jacket and on the Brotherhood page of my website), and I was thrilled when she agreed to carve out time for this blog interview.

 

 

A.B. Westrick: Welcome, Kim! I loved reading The War that Saved my Life, and wanted to ask for your reflections on the craft of writing.

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley: So glad to appear on your blog! Thank you for asking.

ABW: Let’s get right to the heart of The War that Saved my Life. Set in England at the start of WWII, it’s the story of ten year-old Ada, who was born with a clubfoot and whose abusive mother has tried to keep her hidden. As world events compel Ada out into the world, she must struggle both to understand all that she’s missed and to heal from the trauma of abuse. My first question is: how did you go about crafting Ada’s voice, so British and so real?

KBB: Anne, I’ll be honest, Ada’s voice was far and away the hardest thing for me to get right. I wrote the first few chapters over and over again, sometimes in first person, sometimes in third. Eventually I realized that I needed to be telling her story at a little bit of a time remove, so that she could describe all the things she didn’t know or understand, but have a vocabulary that included those things. You can see that on the third page: “The story I’m telling starts out four years ago, at the beginning of the summer of 1939…” We’re not getting a grownup telling the story, but we’re not getting ten-year-old Ada’s voice, either. As far as the British—I read so many stories published or set in England as a child that my vocabulary still contains words that puzzle Americans.

ABW: The re-writing clearly paid off. Lines like “I was ten years old (though I didn’t know my age at the time),” and later, “It was a pear, though we didn’t know it then,” made me curious. Why wouldn’t she know? (I had to keep turning pages.) And the British vocab was great—words like cheeky, and all that tea! I loved the way the story took me into another world, another time.

In your blog and in a post on School Library Journal’s Teen Librarian Toolbox, you discuss how your own experience of PTSD influenced the way you crafted your protagonist. Clearly, you pulled from your past a sense of resilience and infused Ada with it. For you, how cathartic was the experience of writing Ada’s story? What words of wisdom do you have for writers who’ve survived tough circumstances and are considering tapping into those memories to bring their fiction to life?

KBB: I didn’t think it was going to be cathartic—I went to pretty great lengths to have the specifics of Ada’s situation be very different from mine, and to have her reactions and life dissimilar to mine. But in the end it was more healing that I expected. I don’t think I could have written this book until I’d come pretty well to terms with my past. I had to write it from a place of healing.

Healing from any trauma is a long, drawn-out process, and I couldn’t have written this book when I was still experiencing a lot of personal pain. It’s very tempting to want to use our lives as material, but I wouldn’t have been able to use the material very effectively before this. It may have impeded my own healing. That said, I think every person is unique; I’m not sure I can offer anyone advice on their own journey except to say that the journey is possible, and worth it.

ABW: I really appreciate your honesty in talking about tough personal stuff. I can imagine that some readers will find Ada’s story so empowering that they’ll seek help for their own journeys. Ada’s determination is inspiring.

We’ve all heard the adage, write what you know, and I love how you took what you know well—both PTSD and horses—and used that knowledge to give depth to the story. But I’m also interested in what you didn’t know. Can you talk a bit about the research you did to make Ada’s story come alive? Tell us about your process in doing research.

KBB: In this case, I was enormously helped by Amazon.uk, the British version of Amazon.com. In England a ton of former evacuees have written and published accounts of their experiences; also, because this is taught extensively in British schools, they sell a ton of facsimiles of printed war materials. That was a good start. Eventually, however, I realized I was going to have to see Kent with my own eyes in order to be able to describe it through Ada’s.

In 2012 my family spent our children’s spring break in England. Highlights included the Imperial War Museum, where I could see actual Spitfires, boats that helped with the Dunkirk evacuations, bombs, identity cards, rations books, an Anderson shelter—all the stuff—and then driving around Kent, getting completely lost in back roads, and stumbling across the remains of one of the hundreds of airfields thrown up in England during the war. I also climbed to the top of Ada’s hill and looked out at the sea.

ABW: Sounds like a fabulous trip. While reading, I paused when Ada paused on that hill and looked out at the sea. In my mind, I could see it, too—that’s how caught up I was in the story.

I know you’re super busy, so I’ll wrap this up by asking how long it took you to write The War that Saved my Life? How many revisions did the manuscript go through?

KBB: I’m guessing about 2 1/2 years—I say guessing because I was starting the research while still finishing Jefferson’s Sons. The initial chapters went through about six revisions before I found Ada’s voice; after that, the entire manuscript went through six full revisions before copyediting. It’s the most-revised book I’ve ever written—and worth it.

ABW: Yes, very worth it! Thank you so much for this e-interview, Kim. I look forward to reading all of your books.

KBB; Thanks, Anne! I’m looking forward to your next book, too!

For more information about Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (she’s the author of 16 books for young readers, including the highly acclaimed Jefferson’s Sons, and For Freedom: the Story of a French Spy), check out her website and blog.

Welcome Ambiguity

My brother-in-law emailed me a quote from Richard Rohr, and I printed it on a scrap of paper, taped it above my writing desk, and now read it daily:

Richard Rohr

“…you cannot grow in the great art form, the integration of action and contemplation, without (1) a strong tolerance for ambiguity, (2) an ability to allow, forgive, and contain a certain degree of anxiety, and (3) a willingness to not know and not even need to know. This is how you allow and encounter mystery…”

Ahhhhhhh. Read those words again.

In the early stages of writing a novel, so much is unclear. The characters’ motivations, the way the plot will unfold, the scenes that are necessary and the ones that aren’t—the writer has to sort out all of the details. The task is massive. The time it takes might stretch from months into years.

This early stage is the place where I find myself today. I’m creating new characters—nudging them, interviewing them, finding out what makes them tick, what they care about, what aspect of their story is worth telling. Little is clear, and I could despair about that. But Rohr reminds me to embrace the unknown. To forgive myself for the messiness and inefficiency of my writing process. To accept and tolerate ambiguity. To believe that somehow, somewhere along the way, a story will emerge.

If you’re embarking upon a new writing project as I am, post Rohr’s words above your writing desk. Hang in there with the ambiguity. No, don’t just hang. Embrace it. Welcome it. The story could go in any number of directions. Let yourself explore possibilities.

Let yourself encounter mystery.

Happy New Year!

Structuring a Story

For months I’ve been trying to find the right opening for the novel I started in 2013, and I think I’ve got it. Finally. For my breakthrough, I owe a huge thank you to screenwriter Michael Arndt.

Last month good friend and author Kristin Swenson met Arndt at the Austin Film Festival & Conference, and afterward sent me the link to a Disney/Pixar animated short that Arndt wrote: “Beginnings: Setting a Story in Motion.” (According to this site, the short originally appeared as a bonus feature on Toy Story 3’s Blue-ray version.) Enthralled, I watched it multiple times. Not only did watching help me write an opening that works, it helped me understand why some stories are good and others blockbuster-great. Only 8 minutes long, this short packs a career’s worth of screenwriting wisdom.

Arndt on Beginning a Story

But there’s a catch. Novel-writing and screenwriting aren’t the same beast. Arndt tells us to begin by establishing the protagonist and his/her defining passion; inotherwords, start with the “ordinary world” beloved by Hollywood’s devotees of mythic structure. For film, this works. For novels, hmmm… not always.

Movie viewers settle into cushy chairs for a two-hour commitment, give or take 30 minutes. Readers commit to much more—hours, days, possibly a week’s worth of time engrossed in a fictional universe. A novelist who opens with the ordinary risks losing readers in backstory before they’ve made a commitment to the long haul, and might do better to begin with a scene that sets up the emotional arc of the story. An inciting incident. Later when the hero has reason to think about the world from which she’s come, writers can always provide backstory. By that time, if we’ve hooked our readers, they’ll be curious for more.

Michael Arndt

Michael Arndt

But despite film vs. fiction differences, storytelling is storytelling and novelists have a lot to learn from screenwriters. Arndt’s little gem purports to be about beginnings, but it’s also about structure and pacing and twists and turns and why some Disney/Pixar movies are insanely successful and… I could go on and on. I’m enormously grateful to Kristin for linking me to this clip. Now I can enjoy the upcoming Thanksgiving and holiday seasons with peace of mind, believing that at least for the moment, I’ve got my manuscript where it needs to be. Pfew.

And over the holidays, I might just settle into a cushy chair with a bowl of popcorn and a little Toy Story 3

Stocking Stuffer for Writers

The Halfway House for Writers is a book I’ll read again. And again. And again. Like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, this new gem by Valley Haggard is all about craft and process and perseverance and not beating yourself up. I found it so affirming, I couldn’t put it down. Well, no, that’s not quite true. I put it down so I could write. It made me want to write!

For two years I’ve had an idea for a personal essay, and half way through Halfway House, the essay came pouring out of me. Then I read some more. Then I wrote free hand, stream of consciousness. Then I read some more. I went back and forth between the book and writing, and it was a glorious, productive morning.

The title is deceiving. I think Halfway House will inspire artists of all kinds, not just writers. It nurtures the creative spirit. Valley’s approach is fresh and honest and real—a new wisdom for a new decade. Here are some excerpts:

Sitting on the Edge of the Pool

Push gently against your comfort zone—feel out the edge and then give the tiniest little push. You do not have to burst that bubble, to reveal all of yourself at once. You don’t have to smear the guts of your insides all over your outsides the very first time you sit down to write.

I think of easing into the writing process as putting one toe into the shallow end of the pool and then getting your ankles wet and then your thighs, rather than belly flopping off the high dive—although you can try that, too. The only goal is to end up in the pool eventually, allowing yourself to be bathed and baptized in the full experience of water.

Experiment

It’s a good practice to experiment with the tools of tense and point of view. They can help change the atmosphere, mood and direction of the story you’re telling. Try telling the story from the perspective of one of the characters you are writing about… Can you write memories from your childhood as if you were once again a child? Even a subtle change in perspective and point of view can create big changes in how you see—and write—your own stories.

Valley Haggard

Valley Haggard

This little book is like a cornucopia—a container so small that the abundance of insight comes spilling out and fills you with gratitude and you whisper, “Thank you.”

The creative process is what it is—a process. And if you’re like me, sometimes you spin your wheels questioning yourself, thinking your work is awful. This book reminds me that my process isn’t stupid or wrong; it’s simply my process, inefficient as it is, and I’m not the only writer with such a messy way of doing things. Thank you, Valley, for giving me permission to belly flop off the high dive and play with tense and point of view and most of all, to stop being so hard on myself.

My children haven’t become writers, but they’re über-creative and this year I’m stuffing their stockings with this book. (Jane—sshhh, I know you’re the only one of the kids who reads my blog; don’t tell the others.)

You can find the book at lifein10minutes.com.

Beta Readers Rock

Over this past summer, friends gave me these comments on the draft of a new YA novel:

Jane Westrick, Untitled (detail), 2007

“I’m confused here. Are the characters sitting? Standing? Walking?”
“What is his motivation for doing this?”
“I don’t understand whether he sees his father as a hard-ass or a nurturing figure.”
“I can’t quite picture this character.”

These and other comments were unbelievably helpful! In some cases, I had quick fixes. A sentence here, a paragraph there. In others, I had to step back and rethink a scene or remind myself of the character’s motivation for doing what he did. But before friends called my attention to these spots, I didn’t perceive the problems.

Beta-reader-feedback is huge because authors totally fail at identifying all the places that aren’t working. Places where we “tell” instead of “show.” Places where we’re too abrupt. Or too wordy. Or use a metaphor that doesn’t work. Or whatever. These are the places that pull readers out of a story, and that need additional time, focus, and polish.

Last year I made the mistake of showing my agent a draft before it was ready, and this year I’m learning to be patient. The very act of circulating a draft requires tons of patience! I have to let go of my manuscript for months at a time, and the letting-go drives me crazy. Of course, I can work on a new story while a draft is out, and I can turn to projects people have paid me to focus on. But I have to admit that when one of my drafts is circulating, it feels as if my heart is circulating, too.

Agent Ted Weinstein

Agent Ted Weinstein

You’ve heard this adage before, and it’s worth hearing again, so here it is in the words of literary agent Ted Weinstein (not my agent, by the way; I just enjoyed reading this article in Writer’s Digest): There are no shortcuts and there is no substitute for doing the hard work of writing and revising and revising again.

Getting and responding to early-reader feedback is essential, and today I want to say, thank you.

Thank you to all of my early readers. Thank you to all the writers who participate in critique groups and take the time to read and encourage friends to polish their manuscripts before submitting to an agent or editor. It takes forever, I know! But the process is essential. And if you’re like me, you’re engaged in this writing gig for the sake of the process, anyway, right? (Okay, so there are other reasons, too, but process is big.) Polishing can make the difference between publication and not. Getting (and giving) beta-reader feedback is worth the time.

 

P.S. – A huge thank you to visual artist (and daughter) Jane Westrick for permission to include her art in this post.

Jane Westrick, Untitled, 37 in x 32 in, oil on canvas, 2007