Wednesday, April 30, 2014

What Really Changed in Publishing

Writing advice abounds online, in books, and magazines. An entire industry has been built around the craft and art of writing (and another industry around how to market that writing) so why do we on Novel Matters keep talking about this stuff?

You can Goggle "how to write a novel" and choose from hundreds of thousands of sites with advice, tips, and know how. Why, oh why, do we keep showing up every week to toss our pebbles into the writing ocean?

Maybe because we're delusional. I'm willing to at least consider the idea. Delusional people often make great artists. So, maybe it's that.

I think when we started this blog back in 2007/08 our reasons were different from today's. It was exciting back then, we were all published and writing for publication. We had daily conversations with industry people, agents, editors, publishers. The future was uncertain, but it looked bright in terms of our writing lives.

Things changed.

There are six of us writing Novel Matters and I don't speak for the other five.

I'm going to talk about what changed for me.

One the surface, it appears what changed was something pretty bad. I haven't published a novel since 2009. That's bad. Publishing novels was the whole point of getting into this gig, right?

That's what I believed when I stepped into the arena. I was here to write and be published.

Things changed.

I've written four (and a half) novels since Talking to the Dead. Good ones, too, though you'll have to take my word for it because none of them are published. Am I bitter? Not even a little. Tempted a few times, sure, but I managed not to fall into that pit. Because things changed.

I changed.

I'm not juggling fluffy puppies in the air, here. I'm not blowing sunshine and trying to tell you I've turned into a writer uninterested in my work being published. That's not the part of me that changed. What changed was when I started the writing journey I was convinced I knew what I was doing. Years later, I've arrived at the place that awaits everyone who journeys this far in pursuit of art. I arrived at myself.

Once, I thought because I read Ibsen, and Chekov, Dostoyevsky, and Hardy, because I read Alice Munro before reading Alice Munro was cool, because I took seriously the three hundred years of literature that came before our time, I had what it took to be a writer, maybe even a good one someday.

 Failing to publish for five years, brought me to the place of being completely honest about who I was as a person. Not as a writer. A person. To shed the layers and arrive at a place where I was forced to be completely honest about the stories I am uniquely qualified to write.

It was difficult for me to admit.

I'm not Alice Monro. I'm not Marilynne Robinson. Or any number of writers whose work has changed me. That was hard to face, but it wasn't the really difficult bit. The hardest part was accepting the fact that the truest stories I write--Bonnie Novels--terrified me. Because I realized the novel I started (and am currently working on) is the very best and most true thing I have in me.

And it's kind of dorky.

It's not high literature. It aspires to little more than entertainment. Its main theme is simple, the premise can be easily stated in thirty-five words or less. And I'm having the time of my life.

I changed.

Maybe that's the reason the six of us show up here three times a week and talk about writing. Because things are changing and we need to talk about them.

We're changing and we need to talk about that, too.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Getting Past What Your Characters Aren't

“Brother Lawrence…saw all of us as trees in winter, with little to give, stripped of leaves and color and growth, whom God loves unconditionally anyway…When you write about your characters, we want to know all about their leaves and colors and growth. But we also want to know who they are when stripped of the surface show. So if you want to get to know your characters, you have to hang out with them long enough to see beyond all the things they aren’t.” Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
All I have in my writing pocket right now is a seed of an idea. The story is peopled by shadows of characters—a middle-aged woman, her mother and father, perhaps a child, and another older man. Keeping the analogy of bare trees in mind, my characters are mere sprouts, indistinguishable from a stalk of corn or an oak at the moment.
I definitely need to hang out with them. Won’t you sit in? I heard an author interview on my favorite podcast, Pen on Fire. The author—can’t remember her name—interviews her characters as if preparing to write their biographies. She fills notebooks with notes.
Here is my first interview with Barb, my protag. We’re sitting at a sidewalk café in a small California beach town, because this is my interview, and I can do it anywhere I want. There's coffee and lots of chocolate on the table, so this should go well.
Me: You look nervous, Barb.
Barb: Shouldn’t I be? I won’t have a secret left when you’ve filled your notebook.
Me: We’ll start slow. There’s no rush. We’re both after the same thing, the truth.
Barb: Really? The truth? I’m not sure I’m all that familiar with the concept anymore. I thought I was, but in the last six months…
Me: You’ve had the rug pulled out from under you?
Barb: I’ve been swallowed by a whale. Which way is up, really?
Me: Perhaps we should start earlier. What is your earliest memory?
Barb: That would have been the Maple Street house, I suppose. Before Gary. That’s my younger brother. I don’t know…
Me: You’re thinking of something.
Barb: It’s silly.
Me: Go on.
Barb: Okay, if you insist. I was hiding in the broom closet. In fact, I was sitting on Mom’s Electrolux. She was calling for me from the kitchen. I should have gone to her. I knew I should have. I heard it in her voice. She was getting angry. But I stayed in the closet. I remember having to go to the bathroom. Number two. I’m sure there’s some deep meaning to that. I remember reading something.
Me: I’ll do some research.
Barb: You will?
Me: What happened next?
Barb: I was afraid of having an accident but more afraid of coming out. I’d waited too long. She would know I’d hidden from her. Our house was small, not a manor house where a little girl could get lost in her dreams. Mom wanted something from me. I don’t remember what.
That’s it. That’s my first memory. Your book is going to be awfully boring.
Me: Not at all. Besides, we aren’t finished yet. Was anyone else there, in the house?
Barb: I don’t think so. I remember other times, and, you know, they could have been before the closet thing or after, now that I think about it. Once I screamed my throat raw, trying to avoid a nap. My temper was legendary, the topic at many a family function. And another time, I remember eating tomatoes, still warm from the summer sun, with my dad under the apple tree.
Me: Tell me more about your father.
Barb: Dad? Well, he has his passions. Of late, he’s a bit delusional. I worry about his arteries hardening. That would affect his thinking, wouldn’t it? Anyway, he’s always been a bit of a showman.
Me: Is he a good father?
Barb: I love my father very much.
Me: Perhaps my question was too broad. Did you and your father get along?
Barb: Absolutely.
Me: Care to elaborate?
Barb: He’s not the man I thought he was. But then, I’m not sure I know my mother either.
Me: That’s quite a discovery to make at forty-eight. We’ll have to talk more about your parents, but I can see you’re about to bolt. Shall we set a time for tomorrow?
I’m not feeling great about the interview. Getting information out of Barb is like giving birth to a water buffalo…breach! I’m not even sure I like her name. Cynthia? Linda? Lady Gaga? Better? Not? Was this a false start? I’m not going to worry about it, much. After all, this was our first lunch. Once she trusts me, I’ll see her true colors. Her personality will bloom. She’ll tell me funny stories about her dog. Is she married? I’ll ask her tomorrow.
For now, all I know is she isn't all that close to her parents. She seems bitter. But she has nice memories of her father. Her mother, not so much. Chances are I'm completely wrong about her. More chocolate. Definitely more time.
How do you get beyond all the things your characters aren’t? Do you fill out an inventory? Use Meyers-Briggs personality types? Base your characters on people you know? When have you had your first impressions of a person changed by spending time with them? How much time are you willing to invest in getting to know your characters? How do you know when you know them well enough to start writing?

I Like Stories With Bad Words

"Two other problems he had: He would crow the morning in the middle of the night. His clock was off, and that sent his animals into a scurvy confusion. The hundred Hens would flock outside, prepared to work, and find that only the moon was there to shine on them. Back inside they would flock again, mumbling, clucking, shoving, and bitching a nasty bitch."

That is just good writing. And that is Walter Wangerin Jr., in his fantastic novel, The Book of the Dun Cow.

Page 25.

Remember, Debbie said "gratuitous." In the last post, she said, "Gratuitous sex, violence and foul language cheapen storytelling and don't have a place in Christian fiction."

Look up "gratuitous," and you will find that it means, "not necessary or appropriate, not called for by the circumstances." So I would add that gratuitous swooning, panicking or ruminating, gratuitous regretting or sorrowing, and gratuitous falling on your knees in remorse and surrender are all out as well. In all fiction, Christian or otherwise, nothing should ever be unnecessary, nothing should ever be gratuitous.

But sometimes it is not gratuitous, in fact it is the most necessary thing of all to say that the hens were not complaining or griping, they were not grouchy or testy, but that they were in fact "bitching a nasty bitch."

A line like that will, however, keep you out of the CBA.

But it didn't keep Wangerin from writing a Christ-saturated story. And I've never seen him use another such word in anything else he has written. I'd guess that it's not his habit, any more than it is mine, to offend others with his language. He might wonder from time to time why it is so offensive to compare a person to a protective mother dog. I do, don't you?

Or why you can say poo, and you can almost say cr*p, but you can never say s***.

I completely understand, however, why a word that technically means to make love almost always sounds more like rape when it is said in anger.

That was part of what made it hard for me to read "Let the Great World Spin," by Colum McCann. The first part, about the main character, Corrigan was luminous, but the rest of the book was angry and hellish and sad, and when you get toward the end, when Tillie Henderson jokes that she is a f***-up, and then admits that she is a f***-up, and then weeps that she is a f***-up, you forget about her words and hear her meaning, and it hits you hard in the middle.

 And you realize that a life like Corrigan's is the only ray of light she has.

And that's not gratuitous at all.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Out of the Garden - Part Twelve

by Heidi Dru Kortman
(Catch up on the story here.)

Hector, I muttered, lest Peta overhear. Where did you put the Her? He hadnt behaved like this since he was a six-month-old kitten. Then, hed made off with Brees doll, Soo-Z Sprite, though it looked nothing like a sprite to me, and Id had plenty of experience dealing with the real ones.
So long agoId set much aside to marry Don. And nearly forgotten.
Hector rolled onto his back, stretching one paw to bat the bedspread fringe. Then the cat sat with his back to me and washed.
If youve left the Her behind the living room sofa, Peta will take her.
 He hissed.
Cat, I dislike Peta myself. She took Don from me once, and I wont give the Her away. Bring Her to me now, before she gets thirsty again.
Tá mé anseo. The Her stepped between the bedspread fringes, climbed the chenille fabric, and walked to the far end of the shoe box, where she crossed her arms on the edge. Tá mé anseo, I am here.  Whispery, like wind in tall grass, the síogs voice I heard carried a hint of annoyance.
I regret needing to move you from pillar to post. Peta is persistent.
As the Her cocked her head, obviously considering my words like any person would, the door knob rattled hard. That had to be my grandson. Callan, stop that, I said.
Gran, where are the sweets?
The price was too expensive. I tipped one of my throw pillows, and gestured the Her to hide in the cavernous space. The Her sprinted from the shoe box and ducked into the sheltering darkness. 
I heard Callan stomp away. Spoiled child.
I lifted the throw pillow, grinning. Dia dhuit. Hello, I said as the síog emerged. Peta believes youre a French fae, but youre speaking Gaelic. Neachtar, the word this síog had whispered, rolled back time to my years in a Donegal village.
Nodding, she braided her hair. Dia dhuit. Sive Orlagh is ainim dom.
A hundred thousand welcomes, Princess Orlagh. Maeve is ainim dom.

Thank you, Heidi!

Heidi Dru Kortman, CWG Apprentice graduate and ACFW member since 2004, has devotionals, and poetry in Breaking Barriers, Disability Concerns, Christian Reformed Church in North America, a devotional in One Year Life Verse Devotional, Tyndale October 2007, a short story in Harpstring, vol. 1, issue 2 Written World Communications. She writes flash fiction on She is also an active member of Toastmasters International.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Title By Any Other Name

Writing is hard. Titles are harder.

At least they are to me and apparently to a lot of other writers, if the list of bad titles on my Google search are any indication.  The (ahem) interesting titles ranged from poor taste to silly, and from inadvertently offensive to boring.

The font type, size and color of the title on the front cover and spine of a book are meant to catch a reader's eye, but the words are most critical in convincing a browser to become a purchaser.

Ever tried to recommend a book to a fellow reader but you just couldn't remember that title? Maybe the title said nothing about the book or was difficult to pronounce, or just too long. Wonderful stories sometimes get tangled in their titles. The Curious Case of the something something Night? The Potato Pie Society what?   If you can't remember the title, how will your friend who has never seen the cover remember it?

Here are a few books that (thankfully) were saved from their original titles:
 First Impressions changed to...Pride and Prejudice

 Something That Happened  changed to...Of Mice and Men
The Dead Un-Dead  changed to...Dracula
Trimalchio in West Egg  changed to...The Great Gatsby
Atticus changed to...To Kill a Mockingbird

Titles are sure tricky business.  Here are some titles that could have used a second opinion:
Still Stripping After 25 Years (Quilt in a Day) for quilters
Who Cares About Elderly People  A child's book about caring for your elders
Everyone Poops  I used this book for potty-training my kids and it gets the point across, but still...
Are Women Human? an International Dialogue   Just, whatever

Some writers know the title when they begin a manuscript. It comes to them and settles in and is proven out by the story. Good for them! That hasn't been my experience.  If it also hasn't been yours, you might try this:
  • Make a word list for your theme - distinctive action words rather than passive, forgettable ones. Does a word jump out at you?
  • Write a paragraph about the story, or read through your synopsis to find a meaningful word or phrase that sums it up. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, considering Gone With the Wind was almost titled Tomorrow is Another Day
  • Try alliteration or rhyme: Angela's Ashes; Captains Courageous; Sense and Sensibility; Amelia Bedelia
  • Give clues as to what your story is about.  Something Wicked This Way Comes; The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks (this one's non-fiction); The Miracles of Santo Fico
  • Use a name that's important to the story: Frankenstein; Rebecca; Gilead; Jewel; Matilda
  • Use a catchphrase (or part of one), but consider that All's Well That Ends Well was better as War and Peace
  • Use a phrase from another literary work: For Whom the Bell Tolls; All the King's Men; The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag
  •  Use a play on words: Tails From the Garage (okay, my daughter used this for her collection of stories about her cat when she was young, but you get the picture)
This is a short list to get you started. Remember that your publisher may change the title, so hold it loosely.
Titles cannot be copyrighted, so it is especially important to do an internet search of the title you have chosen in order to make yours distinctive. Also consider that you may be repeating the title frequently in your marketing efforts, so don't choose one that is a challenge to say.

Do you have a title for your work-in-progress that you would like to share, and perhaps a one-sentence pitch? We would love to hear.


Monday, April 21, 2014

Monday at the Movies: Philip Yancey

Latayne here: I have said all my Christian life that when I grow up, I want to write like Philip Yancey. Is he impressive in person? No, he's humble and introverted. I'm surprised he ever even agreed to do interviews. But he's the best of the best, in my opinion, of thoughtful, compelling writers of non-fiction.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The 10,000 hour club and other musings.

I've never read Catcher in the Rye, never read anything by J.D. Salinger, never seen a documentary on him, though I might try to find the documentary Bonnie talked about in her post on Monday, where she certainly gave us a lot to chew on.

She made a very good observation when she said the media called him a hermit and recluse, yet the life he lived was only selectively hermit-like. I'm sure Bonnie's correct in that his part-time withdrawal from public life may have been partly "because he understood his capacity to be a dangerous man ..." But I'm taking a guess when I say I think he was probably also a media snob. He wanted his fame and fortune, but on his terms.

Like so many other famous people we could name.

Well, in all fairness, who of us doesn't? Who of us writers who dream of best-sellers, book tours and movie deals---and struggle with envy for those few who do achieve those things---don't want fame on our own terms? But is that realistic? Is it fair? We aggressively woo fans, hoping they'll buy our books and support our writing habit ... so long as they keep their adoration at arm's length? There's something very one-sided about that to me. Yes, I understand the need for privacy and safety and boundaries, but in my opinion, those who step from private life to public life have an obligation to the ones who help them achieve their dreams.

I know, easy for me to say since I'll never achieve the kind of fame we're taking about. I just don't happen to be a fan of elitism, or snobbery on any level.

That said, I'd like to address the other part of Bonnie's post, the 10,000 hours part. If the premise is true, that would be 416 days of round-the-clock, non-stop writing to master the skill. Taking my average weekly writing time and multiplying that to the 10,000 hours necessary to master a skill, I figure it took me 13-15 years of writing to reach that milestone. Like Bonnie, the thought of considering myself a master is laughable. But trust me when I say I've come a long, long way in 28 years, which is how long I've been diligently at this writing life.

And I have to believe if, after all those years of striving, I'd managed to gain even a tiny fraction of  the fame of a J.D. Salinger, I think I'd show more appreciation. At least I hope I would.

My musings aside, I have two questions for you:

  1. Do you fear the fame you may be courting?
  2. How long has it taken you to reach the 10,000 hour club --- or where are you on your journey?

Monday, April 14, 2014

What J.D. Salinger Got Right

I recently watched a documentary called "Salinger", and when it was over that sadness that always lingered after reading his stories was present in the room.

Media called Salinger hermit and recluse. Clearly he was neither of those as he was constantly seen about the small town near where he lived, took frequent trips to New York and Florida. He wasn't hermiting, he was simply trying to live out the last thread of sane left to him after surviving WWII, and then surviving the crashing success of Catcher in the Rye--the same novel that would be fingered as the reason and justification of three high profile shootings including the murder of John Lennon and the shooting of then President of the US, Ronald Reagan.

It's possible that Salinger decided to withdraw from life in public because he understood his capacity to be a dangerous man if allowed to stew too long in the soup of public pressure. Men and women hunted him down believing he had answers to their chaotic, hopeless lives. He didn't. And he knew it.

It's possible that Salinger's own writing left him with no alternative but to turn his back on the media lest he become entrapped in the same poser culture he railed against in his theology thinly disguised as fiction stories (he was a follower of Vedanta, Hindu philosophy and his stories always preached the tension between    body    and     spirit).

No doubt, Salinger walked a tightrope of being and maintaining his status as public figure and being fully dedicated to writing itself. Pure writing without any distractions.

It's murky and complicated (just like life), but there's one thing that stood out for me, one point where I believe Salinger was right: you can't talk about writing and be a writer. You must write. Only that.

There's a discipline to this, especially in the world of the internet where it is (literally) possible to glean so much information about how to write fiction that you could--in time--present college level courses on the subject and yet not be able to execute any of it.

A writer could, in theory, spend every weekend at one writer's conference after another soaking in so much knowledge he or she might feel a brain burst coming on. But so what if you can't actually do it?

I'm not against writing conferences. If you have a plan and have carefully selected workshops that will actually benefit your writing, and leave the conference with measurable ROI (return on investment), then great. Rare. But great.


Nothing trumps the doing.





Don't stop.

Remember that well hashed saying that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill? My husband recently pointed out that I've passed that milestone. I am, according to the hour formula, a master writer. (Can you see me giggling right now?)

What's the singular biggest lesson those 10,000+ hours of writing have taught me?

I can't talk myself into becoming a good writer.

I can only write, and write, and write some more until I find my true self and then write that.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Out of the Garden - Part Eleven

by Sharon K. Souza
(Catch up on the story here.)

There you are? My heart felt like it would burst through my chest. I threw my legs over the side of the bed, stood, and nearly fainted again as the blood rushed to my head.

            “Easy there,” Peta said, as I dropped to the bed.

She lowered herself to the floor with uncanny ease. Then, with a smirk, she tugged out the shoe box. She paused for a moment, looking me square in the eye, as if giving me a chance to confess to its contents before she discovered for herself. But what could I say? Wordlessly, my eyes dropped to the box.

            “I really thought it would be me she visited,” Peta said. She tossed her frizzy, silver ponytail back over her shoulder.

            “Sh-she? She who?”

            Peta laughed that biting laugh again. “Oh, Cuz. This is me, remember?”

            I did remember. All too well. I remembered that summer I first brought Don to meet my family, to meet the cousin who was more like a sister. The same sister-cousin who betrayed me.

            The smile faded from Peta’s face, and I knew she remembered too. “You’re not still holding a grudge, are you? After all these years? We were kids. I mean, what’s the point? He went back to you.”

            “Why did you do it?” I hated that there was still pain in my voice.

            “Honestly, Maeva, that’s ancient history.” She said it like it was no big deal, and yet she squirmed, adjusted the shoulders of her peasant blouse, fluffed her skirt.

            I lowered my eyes, let her off the hook, because she was right, what was the point? I was about to say as much when all at once she lifted the shoe box and placed it on the bed beside me.

            “Peta, wait—”

            With a devilish grin she lifted the lid. Then she sat back on her heels with a huff. I looked ever-so-slowly at the box on the bed. Blinked. And blinked again. Inside were a pair of green pumps, one with a broken heel. I looked back at Peta, gave her a weak smile.

            Suddenly, Hector appeared from beneath the bed. Peta scrambled away from him, got to her feet and backed to the door. “I know it’s here,” she said. “I know it.” Then she turned and hurried away.

            I dug through the shoe box looking for the Her, but there was nothing inside but the shoes. Shoes I’d never purchased.

            “Hector?” I said, thinking the unthinkable.

            He sat there and swished his tail with a smile on his face.

Thank you, Sharon!

Sharon is the author of three published novels, Every Good and Perfect Gift, Lying on Sundays, and Unraveled. She doesn't shy away from the hard questions and the emotion that draws us into a story. Her storytelling is powerful.

ATTENTION! We need one more author to participate in our story in the month of June. Contact us at if want to make your splash. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Back to the Whiteboard

Did you notice we have updated photos? Mine kinda looks like I'm wearing a feather headdress.  Hmm.  I might have to do something about that. 

In Latayne's last post, she shared her students' responses as to what makes Christian fiction, well, Christian.  This has been a hotly debated topic from time to time, with no definitive consensus reached.  So the debate continues. Here are my whiteboard choices for Christian fiction:

  • The story reveals the characteristics of God - love, sacrifice, redemption, grace, for example. These shine more brightly when contrasted with the evil, sin and godlessness in the story world.
  • Gratuitive sex, violence and foul language cheapen storytelling and don't have a place in Christian fiction. There are ways to get around these without being explicit or titillating.  The story can still be true and relevant without leaving the reader with a film of ick. 
  •  There are no fairytale endings, nor are all the loose ends tied up prettily, but the reader is left with a hopeful, positive resolution.  Despair, if present, is short-lived.
  •  Characters are authentic, flawed, unique individuals on spiritual journeys.  They don't have to stop and pray before every move, but they do come to recognize God's hand in their lives and grow in some way.
  • The story doesn't force an agenda or try to manipulate the readers' responses. The author trusts that if the story is told the way it was intended, God can be trusted to communicate with the reader. C.S Lewis' Narnia series is an example of great storytelling without preaching.
  • If appropriate and not contrived, a character can make a statement of faith as part of the character arc, but a really well-written story handles this with a light touch. Most publishers clearly state their their guidelines in no uncertain terms in regard to the manuscripts they purchase. You should check the guidelines of publishers you have in mind before you get too far along in your story.
  • Stories don't have to mention God or Christ by name to be Christian fiction. Aslan in Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a Christ-figure in that he takes the punishment for Edmund and overcomes death. But there is no footnote that says 'Aslan is really Christ.' I have seen other Christ figures in literature written by authors who are not categorized as Christian fiction authors specifically. That does not lessen the impact they made on me. God communicates in whatever way He chooses.
This is my basic but ever expanding, ever changing definition of Christian fiction. What would you leave out, or leave in? What would you add?  We'd love to hear.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Make Your List

I like to perplex my students. Recently I asked my teenagers at Oak Grove Classical Academy what makes a novel “Christian.”

They answered cautiously. After all, at this Christian school, we study lots of works that aren’t Christian at all, like The Epic of Gilgamesh and Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth.

I drew a line on the board. I wrote “Yes” versus “Disqualify.”

Then I gave them the markers and said, “Go for it.”

Here’s what they said disqualified a novel:

Rewarding evil, sexual-lust (I think they meant lots of the steamy type), themes that motivate sin, and atheist.

Here’s what they said would be characteristic of Christian fiction:

The author’s mindset, characters and storyline, morals, plot+author, helps reader spiritually via a story, testimony, point of view=self, reactions of the characters, theme, punishment (of evil), redemption, comes together to reward good, and God’s love.

So what would you put on your “yes” and “disqualify” lists?

Friday, April 4, 2014

Out of the Garden, Part 10

Read the story from the beginning here.

Part 10 by Margaret Terry

My hands flew up to cover my face. No no nooooo ... thinkthinkthinkthink, I commanded. This is grief. Yes. Grief makes people see things that aren't there. Dr. Marigold had warned me about that. A fairy under my bed. A cousin with wings. Grief. I wasn't losing it. I just missed Don, that's all. I turned to face Margaret, whose lips were moving like she was speaking in slow motion, but there was no sound coming out of her mouth, or if there was I couldn't hear it because the thunder in my head boomed so loudly. My last thought before the black veil fell and took me with it was my head was going to crack open.

Peta was sitting at the foot of my bed when I woke. "Been a long time since we shared a bed, cuz." Her eyes were dancing. "You've been fainting a lot, haven't you?"

I felt like my head was stuffed with cotton. Maybe Peta drugged me, put something in my tea. Of course she didn't have wings. She was the same old hippie Peta, wearing the same long skirts and floral peasant blouses she wore forty years ago.

"How do you know about my spells?" I hadn't told Margaret or even Dr. Marigold about the fainting.

"Same way I know you have a Fayette in the house." She stood and began to rifle through my dresser. "Why do you think I'm here after all these years?" She finished with my drawers and threw open the closet door.

I pushed myself up and leaned against the headboard. "Get out of my closet, Peta." My throat was so dry it felt like I had swallowed sand. "You're talking nonsense. I have no idea what a Fayette is."

Peta came out of the closet empty handed and approached my bed. I could smell lilacs. Granny, I thought. She smells like Granny. She leaned close to my face and whispered, "You saw them, cousin. I know you did. But don't worry. No one else could see them. You and I are the only living Fayes in the family ... so far." She dropped to her knees and looked under the bed. "Ah. There you are!"

Margaret Terry is the author of Dear Deb, a non-fiction compilation of letters from Margaret to her friend, Deb, who was dying of cancer. Watch the book trailer here.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Sorry, Virginia, There's No Such Thing as a Completed Manuscript Either

Bonnie did a great job of popping our bubble about the first draft on Monday here. In short, first drafts are not really first drafts. If we're lucky, they're third drafts. Sometimes, they're 27th drafts.

It's all good.

Now, for the bad news: Even if you don't demonstrate symptoms of OCD in other areas of your life, you will never have a completed/perfect manuscript either.

Take a minute to let that soak in.

It's the truth.

I speak from personal experience. And just to be clear, I am not medicated for obsessive behaviors. I'm a novelist.

So, once the manuscript gets to the point where Bonnie left it--friends are begged to read it--the manuscript will come back marked with circled words, bold question marks, and the abbreviation: awk in the margins.

Back to the drawing board!

Page by page, each suggestion and question is evaluated for verisimilitude. You learn to trust certain readers more than others, and some are gifted at critiquing certain aspect well: dialogue, story structure, or grammar.

Changes are made.

Before I send off a "completed" manuscript to an editor, I pay to have it printed and 3-punched to put in a binder. And then I read it out loud in a southern drawl or a horrible British accent, something that will get me out of my head and paying attention to each and every word.

Lots of slashing at this point. Extraneous words are such slippery devils.

This is the copy I eventually let people I want to respect me read.

Next, my husband talks me out of the tree to push the send button. I hate pushing the send button. I never feel more vulnerable.

This is why deadlines were invented. If we didn't have deadlines, not one novel would sit on the shelf.

With my manuscript on my editor's desk, I begin the next story. I need something to keep my mind from asking, "Was the motivation for the hero strong enough? Was the whole thing with the subplot character too clownish? Did you put your name on the title page, dummy?"

Editors notes come back much too quickly. (Where do these people learn to read like that?) I read the notes with one eye closed. S/he is almost always right, but I would be a fool not to carefully consider all their remarks, especially if they ask, "Did you leave out a chapter?"


Corrections are made--Are we keeping track of how many times we comb through a novel?--and the manuscript is sent off to the publisher again.

The manuscript returns as a galley, a mock-up of the novel. The accompanying letter says that I can only change up to 20%.

I'm up for the challenge.

But I don't take it. Deadline.

I do change more than I thought I would. I add addendums and use Wite-Out when I don't like the changes I made.

I read the novel out loud very slowly, again. I find more words to slash.

Finally, the novel is published. It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.


At every reading I do for an audience, I revise as I read from the published novel. (I read somewhere that William Faulkner made changes in the margins before going on stage for his readings.)

Time passes.

Several of my novels go out of print (ouch!), so I decide to reissue them as ebooks. I read each aloud for the third, fourth, or fifth times. I can't remember which. I cut out passages that weigh the story like a sinker.

How did those get in there?

And so, Virginia, no novel is perfect. It is only your best effort, and that is magic enough.

It's good magic. Very good.