There’s no motivation like real, red-blooded beta readers to make you dive back into a manuscript and rip it up.
The beginning dragged, a couple readers said. I dispensed with the first chapter and wrote another.
No one uses the word “frosh,” said a couple others. I hit Command-F and did a nice little replace with “freshman” and “first year” (depending on how eager Minerva Mae was to impress her feminist mentor).
I despise Minerva, said one. She’s a female Holden Caulfield, said another. I hold these two comments in constant tension and wonder if the hate a character inspires in one reader is indeed the flip side of love another might feel. As the Holden Caulfield commenter shared with me, “Trust that a strong emotional reaction is just that…and different than an objective set of criticisms.”
Personally, I prefer hate to apathy.
Comments ranged from serious questions about character choices to concerns about whether Minerva should wear cords, jeans, or cargo pants. All of it mattered; all got attended to. Because there is nothing like getting a play-by-play set of reactions in the margins of your manuscript to make you care about your story in a whole new way.
Thank you, Antonia, David, Erin, Gordon, Jamye, Katherine, Maureen, Sara, Stephen, and Tracy. Your diverse views gave me a robust portrait of how my character affects a range of people.
Minerva has a whole new life now thanks to the hard work of these kind folk who could be reading or binge-watching or retweeting something else. (I know my competition, and it is fierce.) Minerva is ready for agents, and yes, another round of beta readers.
Because an author’s work is never done. I know the novel can’t be all things to all people, but it darn well better try.
Writers don’t talk about how we’re constantly living with a couple lovers in our heads.
You know I mean characters, right? The figments we create, the protagonists and antagonists, Frankensteins we piece together to make a walking, talking body so readers will believe the very aliveness.
As I’ve slogged through my second novel in the Gifted, Weird, Wise Girl series, I’ve pursued Minerva, my teen narrator, trying to understand her heart and soul. The obsession is not unlike crushes I had on guys when I was a teen, the ones I only caught glimpses of in the halls. I’d overhear a conversation, get an accidental glance, then make a feature film out of those details. I crush on every one of my characters, dying to get to know them.
When you fall for someone, you see that person everywhere. Minerva haunts my commute to work and songs on the radio, she comes to mind when I’m reading a seemingly unrelated NPR story, she flickers through the pop culture drivel of the E Channel updates. Minerva, Minerva, Minerva—how can I help people see all your beauty?
Just like a crush out of reach, a character is that unfathomable mystery you hope to crack by the book’s end. And after you paint the glowing portrait, much like a propaganda dance in that first draft, you find good friends to bring you up short with a reality check. Thank God for beta readers. They’ll help you back off the obsession, put your stalkerish needs in perspective, and start editing to make the character more than a Sleeping Beauty or a Prince Charming—a real-life, flawed kid that makes the reader flip a page.
Minerva wants to take over the world as a journalist and be Christine Amanpour. She is disheveled with wild curly hair, and whenever she speaks, abrasive and always spouting big words. She challenges her teachers and her peers. And she wants to exact revenge on her bullies since childhood: girls whom she’s named The Bitches on Behalf of Carli. Minerva adores her best friend, Diana, the one who saved Minerva from lonely misery in seventh grade. Now it’s ninth grade and Minerva is poised to remedy the past by making a mark on the school with her words—and fighting back should the Bitches dare mess with her again.
Because I was so obsessed and somewhat blind while writing the first draft, I missed the fact my girl was too vengeful in the first act, never mind somewhat cold. I forgot to show depth and range of her loyalty and passions. Funny how devotion can look hard as metal and passion, dark and ugly. As I’ve walked with my character through the second phase of life, my love has deepened to something more mature, a relationship where I still adore despite the flaws, and still fight to the end for her rights.
I realized my deep love for Wendy Redbird Dancing when after three years, this hot mess of a girl and I were still friends and she, stronger in fiction than I’ve ever been in real life. She’s made bigger mistakes, taken greater chances, and survived more trauma than I. My heroine, my touchstone, my pal.
There are many strategies out there to get to know your character, and I’m a fan of list-making brainstorms and also Elizabeth George’s methods of character building (see her book Write Away). I think one truism that writers don’t want to admit when starting a novel is, It takes time. Lots of it. Just as you don’t really know a friend or a a spouse until it’s been a year or so—and even then, that’s truly just the beginning!—you don’t know your character till you’ve wandered in the woods with this person a good nine months. Of course I chose that symbolic gestation time; we can now switch to metaphors of birth and such.
Sorry, Relentless Era of Instant Gratification: you can’t know a character till you take that time. We may wish we could author books just like machines, but the laws of writing physics don’t move. There must be the ups and downs as there always are in the relationship rollercoaster, and ugly truth must surface as much as pretty epiphany.
The fact is, I’m in a relationship, and I’ve committed to this girl for life.
What depletes you? Besides your own fears and procrastination, what else tries to prevent your manuscript from coming into being?
|Children in the rubble of East London, 1940 – 1941|
“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” Matthew 7:7-8
|Image found here at Emergency Dentists USA|
Whether you believe in Jesus or Buddha, Dale Carnegie or The Secret, chances are you fall into one of two categories: either you’re a fan of positive thinking or you feel pressured by the perpetual optimism, fake or honest, of mainstream culture. American culture is rife with reinvention, new beginnings, and belief in the cult of renewable self. Try, try, and try again. And if you’re a writer, you can’t escape trying. Either you try all the time, or you will never get published: end of story.
On the latter, I realize I’m usually mad about something. I’m asking because I find the system broken or unresponsive; I ask because no one is paying attention; I ask because no one will tell me no forever. Maybe it’s a spirit of Italian vendetta (I’ve got Calabrian ancestry, granddaughter of an immigrant) that gets me raring to go. I don’t think this is particularly good for my blood pressure, but it does lead to interesting situations and great story ideas. Anger got me to the page several times and my best stories emerged. Another good motivator is empathy…but that’s another post.
My argument assumes we’re following the etiquette of asking. Polite in the wording, considerate of the askee’s time, appreciative of a response given. Not kicking off a request with a critique (author Laura Maylene Walter shares a funny story about that–see her #7 in this post). And even if you are the essence of politesse, you must still give your query permission to irritate. Don’t obsess on the wording too long or risk psyching yourself out; you may never get to the door in your kid gloves and proper hat. Why worry about dressing to see the Queen if you’re too afraid to seek an audience?
The writer who trashed my manuscript back in the day? I think she falls into all three.
Whether you desire a grant or 30 minutes of writing time a day or whether you crave an editor or a retreat or an agent–all of it is worth the asking. Are you willing to make someone mad as you do?
And if you aren’t asking, is it because you picture the red and spittle-flecked face of someone’s anger or the frigid gaze of disdain? The condescending stare of those who say, “You think you need something? Whatever! Suck it up and do without. Everyone else does.” No, they don’t. It’s a tiny few who are scouted from their writer’s garret, yanked from an isolated office or mountain hideaway, who squirrel themselves away without asking for help. Other writers are out there knocking. So reach. Ask. Keep your hand there.
Jesus was talking about prayer in Matthew 7:7-8. I’d say that’s an apt description of writing: asking, begging, railing, wondering, pleading, invoking, imagining into being. Novelist Milan Kundera writes, “The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything….The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. “
What will you ask today?
I’m in love. An e-reader has won my heart.
Its name is Nook and it’s become my constant companion. I adore the huge print, the ease of page swiping, and the light weight in my hand. I also like paying $4.89 for The Hunger Games so it can tuck me in at night. I don’t miss propping hardbacks or even paperbacks on my stomach and trying to make pages stay put. The lazy reader I’d become is no more.
As a writer, I love loading my critique group’s manuscripts on this device. Reading their work while I’m kicked back in a chair, bed, or sofa changes the whole dynamic. The manuscript has a different status when read this way–easily, like a book, yet without the pressure of pen and paper. I’m no longer feeling the need to “do something” with their pages. Before, I’d have their print-out with a pen close by or be sitting uncomfortably at my desktop, and that quickened my tendency to look for things to mark. I’m reading more receptively and humbly, giving the manuscript a more thoughtful, peaceful read.
This new approach helps tremendously when reading first drafts. Writers in first-draft mode need global comments and questions, not line edits. My temptation to home in on some of their trees and prune the branches has disappeared. When you seek the flaws too quickly, you’re missing the bigger mission, and until a writer is sure of that bigger mission, all that sound and fury of the line-edit pen is wasted time.
When it comes to actually writing a critique or marking notes, I assume an iPad would prove superior, giving me the ability to mark up manuscripts with a note-taking app. But I’m happy enough right now with this new view of others’ writing, canoodling with my multi-functional Nook.
This doesn’t mean I’ve emptied my nightstand. Housekeeping, Souls Raised from the Dead, Alice Munro’s stories, the Bible, and a pile of other books await me there. The two voluminous Harry Potters are loans from a friend who’d no doubt like them back, especially if I don’t finish them before Pottermore opens for e-business. But the rest? They’ll stay. Housekeeping is an ’80s copy my sister loved on again and again; I’d like to read that artifact. Souls Raised from the Dead bears Doris Betts’ autograph; that’s a treasure I won’t lose. The Bible I read slowly, carefully, sometimes the same bit over and over. Turning pages of these works, ’tis no work at all.
As my husband sings, Some things are better left alone.