Back to the Beginning–Again

I came away from Monday’s critique equipped with thoughtful overview letters, manuscript line edits and 10 single-spaced pages of notes from our several-hour discussion. 

And now I’m digging into all this rich, fertile soil, not sure whether to plant or weed or water. The only way I’ll find out is to jump in and get my hands dirty.

My wonderful writing group, thorough as always, posed questions, offered big-picture suggestions and pointed out specific choices that don’t work. As I expected, my protagonist’s development isn’t fleshed out yet–it is, after all, a first draft, and I’ve been focused on plot and voice and world-building.

After a lot of consideration, I’ve decided to smooth out Henri’s journey before I continue writing any new scenes. It’s a dangerous choice, because I don’t want to lose momentum, but on the other hand, I’ve been struggling for weeks with the final chapters. They don’t feel right. And that’s most likely because Henri’s arc is incomplete and unfocused.

So even though I’m approaching the end of the novel, I’m going to slow down and work with the first 80,000 words for a while. Get my hands really dirty. Fill documents with new scenes and cut scenes.

As we’ve discussed, many writers won’t show anyone their work until it’s complete. I am very lucky to have been part of this writing group for four years; if we didn’t have that kind of connection and trust, I’m not sure I would have benefitted from a mid-manuscript critique. I’ve heard countless stories about how feedback, given in the wrong spirit or at the wrong time, can be toxic to the writing process. And yes, I’ve had some of those unfortunate experiences over the years, before I found my two wonderful writing groups.

I was nervous about submitting these unfinished pages for review, but the payoff has been immense. The line edits will be great for fixing specific details. The big-picture comments have given me a clearer sense of the story I’m trying to tell–and why I’ve chosen to tell it. I’m no longer blundering through the pages, bouncing from one plot point to the next. I know where I am and where I still need to go.

Thanks to my writing group for a great critique; to my other writing group for hearing this story in short bursts of pages once a month; and this online community of writers for helping me flesh out my thoughts about the writing process over the past year.

About Laura Stanfill

Publisher, Forest Avenue Press
This entry was posted in Fiction, Revision, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Back to the Beginning–Again

  1. Leila says:

    You, my friend, are the recipient of the Liebster Blog Award. Why? Because I enjoy your blog and insights! 🙂 Thanks for all your hard work.

  2. Liz says:

    nice to hear about your progress in this wonderful piece of imaginative fiction, laura.

    http://pocketshrink.blogspot.com

  3. Emma Burcart says:

    Thanks for sharing your process with us. I feel like I am learning so much vicariously. You are brave! I can’t wait ro read the final book, when I buy it at your future book signing.

    • Thanks, Emma! It’s so amazing how writing about my process helps me clarify objectives and decisions. I noticed that phenomenon last year, when I started blogging. There’s a sense of accountability, too. I had to decide what to do with this incredible feedback not only to continue working on my book but to write a follow-up post about the critique.

      And I hope to be first in line at your future book signing!

  4. tamara says:

    Hmmm. Are you sure you got critiqued? You don’t sound upset or *thisclose* to setting your manuscript on fire. 😛 Teehee.

    I’m glad you have a great group! My current group is wonderful too, though I’ve been to some nightmare sessions in the past.

    • Ha ha ha, Tamara! I have to say the process was really intense, enough so that I didn’t sleep well last week because I kept waking up thinking about my characters and the challenges vocalized by the group. And I didn’t blog about it last week, either, because I hadn’t gotten my head wrapped around what to do or where to go. I’m sure I have a lot more processing to go through, as I get deeper into the manuscript and commit to making some major changes, but it’s that good fertile kind of thinking.

      • tamara says:

        Ah, time has mellowed the bombshells! 🙂 Not that your book had any flaws, I’m sure it was perfect. But if you ask for people to pick on flaws, they’ll find some, eh?

        I try to give myself at least a week before I touch anything. With my last book, I chewed over a couple of decisions for almost 3 weeks before I went in again.

        Sometimes when I’m reading published books, I’ll feel a bit jealous that the author got away with something like a self-indulgent flashback that doesn’t go anywhere. How did his/her beta readers let that go? I guess with anything people want to cut, you can always defend with, “but it’s characterization!”, though of course we can’t defend, we have to sit on our hands. I literally sit on my hands to metaphorically tell my mouth to shut up. 🙂

        Ah, critique! I so look forward to my next one. *Rubs hands with glee.* Critique means you finished a draft. It’s definitely worth celebrating.

  5. Laura, how wonderful that you have a supportive group to guide you along on this amazing journey. Write On 🙂

  6. Hi Laura,

    Writing the second draft is immeasureably harder, if for no other reason than now you have to kill your darlings. I also found it difficult to try to hold the whole story in my head at once — actually, by the time I hit the second draft, I had three or for possible plotlines clicking along, and I had to abandon the first draft before it was finished so I could start sorting things out in the second.

    But you know what? Writing the second draft in many ways is way more fulfilling than the first. That’s where the real story and characters start coming out.

    Enjoy the process — I know I am!

    ~Graham

    • Hi, Graham! Thanks for stopping by! I’m so glad to hear your story of jettisoning the first draft before it was totally finished to embark on the second round. It seems important to do the kind of sorting out you’re talking about rather than plodding forward into an unfulfilling ending just to finish.

      I’m usually pretty hard-hearted about killing my darlings, but your reminder comes on a morning when I’m trying to decide whether to cut a few scenes to get the story moving faster. We’ll see!

  7. On the subject of killing your darlings, we’ve been discussing that over at my blog, and I have to quote this incredibly wise comment that a really smart person left there today:

    “I read a quote a while back that really struck me. I’m paraphrasing: Who wants to read something with all the darlings killed out of it?

    “Sure, cut it if nobody else but you likes it, but chances are the people who will love your work will enjoy the parts you love.”

    (I won’t embarrass Tamara by naming the person who left that very wise comment. 🙂 )

    • Great perspective–and I’m off to check out the discussion over at your place!

    • @Anthony — Tried to leave a comment on your blog, but it said I had to “sign in” — can’t remember my WP info!

      Anyway, I think both you and Tamara have good points there. However, “killing your darlings” has a different meaning for me. It’s not about getting rid of your best work per se but about getting rid of the stuff that distracts the reader or gets in the way of the story, whether it is your best writing or not.

      For example, if you put on your best pair of jeans, your Skechers, and a big, warm, colouful sweater, you can’t pull out your top hat. Worst of all, you can’t wear your top hat and constantly tell everyone, “Look at my top hat! Isn’t it a wonderful top hat? I love my top hat, don’t you?”

      It might be universally accepted to be the best top hat in the world, or at least the best part of your wardrobe. But if it doesn’t go with the rest of your outfit, it needs to be left at home.

      IMHO,

      ~Graham

      • @Graham,
        1) My blog is not on wordpress.com, so your regular WP login info wouldn’t have helped anyway. You would need to register to comment (it’s a one-time thing, and very easy 🙂 ).
        2) In my interpretation, your “darlings” aren’t necessarily your best writing, they’re the parts _you_ particularly enjoy. Which can sometimes be self-indulgence, yes, or simply inappropriate for the rest of the work, but it’s still a question of judgment whether or not they should be removed. The cotillion scene I mentioned on my blog is one example, but I’ve thought of another one. There’s a three-page sequence in Gravity’s Rainbow called “The Disgusting English Candy Drill,” and I am reduced to helpless laughter whenever I read it. I’m sure I’m not the only one. It doesn’t drive the plot (though “driving the plot” is not really a useful way to look at the parts of that book anyway), and nothing else in the book is laugh-out-loud funny like that, but it would be a shame if it wasn’t there.
        I think the problem is that, like a lot of things in writing instructions (“remove all passive voice,” “remove all filter words,” “everything must drive the plot,” “all guns must be fired”) it gets reduced to a rigid rule when it’s really just something to be aware of.
        I think the real rule is that you need to be _willing_ to kill your darlings if it will benefit the work as a whole. Which is very different from saying that “you must kill your darlings.” So, I agree that it’s all about the total effect your book is intended to have on the reader. Everything has to serve that.

        • I agree Anthony. I think that ideally, everything should move the story somehow, whether its plot or character or theme, but you’re right — I can see situations where certain passages would stay on entertainment value alone. Still, I think if a scene is that important, it’s not difficult for the reader to tie it into the whole, even if it is to pull off another layer of the character (I don’t know “Gravity’s Rainbow” so I can’t comment on that directly…!)

          As for the term “must kill your darlings”: I’ve always taken that to be deliberately provacative, and editing device. It *is* difficult to kill your darlings, so when someone says you *must*, it kind of helps you put your head down and just do it.

          Anyway, there are obviously different ways to look at it, which I didn’t really realize before! Great discussion!

          ~Graham

          • I’ve really enjoyed this conversation, Graham and Anthony!

            Graham, your description of the person dressed in a top hat is a wonderful visual for going over the top with a phrase or a scene. And I totally agree with this: “But if it doesn’t go with the rest of your outfit, it needs to be left at home.”

            Anthony, as I just commented over at your blog, I agree about not killing all your darlings, but it makes sense to have a reason for including them, especially a whole scene that isn’t doing any major work. Setting the tone of the novel, or creating a comic moment, are potentially good reasons to include that scene. You sum up what I believe really well when you say that it’s important to be willing to kill our darlings, rather than thinking of writers as programmed to assassinate anything that doesn’t belong. If the rest of the book is working, you can earn those darlings–and as Tamara pointed out on your blog, sometimes it’s the darlings that make a reader fall in love the book.

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