When an Editor Is a Bad Fit

I wrote a novel. It was technically my second — I completed my first novel for NaNoWriMo in 2013. But I hid it away, and I have no regrets on that score. It was truly terrible.

I spent three months on the first draft of my second story. This was THE story I wanted to tell, the one that came from deep down. It gushed out of me like a geyser in the space of three months. Then I rewrote

2055866250_c702dcd5e6_m
Image by Mitchell Joyce via Flickr

it three times over the next five years.

During those years, I read a million writing books and took a course on novel structure. I submitted chapters to Critique Circle – a great place to learn from other writers and readers.

I polished the story as much as I could, but I needed expert advice to mold it into a masterpiece worthy of the greats: Austen, Bronte, Dickens. Well, at least to make it good enough to self-publish.

To reach my goal, I hired a highly recommended editor (who shall remain nameless) and sent her the first five chapters and a synopsis. I didn’t expect coddling. I expected criticism. How else could I improve the story? I wanted criticism.

I got it. Plenty of it. On every page. As I read through her sometimes blunt comments on the first couple of chapters, I saw many errors I had missed. She pointed out other elements I had failed to develop. But she was spot-on, and I knew I was getting my money’s worth. I was enthusiastic about revising…

Until I got to her comments on the fifth chapter in which I introduced another prominent character, the Love Interest.

In a nutshell, the editor told me not to “waste my time” on the novel because this character was fatally flawed.

I am, admittedly, sensitive. If, like me, you tend to wear your heart on your sleeve – or if you insert your heart into your story — BEWARE. Less-than-gentle (yes, harsh) criticism can cause acute myocardial infarction.

I have also been known for taking things too personally. But in this case, it felt personal. You see, anxiety and I are old friends, and the character in question suffered with an anxiety disorder. The editor couldn’t believe that someone with severe anxiety could also be high-functioning and rational in other respects. Ouch!

I asked many questions about her conclusion and explained the character arc — her growth from fear and solitude to strength and victory.

The editor stood her ground.

It’s been a year, and I haven’t had the fortitude to delve back into my novel since I received feedback. At the same time, I can’t get the story out of my system. It haunts me. Family and friends have encouraged me to send the chapters to a different editor. Maybe I will.

Over the past few years I’ve submitted short stories to four other editors. Each offered words of instruction and encouragement while not sparing the red marks in my manuscripts. They made my stories better without crushing my spirit. They were worth every penny.

Hopefully, my experience will help someone else. So here are a few lessons I’ve learned:

1) Don’t wait FIVE YEARS before you get professional advice on your story. A good editor will catch developmental weaknesses that will save you time in the long run. And everyone needs an editor because everyone has blind spots. Even editors need editors. You may not agree with everything they recommend, but they will catch mistakes you missed.

2) If you don’t gel with one editor, hire another. You are paying them to HELP you, not tear you down. Some people will say it’s their job to tell you the cold hard truth, but the WAY they tell it can encourage or discourage, inspire or demoralize. Find a professional who gives it to you straight in a constructive way.

3) If you feel strongly about a story, don’t allow ONE person’s opinion to hold you back. I’m still learning this lesson.

Perhaps this should be number four: if you can’t work with one editor, don’t wait a whole year before you find another. Maybe it’s time to dig through the box by my easy chair and pull out that manuscript…

 

 

Encouragement for the Overwhelmed Writer

Keep going. Don’t give up.

inch worm

 

An inch, a word at a time, will do.

Big things begin with small efforts.

 

 

 

 

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”                                                                                 Earnest Hemingway

 

 

IMG_1185

 

 

Cultivate one true thought and write it down.

Then do it again.

And again…

 

 

 

 

…until you have a story.

purple flowers

 

 

Information Gluttony and Lack of Creativity Go Together

Recently, I’ve been struggling to write. I had the seed of a story that wouldn’t sprout. I brainstormed and jotted down some notes, but in the end, my setting was boring, my characters were clichéd, and my premise was just dumb.

I was stuck.

So I did what I usually do when I need inspiration: I scoured the web. I turned to my favorite writing blogs and podcasts — rich sources of encouragement and instruction over the last five years. I watched videos. I opened the newsletter emails I subscribe to. I pulled out my favorite books on crafting fiction and ordered new ones.

The muse was silent.

I doubled my efforts. Every spare minute, I read another article or listened to more of my favorite writing podcasts until I was steeped in information, as if I expected to fix my writing by osmosis.

But my mind was waterlogged by other writers’ advice. I was inadvertently drowning out my own voice.

Don’t misunderstand me: it’s helpful to draw from the well of others’ experiences; we all need teachers. I’m grateful for authors and editors who share their knowledge. What would I have done without them?

But if we rely too heavily on outside sources, if we never trust our own instincts, we may become stunted.

“We are most original when we are most ourselves.” Rebecca McClanahan

It’s harder to be myself when various voices are shouting the rules in my head — when I’ve consumed too much advice, too many rules, too many instructions.

At some point, I must stop procrastinating because I have enough information. I HAVE ENOUGH.

For me, creativity blooms with white space. Mental white space. So instead of taking in another brilliant podcast about plotting, I should take a walk instead. Or sit on the rock in front of my pond and let my imagination wonder.20150908_231813959_iOS

Even bite-size tweets and Pinterest memes add clutter to my mind like salty French fries add pounds. Too many articles and blog posts and podcasts lead to information gluttony. The resulting bloat doesn’t feed my creativity. It stifles it.

I need a mental environment where creativity can grow. Here are a few things that seem to help:

  • Information fasting. Limiting outside voices (podcasts, emails, blogs, articles, news).
  • “Brain-dumping” on 750words.com. When problems mount and anxiety overwhelms, it’s hard to concentrate. Pouring out my worries (often as prayers) helps unload these burdens.
  • Stay home. Take on fewer activities. Accept fewer invitations. Run fewer errands. Stilling my body stills my mind.
  • Solitude. This might mean waking early before anyone else (sometimes insomnia is a good thing). Or taking a long walk, which, yes, is not being still, but it feels like “cleansing movement.”
  • Knitting.More cleansing movement. When my hands are busy, my mind can rest.
  • Focusing on small things.

Nigel sitting up (Daniel's)

Like watching my tuxedo cat bathe himself. Nigel licks his paw and draws it over his face starting at his eyes, reaching further with each stroke until he has cleaned behind his ears. His sandpaper-tongue catches my skin as he considers my hand an extension of his body.

Focusing on one small action is the opposite of multi-tasking. It’s a luxury. It calms and clears the mind.

 

Photo by Daniel McLendon

I hope these practical suggestions will help someone else, too. In the last week I’ve realized how much my mindset also smothers my creativity, but that’s a post for another day.

 

Story = Speed x Time

When I turned fifty, I realized more than half my life was over, and I still hadn’t pursued my childhood dream of writing a book. I’d buried this desire deep under a pile of worthwhile obligations, self-doubt, and busyness—much of which amounted to mere people-pleasing. I put everything ahead of the dream.

But when I celebrated that milestone birthday, I felt a sense of urgency. I didn’t want to reach the end of my life never having tried. So I made writing a priority.

The Plan

If I really wanted to publish a book, I had to find the time to do it. It came down to numbers:

500 words x 160 hours = 80,000 word novel

If I can write 500 words an hour, I told myself, I’ll finish my first draft in 160 hours. Writing an hour each day, that’s 160 days.

Or maybe, I thought, I can dash off a thousand words an hour and finish twice as fast.

1000 words x 80 hours = 80,000 word novel

At this rate I would complete the rough draft in less than three months. I liked that plan.

pexels-photo-678248.png

The Problem

After an enthusiastic and naïve launch, I nose-dived into reality: most days I didn’t have an hour of quiet leisure to write.

I had read all the advice to

write first thing in the morning,

guard your writing time,

find a quiet place.

But for me, these wise recommendations became excuses for not starting each day. The reasonable voice of Resistance* would tell me, “It’s noisy in the house. And you only have fifteen minutes before you have to cook supper. Might as well check Twitter instead.”

A few months ago, after I failed to write for several days and the frustration mounted, it hit me: finding enough time is less about changing my circumstances and more about changing my thinking. Finding enough time starts in my mind.

Don’t Despise the Day of Small Things: Snatching Bits of Time

My insistence on perfect conditions was keeping me from using what time I had. I’d made a few erroneous assumptions:

1)      I need solitude.

Of course, it’s easier if I’m alone and the room is quiet and no one is interrupting. Yes, it’s less efficient to write while surrounded by distractions, but maximum efficiency is a luxury. Perfectionist thinking told me I couldn’t be creative unless I had seclusion. This is false.

2)      I need a large block of time.

Nope. I can do things in spurts. Ten minutes here. Five minutes there. An hour-long session would be the bee’s knees, but I’m amazed by how much I can accomplish piecemeal. Again, I had to drop the all-or-nothing thinking.

3)      I need a designated place and hour, i.e. my easy chair in the morning with the cat by my side.

Now I snatch moments in various places. I write on the go. I have Microsoft Word on my phone, and if I’m sitting in the waiting room at the ophthalmologist’s office, I compose a few sentences or jot down a few notes.

If, like me, you can’t follow the recommended practices of other authors, don’t despair. Find what works for you. If you can take activities off your schedule, do it. If you can delegate tasks, do it. If, instead of cooking, you can order Chinese takeout, make that call. Then, after you’ve cut the deadwood from your to-do list and your calendar, find a way to write with your life as it is, not as you wish it could be.

I’m curious to know if other people struggle with this. Leave me a comment if you have other thoughts or suggestions.

In the next post I’ll talk about Speed.

 

*Author Steven Pressfield talks a lot about the evil monster Resistance in his books on writing. You can find him here.