Staying true to your book

What would you do?

You’ve finished the book, asked a variety of test readers to give you feedback, and made changes based on their feedback. You love this book, its characters, and its message. You submit the manuscript, as requested, knowing that it will be assigned an editor. You wait and wait and finally the edits arrive in your inbox.

By page two you realize the editor has misread your book, viewing it through the lens of a belief system that is apparently at odds with your message. Of all the things you anticipated, this wasn’t one of them. Not only does the editor object to the way you’ve handled sensitive situations, he wants you to rewrite the book to bring it in line with his passionate viewpoint. It’s almost as if you’re bringing a Jewish perspective to situations, and now you’re expected to rewrite your book from a Catholic perspective. Yikes!

Okay, let’s make it even harder: You’re a brand new author and this is your first book. And you have no option to request another editor.

So, what would you do?

I won’t share all the curses, prayers, foot stomps, phone calls to friends, double-checks with test readers, and obsessive cleaning sprees, but you can imagine how my kitchen shone for the ten days of this editing ordeal!

Here’s what I did in response to the editor’s input:

To begin on a positive note, I separated the edits that were craft-related from those that were ideology-related. I looked at the merits of the craft-related edits and saw that most of them definitely improved the quality of the writing and the effectiveness of the book for my target audience. It felt good to see that in some ways the editor was on my side; I made those changes and took time to reflect on how the tips and techniques would benefit me as I moved forward in my writing career.

Buoyed by that little success, I moved on to the comments that arose from the tricky professional lens the editor wore when he picked up my book. Were any of the comments valid relative to my story? Very few, I thought. I decided to incorporate those few changes by working them into the character arcs of the hero and heroine the best I could. That done, I gave myself a pat on the back for staying true to my book and moved ahead.

Next, I looked at the really troublesome comments that did not fit with the nature or intent of my book. Ultimately I had to ask myself if my characters’ motivations were clear to my reader? How about the hero’s thinking and the heroine’s responses and the villain’s villainy? Did the editor misread them and judge them anathema because of his particular lens or because of my sloppy writing? Probably some of each, I decided.

I did a complete review of the book looking specifically at how I represented motivation through action and dialog. Also, where had I muddied the water or gotten preachy or danced around an issue or failed to connect the dots in a character’s arc? That analysis taught me a lot. I set about clarifying why my characters thought and behaved as they did, particularly in those sensitive situations that the editor dissed. And I made changes accordingly– not to embrace the editor’s view– but to clarify and improve my story.

That done, I adjusted things like the final word count of the manuscript (which had crept past the 80,000 word mark), scrolled through to be sure all the changes and comments had been addressed, spell-checked one more time, saved it, backed it up–twice– and sent it. And I sent a separate letter to the person who had originally bought my book and signed the contract with me; I won’t share that here.

And I love this book. Will my edits be accepted? Will my book be published? I don’t know.

I’m curious what other authors have done or would do in a similar situation. I hope you’ll share your comments.

Make the scene mean

In November, Bob Mayer and Jen Talty presented a workshop for our LCRW “Write On!” conference. One of the take-aways for me was Bob’s practice of using a spreadsheet to track every scene in a book, including with the scene’s contribution to the book. The technique came to mind as I progressed with Justin’s and Gianessa’s romance Coming Home to Love. As I recall, Bob tracked many details with his spreadsheet; knowing me, though, a wide open spreadsheet would be an invitation to go wild with columns and color coding, so I kept it simple this first time.

I created a simple 3-column table in Word, labeled the columns “Chapter-scene number,” “Brief summary,” and “Contribution of scene to book.” (Then of course it took me 15 minutes to resize the columns because this is Word 2011, which has some new features that make simplicity harder to achieve.) Finally ready to begin, I reviewed the twelve chapters-in-progress, scene by scene. I learned a lot.

I was surprised by how long it took to create the table, even with all the chapters on hand. Identifying the main purpose of each scene took time, and as often as not that purpose was not clear in the existing scene. It’s tempting, as a new writer, to think I have terrible technique when I see something like that; however, when I think about my writing process, it makes sense for it to happen that way. When I’m writing a scene, the characters are telling the story, and they don’t know how it’s going to work out five chapters later. They may not realize the significance of a detail; they may not realize a remark foreshadows a scene two chapters down the line. So, for me, having a scene analyzer (surely there’s a better name for it!) is a necessary adjunct to writing the scenes.

When I say I was surprised by how long it took, I’ve been working on this table for three hours over the past couple of days, and I’ve done 9 out of 12 chapters. Lots of thinking involved, which tells me it’s a very worthwhile endeavor! Using an approach like this potentially enriches each scene.  There aren’t any “filler” scenes now, no “transition” scenes, no “need some comic relief here” scenes. By doing the analysis, each scene contributes to the story in an important way. Maybe the same two characters are having a light-hearted exchange, as before, but there’s more and it’s meaningful.

Working on the table also helps me see where I can tie up a minor thread earlier in the story or use an earlier resolution to give more weight to a decision later in the story. In other words, it’s a good way to let my characters do their thing in each scene and also have me orchestrating the whole start to finish. Ooh, I like that orchestra metaphor.

This is a fascinating learning process for me. Each workshop, each speaker, each article gives me new ideas to try and new ways to look at the craft of writing. Write on!

If each scene works, do they necessarily work together?

Over the holiday break, I sequenced the twenty or so scenes I’d written for Book Two (Justin and Gianessa).  Until then, the book felt fragmented, and, although I had ideas for additional scenes, I needed to see how the existing material worked together (or failed to). The result was not so much a “backbone” as an “emerald necklace” of Justin and Gianessa’s love story.

If that term Emerald Necklace doesn’t ring a bell, I should explain that I lived in the Boston area for about twenty years, and the Olmstead parks were a beautiful feature of the landscape. (Check out Olmstead’s Emerald Necklace at Gianessa’s necklace (not emerald!) is an important symbol in the book; perhaps that’s why her scenes with Justin looked more like an emerald necklace than a backbone to me when I strung them together.

In terms of the book, I found I that the twenty scenes fitted themselves well into twelve sketchy chapters. The chapters represent an emerging love story and fairly complete character arcs for both Justin and Gianessa. In short, the existing material hangs together, and I can see the work that remains.

At this point, I’m enjoying the supporting characters whose scenes help tell the story of the main characters’ development; I enjoy having them speculate on the changing relationship as they see it. These characters– Manda, Joel, Tony, Lyssa, Sara, Gwen, and Phil– feel very real to me since their debut in Book One. Old friends.

Back to work.