(From) Start to Send

It's been about a year since I've written a solid post about writing. The gap indicates my failure to keep a faithful log of this process, and so I figured—now that I am preparing for submission—it would be productive to summarize my activity to date, while also providing insight into the revisionary process.

I first began telling this story in April 2012.

I had no idea how to tell a story, only that I wanted to. I was in love with words; in love with the sound of my own voice. This is okay. This is how you start out. Since then, I have learned to be much more miserly with my adjectives and adverbs, choosing instead multi-layered verbs that speak for themselves. Read The Goose Girl for a beautiful example of tight prose.

Here's sample below of my revisionary process, comparing my first words from December 2012 to my October 2016 final draft:

Wat found that roaringly hilarious, and the other two had to upbraid him as a petrified quail took wing. With their only bowman doubled up with laughter, Raoul and Vito were unimpressed at the loss of a satisfying lunch.
— excerpt from A&TG - Draft 1.0

Below, I say the same thing with less words. It's the exact same set of actions, but they show rather than tell. The reader can visualize the scene, rather than standing back and being told what is happening.

Wat doubled over and slapped his knee. His hoarse roars startled a quail from the brush, and Raoul failed to sober their only bowman for what could have been lunch.
— excerpt from A&TG - Draft 4.0

Anyway, back to 2012.

It soon became clear that I was not a (fly-by-the-seat-of-your)pantser (this is a real writer's term). Rather, I was an outliner. I couldn't "feel" out the story as I was going along, because I needed the structure to make sure I was developing character arcs, building tension, etc. In other words, I found myself writing a really bad romance novel—not at all what I had intended!

So I researched storytelling for about 6 months. Once I'd written 5,600 words, I tentatively sent it to a few close friends, asking if the concept was at all worthwhile. 

NExt, I sent out a "prologue" and "Part 1" June 2013.

13,000 words. 

Then 30,000 words in January 2014.

It was slow going: evenings, some Saturdays. At this point, it still very much felt like a hobby—a secret retreat that refreshed me from the stress of a demanding office job. Yes, how ironic was it that I found my rejuvenation in front of another computer? I tried to write on paper and in nature as much as possible.

I also was determined NOT to become one of those "writers". So many aspiring writers never share their work until it's done, only to find that it's actually dreadful. If I was bad, I wanted to know early on. Then I could maybe improve. If the story sucked, I wanted plenty of advance warning. 

"Practice makes perfect" — I've loathed those words since my days as a tortured piano student. But I should have known that it takes more writing to realize that you're improving, more writing to learn what's bad, more writing to learn how to use less words...that's why every writer's advice is to write, and why it's also the hardest advice to follow.

And it's never just about the writing. Revise. Rewrite. Redo. 

In August 2014, I had the first draft at 55,000 words.

It was too short to print: most first novels are in the 75-90K range. There was more of the story that needed to be fleshed out. But here was the first stab. 

My readers thanked me for removing excessive descriptions and backstory. They were kinder than I deserved, but were it not for their grace and encouragement, I'd still have bloated chapters and an aloof heroine. 

When I attended the 2014 Surrey International Writer's Conference in October, the atmosphere of amateurs and professionals was deeply inspiring. There, I was assured I was a writer, because I wrote. There, writing was not considered a hobby, but a craft. 

Pitching your manuscript to literary agents seemed to be the highest valued activity, so I joined the queue to request additional pitch sessions. In total, I did 7 pitch sessions, and met 7 lit agents. All of them requested my manuscript, and I floated on Cloud 9 for weeks afterward.

However, the conference workshops convinced me that I was nowhere near ready to submit. I wasn't a good enough writer, yet. My readers were raising red flags: "I don't find your heroine likeable" - "The first half was really slow". Big structural changes were needed. Time for the red pen.

I stopped writing for a few months. Instead, I read about writing.

Writing 21st Century Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel, and The Breakout Novelist, by Donald Maass, an agent I met at the conference. Story Trumps Structure by Steven James. How to Write Best-Selling Fiction by Dean Koontz.

i also realized how much i was meant to write.

All this industry jargon, all that conference hype—I was hooked. I could no longer classify writing as a hobby. The little flame I have always kept burning, my love for words, had grown into a passion that surprised me. Looking back, all of my jobs allowed me to tell great stories. This time, I felt ready to start telling my own. 

in december 2014, i asked for a demotion.

Here's a longer post from when I reduced to 3 days/week so I could finish my manuscript. It was the best decision I could have made. I wrote more than ever before. My husband and friends affirmed my decision: I was less stressed, more present, more creative. And after 6 months, I was ready to take the next step. 

June 2015, i quit my day job.

Here's where I strayed a little. I had quit with the full intention of writing full-time. I would devote all and every day to my craft. I would exercise at least 3 times a week (didn't happen). Then I realized how much of my identity was wrapped in the role of a productive, income-earning, working woman. It didn't sit well that I was just allowing myself to float, nebulous, until the time "felt" right to return to work or until I got a book deal. My husband was fine with it, but my psyche wasn't.

I started pursuing freelance work. It wasn't the wrong decision, but it did leave me less time to write. 

Boy, was I blessed with projects! Book reviews, video research, communication strategy, website building, print design. Check out my blog posts under the freelance tag or visit my Freelance page to see the scope.

october 2015, i went to another conference.

No longer a greenie! I called myself a writer, because, for heaven's sake, if you can't call yourself that after quitting your job to write, what kind of coward are you? It felt fantastic.

I was more comfortable networking, pushing out confidence and extroverted charm for 3 days. Whew. But I left with pages of advice and 4 more requests for submission.

By Spring 2016, I found myself working 35+ hrs/week.

What happened? I had quit to write, not work. And yet here I was, saying yes to every request, unwilling to pass on anything that came across my desk.

(These reflections may seem oversimplified, but hindsight being what it is, you get it)

I realize now that I was afraid. I wanted control. Freelance projects gave me control, because I was in the driver's seat. I could make decisions. I could make my clients happy—and when all was said and done, there was a tangible print piece or website that I could point at. 

When it came to writing, it wasn't that easy. I was not in control. Yes, I was the one doing the sitting and the typing and the thinking, but the story didn't always obey my wishes. Sometimes it would taunt me with a plot hole, or a consensus criticism (when multiple beta readers agree something isn't right). Sometimes it would take me days to figure out a scene, or a chapter. Sometimes I could move onto something else, and some days I was determined to solve that puzzle before writing another word. 

Then, a breakthrough.

All this time, readers kept telling me, "Your heroine seems snobbish, arrogant. She deserves a set down; failure; criticism. Can't you make her more likeable?"

In the next draft, I'd drip feed a little more heart, a little more vulnerability into Adelicia's words and actions. Not too much, though. She had to appear strong, independent, sure of herself. 

Projecting, much?

It took a long lunch with a friend (thanks Saz) to make me realize that I was protecting my main character because subconsciously I wanted to protect myself. I withheld Adelicia's plans and motivations and heart, because mine were on the line. 

They say you write what you know. And if what I knew was caution, self-protection, and self-reliance, that's what I'd write. 

I didn't want to write that. I wanted to write without holding anything back. I was asking my heroine to abdicate—to risk her reputation. To put it all on the line.

I had to be willing to do the same.

In February, I joined a critique group.

This bunch of 5-6 local writers met once a month and discussed everything from self-publishing to queries to Chapter Ones. They have been fantastic, both brutally honest and generously kind. They asked hard questions and challenged my weak answers. I listened. 

August 2016 marked my final draft.

100,000 words. (A bit long, but I shaved a few thousand words off in the last run through)

This was the first draft that had ever been read by writers. There were fewer concerns; fewer observations. There are still things I need to fix before I submit, but this time, I really am "almost done."

in just a few weeks, I'll be querying agents by email and pitching to them at the siwc conference.

I'm still a little nervous, waiting for some of my critique ladies to get back to me. But it's time. I'm ready to be done. I'm ready to learn from rejection.

I'll end with one of my favourite quotes, because it has epitomized pivotal moments in my life, and this one is no less: 

It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.
— CS Lewis