Leaving An Impression

The only characters I ever don’t like are ones that leave no impression on me. And I don’t write characters that leave no impression on me. ―Lauren DeStefano

 

One of the criticisms an early reader offered about my novel Refuge of Doves is that my protagonist, Lia, is too likable. As a young widow, the readers’ sympathies are already with her, so this reader asked that I flaw her up, muss her up, make us not like her so much. Granted, the critiquer didn’t read the manuscript past Chapter Three, so she saw little of Lia stumbling through her world, but this notion of likable characters has been on my mind.

 

Literary food fights broke out last year when Claire Messud blasted back at an inane question during a Publisher’s Weekly interview after the publication of her novel The Woman Upstairs. Jennifer Weiner penned this tart rebuttal to Messud’s reply for Slate I Like Likable Characters and lines were toed in the sand. You can Google the hell out of this and come up with endless commentary on this fascinating debate—I’ll link to a few articles at the end—but, well, back to ME and MY characters, right?

 

Honestly, I hadn’t considered Lia’s likability score when I created her. I wanted her to be believable, even if the story itself requires significant suspension of disbelief. I envisioned a woman conflicted by grief, loneliness, and the physical and emotional longing she’s waking up to eighteen months after her husband’s death. I created a historian caught between her dedication to facts and the proof that fantasy, or what the religious may consider faith, is real. I wanted an ambivalent, angry, compassionate, curious person, but I hadn’t considered whether I was asking the reader to like her.

 

I’ve seen what happens to readers’ opinions of the writer when her protagonist is deemed unlikable. They flat out don’t like her book and dismiss the author. This has been nibbling on the edges of my brain since encountering readers’ reactions to Claire Messud’s character Nora in The Woman Upstairs. I wonder how much of my ego is at play when I write. Am I subconsciously creating sympathetic characters because I, the writer, want to be liked?

 

I write women. I don’t write for women and there are a fair number of XY-chromosome characters in my stories, but to date, my central character is a woman crashing around in large or small ways. She is written with ambiguous motives and sometimes slippery moral imperatives, but she is reacting to and processing in ways I believe most of us do: with self-preservation, compassion, and utter bewilderment. I’ve seen my novels’ characters deepen in revisions, becoming perhaps less sympathetic, yet more relatable. But likable? Dot Dot Dot

 

As I work through these questions, I must own this truth about myself as a writer and a woman: I want readers to feel for and identify with the characters I create. I want them to experience the same depth of emotions, appreciate the mistakes, nod knowingly at the flaws. Perhaps some day I will create protagonists who so infuriate or frustrate, like Claire Messud’s Nora, that I risk alienating readers. But frankly, it’s not the readers I’m thinking of. It’s me. I don’t relish spending months or years with protagonists I don’t like.

 

Maybe someday I will. And I bow in thanks and amazement to Claire Messud and every writer before her who had the goddamned incredible writing chops and confidence to create characters who get under our skin, making us squirm, gnash our teeth, and grind our jaw. Because it takes courage to stick with such characters and write them with integrity.

 

Really though, I will not write with a likability agenda. I didn’t sit down with Pilot Fine Point and a blank Moleskine in January to start a second novel and plan how I could create what Meg Wolitzer calls “slumber party fiction – as though the characters are stand-ins for your best friends.” I found a woman fresh out of rehab who screws up her marriage, her job, and is handed an opportunity to make at least one of those whole again, only to discover the opportunity is a stick of dynamite with a lit fuse. The story that follows is what she does with the messes of her own and others’ creation. She’s not perfect. But yeah, I probably wouldn’t mind meeting her for coffee.

 

Excerpt from an interview with Claire Messud in Publisher’s Weekly, 4/29/13

PW: I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.

CM: For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?” Nora’s outlook isn’t “unbearably grim” at all. Nora is telling her story in the immediate wake of an enormous betrayal by a friend she has loved dearly. She is deeply upset and angry. But most of the novel is describing a time in which she felt hope, beauty, elation, joy, wonder, anticipation—these are things these friends gave to her, and this is why they mattered so much. Her rage corresponds to the immensity of what she has lost. It doesn’t matter, in a way, whether all those emotions were the result of real interactions or of fantasy, she experienced them fully. And in losing them, has lost happiness.

Great Male Protagonists We Wouldn’t Want to Be Friends With

Meg Wolitzer: Men Won’t Read Books About Women

A Brief History of Jennifer Weiner’s Literary Fights

Lady in Waiting ©JulieChristineJohnson 2014
Lady in Waiting
©JulieChristineJohnson 2014

Seeking a Literary Agent: The Quest Begins

Alternate title: The Crying Game. Ah, but I’m not crying. Not really. I’m just curled up in a fetal position on the floor, rubbing noses with the cat, whimpering a bit. And I have yet to send out a single query letter to a literary agent.

 

No, I’m in the Agent R&D stage. I spent the past week–a few tedious hours each day that zapped my creative writing energy, blurred my vision, and caused my head to throb–compiling a list of potential agents to query. One of whom I hope will fall in love with my novel, Refuge of Doves.

 

From a list of 1000+ U.S.-based literary agents, I narrowed my search with a few key words and came up with 364 potentials. I created an Excel spreadsheet, opened up some Chrome windows, and started cross-referencing. I culled the list of 364 to 238. In addition to the standard name, agency, city, and agency website, my spreadsheet has a Submission Preferences column (Snail Mail? Email?). A Notes column. Columns for Date Query Submitted; Response Received; Resubmit? I ranked each agent who made it through my first pass with a Tier 1, 2, or 3 designation.

 

At this point, my spreadsheet has 144 Tier 1 agents. This is just Step One in a process that will take several more weeks. Again, all before I send out that first hopeful, stomach-looping round of query letters.

 

Several agents are from the same agency, and OF COURSE I will determine which of these is the best fit for my novel (you know this is protocol, right? Unless the agency’s guidelines indicate otherwise, query only one agent). This will whittle the Tier 1 list down to ≈ 111 names. And I bet, as I dig further into the agents, their agencies, their preferences, discover who is not accepting new clients or non-referrals, my Tier 1 list will come in well under 100 names. That’s about right. To start.

 

Then, and only then, will I begin sending out query letters. Just a few at a time, to gauge the nature of the rejections. Form letter/canned rejections are a clue that my query needs work. Real feedback will let me know if my story itself is the problem. I can’t even begin to contemplate what I will do about that. Rewriting. Again. But, as is my custom, I’m already fretting over it.

 

It helps me to focus on the spreadsheets, the research, and the content of my query, see, because they are the things over which I have control. If I stop and think too much about what I’m doing and where all this is heading, I will stumble. I will sink.

 

Seeking agent representation is like searching for a job and searching for a romantic partner. You want to be recognized for your skill at your chosen craft. You want to show that you can do the job. Your query letter, like your job cover letter, has to be unique and rich with voice, but it must be short, clean, concise, and follow some standards. The query must sell your novel in the first 10 seconds–three short sentences–or it’s into the rubbish bin.

 

And you, human being that you are, just want to be loved. Well, okay, you want your book to be loved, but who is really so thick-skinned they can separate their work from their soul? Certainly not I, not at this tender stage of my writing life. A rejection of your writing is like watching someone pore over your online dating profile and hearing them snort at your too-big nose and your freckles. Oh, the hurt.

 

Yet, I believe in approaching this process with respect, humility, and mindfulness. Even though I am but one in the faceless mass to an agent, it’s my integrity on the line if I am anything less than authentic. I don’t know if traditional publishing is the right path for me, but I know I must travel this road to find out. I must face the rejection and learn from the feedback. And I won’t walk alone. Serendipity wrapped her warm and gentle arms around me this week and guided me toward a group of aspiring novelists who are on the same journey.

 

Each agent receives thousands of query letters a year. Thousands. The odds are so stacked against me, it’s not funny. No, it IS funny. It’s funny that anyone does this. It’s funny that anyone believes this can work. It’s funny that sometimes it does.

 

Oh, and I haven’t even started working on my small/independent press spreadsheet. That’s next week.

 

This lovely essay appeared in my blog reader this morning. So a propos of the query process, I had to share:

Don’t Take It Personally, Kathryn Craft, Guest Blogger: Writers in the Storm

Resources which have come in super-handy as I get my brain around this Herculean task:

AgentyQuery.com

Association of Authors’ Representatives

Mark Malatesta’s Directory of Literary Agents

Poets & Writers magazine, on-line tools for writers

Predators & Editors

QueryTracker Track your submission in addition to, or instead of, a self-built database

Writer Beware

The Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino

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Show Me the Way ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014

History is Not the Past

It pains me to admit it now, but I dreaded the rewrite of Refuge of Doves. Setting aside the first draft of a novel that had poured forth so naturally from mid-January to early April, I opened the drawer on a novel that was already eighteen months old. And still in need of So. Much. Work. But that kernel of there’s something there, keep going had burrowed deep, fertilized by my inherent mulishness. Finish what you started, Johnson. Take this as far as you can. 

And so I dug in.

The very week I began the rewrite, Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s Fresh Air, interviewed Bart Ehrman, a UNC-Chapel Hill historian and professor of religious studies, about his new book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from GalileeI will forever remember that Eureka moment, walking through the woods just east of the Chinese Gardens at Fort Worden, when Professor Ehrman said “.. there are some questions that history can answer and other things that history cannot answer. What I try to teach my students is that history is not the past. History is what we can show to have happened in the past. One of the things that historians cannot show as having happened in the past is anything that’s miraculous …” I did a little dance right there on that forest trail. Probably scared the bejesus out of any onlooking deer.

 

Serendipity, Baby. 

 

My protagonist is a historian faced with accepting past miracles made manifest in the present. The very suspension of disbelief she faces is the same that any religion asks of its followers. It’s the same that writers ask of their readers when the story leaves the realm of historical fact and plunges into the hinterlands of “what if?” I had been been flirting with this theme from the very first word, but finally I understood how to take the story deeper, to tie the narrative set in the present with that set in the 13th century. To depart from known history and delve instead into the nebulous past. 

 

The story became something different. Not hugely, but significantly.

 

The first change was immediate, drastic, even: I switched the protagonist’s POV from first person to third. Writing this character in first person allowed me to understand her completely, but the story is greater than her character alone. Intimacy and immediacy are richer in first person POV, but third is a better fit for the style of the story. We’ll see how I feel after this week’s read-through …

A minor character was shredded, his scenes folded into others. One major character has gone through three name changes in six weeks, bless his heart. A handful of new scenes written, and one dredged up from a long-ago draft. It’s one those darlings I hated to kill, and there it sat, waiting patiently to find its place. In the end, I excised 10,000 words. And more will go, I’m sure, as I sit down with a paper copy and red pen.

Plot holes opened and scenes were reengineered. The ending changed from happy to hopeful. Love scenes went from blush-making to black-fading or dropped altogether. Dialogue tightened, personalities sharpened but characters became more ambiguous. Hopefully, you’re not entirely certain whose side you’re on. Because few things in life are black and white. Especially the truth.

In two weeks, this happy mess is off to a real, live, professional editor. It will be time. I have a couple of passes to make, an out-loud read-through to get through, but I feel it in my belly. The story is becoming what it should be—its own. Now I am ready for someone to tear it apart and work with me to rebuild. I believe in it in a way I haven’t before. I feel a smidgen of giddy. this could be something.

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But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon. Romeo and Juliet Act 2; Scene 2

 

 

Timshel: The MFA Dilemma

“But the Hebrew word, timshel—‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.” John SteinbeckEast of Eden

 

I’m wrestling with a decision. What’s happened is a good thing. It’s an opportunity. I’m not kvetching. I’m kveln. But it presents a dilemma, nevertheless. Ponder with me.

In December 2012, I applied to an MFA in Creative Writing program in Seattle, a process I chronicled here: The Things That Come in Threes. I didn’t know we would be leaving Seattle three months later.

In March 2013, the week we moved, I received an acceptance to the program. Returning to the city in six months for a two-year MFA wasn’t feasible and I had to say no. But I was invited to resubmit the same application for consideration for this academic year, so I did. You never know, right?

My present circumstances are no more logistically nor financially amenable to an MFA than they were last year, so when the second acceptance came through, the no had already formed on my lips. But the ante was upped. The admission offer included a scholarship that covers half the tuition. Kveln for sure. But what’s Yiddish for, Ah Jeez. Now what do I do? 

A couple of weeks ago I spent an afternoon-evening on campus, meeting the other Fall 2014 admits, current MFA students and faculty, attending a class, and reminding myself why this seemed like such an amazing idea eighteen months ago. I walked away inspired and excited, but after the glow wore off, I was left wondering if it still is an amazing idea. Not just this program. The whole notion of an MFA in Creative Writing.

I’ve been a runner for about thirteen years. I was a late starter to the sport, certain I’d be lousy at it. Then in 2001, I walked a full marathon. Or set out to. I ended up running a fair bit of it, simply to be done with the damn thing. It was November, it was Seattle, it was cold and wet and dark. I lost a toenail. My thighs were tree trunks after months of tedious training. I thought, “Never again.” I started running instead.

And I got into it. Process and method float my boat, so I learned how to talk fartleks and negative splits and tapers. I plan my weeks around hill repeats, tempo, and long-distance days. I track the number of miles I put into my shoes and replace them on a regular and expensive basis. I own more running bras then the regular kind. I have a watch that cost about a third of a plane ticket to Europe.

And I raced. Mostly half-marathons, several 10ks, a smattering of 5ks, a couple of triathlons. Because that’s what legit runners do. Why else would you run if you weren’t in training for something—had some goal goading you on?

About three years ago, the injuries set in. Every single flipping time I trained for a race, I got hurt. And I’d race anyway. I’d have to take a few weeks or months off post-race to heal, then I’d start training for another event, wreck something, race, and start the whole stupid cycle all over again. I just couldn’t seem to turn off the inner competitor, the one who said, this is what runners DO. You make training plans, you study, do the work, stick with the plan, meet your goal.

I’ve amassed a collection of injury-recovery resources: a boot to stretch out my plantar fascia; another boot for metatarsal stress fractures; there’s a stack of PT exercises for a weak psoas and over-worked hip flexors; ice packs that conform to various parts of the body; a big foam roller for fussy IT bands; a bar that looks like one half of a set of nunchucks to roll over tight calves; custom orthotics for my high arches and to compensate for a left leg that is a blink shorter than the right.

Good God, the hell I’ve put my body through. Why don’t I just find a different sport?

Because I love to run. And most of the time over these past thirteen years, running has been incredibly good to me. I run because it’s what I do.

But I think I’m through with racing. I can’t seem to train without hurting myself.

Thinking about this MFA, any MFA, makes me feel like I’m staring at a marathon training plan. I want to do it so badly, my teeth hurt. I want it because I want it. I want the badge, the medal, the plaque, the 26.2 sticker on my rear bumper (hey, I should have one of those anyway!). I want the MFA to show I had the discipline and the cojones to get through training, all the way to the main event. But I don’t need an MFA to be a writer. Any more than I need a marathon finisher’s shirt to prove I’m an accomplished runner.

To be a runner, I need to run. Check. To be a writer, I need to write. Check. Check. To be an author, I need to publish. Check. Check. Check. To make a living at this, I need to get paid. Alas, No Check. Okay, one small check so far.

The uphill climb: my route home, after running 13.1 © Julie Christine Johnson 2014
The uphill climb: my route home, after running 13.1 © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

 

There are many important and wonderful reasons writers seek MFAs. They are the same reasons that compelled me to apply to the program, that make my heart ache to say “Yes.” But for who this writer is now, none of the reasons is compelling enough to go into the kind of debt–even with a generous scholarship–that two years’ tuition and living part-time in Seattle would require. None is compelling enough to pull me from the pages that I’ve written, to defer me from my dream and determination to see my novels published.

Last Monday, I–like thousands of runners across the country–dedicated my day’s run to the Boston Marathon, to honor those killed and injured on April 15, 2013, and to support in spirit the runners setting out to fulfill a dream one year later. I intended to do my standard 5-6 miles. At some point, I decided to keep going. In the end, I ran 13.1. There was no finish line to cross, no shirt or medal to commemorate the effort, no bagels or banana or hot soup at the end. There was just my inner crazy person and my steady training to get me through a spontaneous half marathon on two cups of coffee.

I came home, propped up my weary legs, and I began to write. It was then I realized the same grit I’d used that morning to keep running was the same I’ve called upon to achieve my greatest dream–seeing my words reach a wider audience through publication. I’ve managed this far without the stamp of validation an MFA could give.

Let’s see how far my legs can carry me through the ultra-marathon I started when I wrote the first words of a novel. Now that I’ve got two behind me, I feel I’m just getting warmed up.

Hey, thanks for helping me get this sorted.  … Timshel. Thou Mayest. And Thou Mayest Not.

The Fast and The Furious: First Drafts

I have never written anything in one draft, not even a grocery list, although I have heard from friends that this is actually possible.—Connie Willis

 

You guys. Guess what? I finished the first draft of my second novel last week. Wait, what? A second novel?

I know, right?

On January 13, I began sketching out characters. On April 2, I typed THE END at, well, the end of a 105,368 word manuscript.

How did that happen? How did this writer go from taking eighteen months to bash her way through a first manuscript—one that split its seams at 167,000 words before it came to a stop at 99,000—to a ten-week blitz of a pretty clean first draft?

Crikey! Can I do it again?

Well, let’s not worry about that now.

Let’s think about what went right.

I had no idea what this story would be about when I sat down in January with a blank notebook and a blue Pilot fine point. I knew the setting: southwest Ireland. That was it. Once I had the characters and their internal conflicts roughed out, the external conflicts and themes gradually took shape. I cobbled together a very general outline that provided guideposts along the way. It’s an outline I’ll redraft in far greater detail when I begin Draft Two.

Conversely, with Refuge of Doves, I had a story idea—an image in my mind of a woman standing before the ruins of a Cathar citadel in Languedoc, France—and a “what-if?” of history, around which I built the plot. But I had no idea where it would take me. I didn’t know my characters all that well. In a couple of cases, I still don’t. And it shows.

Blossoming  ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014
Blossoming ©Julie Christine Johnson 2014

Really, I had no idea what I was doing the first time out. I just needed to start writing. I knew if I got bogged down in research or plotting, I’d never start the story. I had to develop the habit of writing every day and trust that the rest would sort itself out in time. And so I did. And so the story did, too. Over the course of months, a narrative began to take shape and I fell in love not just with the process, but with my people.

But I did not write sequential scenes. Primarily because I had a beginning and a vague idea of the end, but not much notion of what would happen in between. I just wrote a bunch of stuff.

So, a year after typing the opening words to Refuge, I had to lay out the scenes—and I mean literally: the living room floor was a giant grid of 8 1/2 ” x 11″ pages, with my prone body on top, sobbing—and try to put them in some sort of order. I spent the next five months cleaning it up and straightening it out, simply to get to The End. Of a first-ish draft.

What happened last week (let’s give it a name, shall we? Working Title: The Crows of Beara) was the product of a writer determined not to repeat the past. I set a weekly goal of 10,000 words and butt stayed in chair until that happened. I wrote scenes in order. I shut down the inner editor (repeatedly, daily, hourly, by the minute) and just wrote.

I’d planned to reserve one day a week for editing, but I abandoned that notion early on. Editing mired me down in minutiae and side-tracked me from simply letting the story pour forth. I jotted notes where I knew I needed more character development or technical research or where theme threads dropped or things got backstory heavy, but I left the writing alone.

I wrote fast. I wrote furious. It was a joyful experience. So much so that it’s all I want to do. I just want to write first drafts, you know? First Drafts Are Art, Baby. Unfettered by the rules of craft, playing loose with grammar, throwing ideas and not bothering to see what sticks and what drops to the floor like limp spaghetti.

Alas. The First Draft Fantasy. First drafts are like those early, googly-eyed days of a relationship. No matter how besotted you are by the First Draft, at some point there will be morning breath and the electric bill and someone’s red shirt in the washer with your white socks. At some point, there will be a revisions. Many. Revisions.

Refuge of Doves, which I finished in December, sits on my desk—set aside, but not forgotten. I’d been dreading the inevitable rewrite(s), but as I think about what went right this second time out of the gate, I know I can sort it.

One of the greatest unintended consequences of burning through the first draft of The Crows of Beara has been the building of eagerness to apply what I’ve learned about myself as a writer—and the shoring up of my weaknesses—on the massive project that awaits me.

And more than ever, I realize that the eighteen months I spent writing Refuge of Doves were eighteen months spent learning how to write a First Draft. Now I’m ready to turn it into a novel.

 

Worth Checking Out:

Why Your First Draft Isn’t Crap by Bryan Hutchinson for Positive Writer

Get Messy with Your First Draft by Elizabeth Sims for Writers Digest

Getting Over It, Getting It Out: On Embracing A Bad First Draft by Jon Gingerich for Lit Reactor

The Elephant in the Room: Are you ignoring your story revision instincts? by Alythia Brown for Wordplay: The Writing Life of K.M. Weiland

The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

The Memory of LoveThe Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel opens quietly, as if the writer were a doctor, cautiously revealing a wound, warning the reader to look, but don’t touch; as if she were a psychiatrist, probing delicately at the mind, but who avoids coming too close to the main issues, for fear of doing her patient greater harm.

The wounds in Aminatta Forna’s devastating and beautiful novel The Memory of Love (why am I certain the author had another title in mind, but was convinced by her publisher to go with the banal to encourage mainstream readers? Sadly, this is the second novel entitled The Memory of Love I’ve read in the past four months and both deserve better titles. No offense to Elton John.) aren’t inflicted on just one person; they are the wounds of a nation brutalized by war.

The decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone was relegated to Page Five international sections in this country, overshadowed—if one paid attention to the many tangled messes abroad—by the War in the Gulf, then the Balkans, Rwanda and even Sierra Leone’s southern neighbor, Liberia. This beautiful West African nation was first a hub of the transatlantic slave trade, then became an important symbol of resistance. Its capital, Freetown, was so named by repatriated slaves at the end of the 18th century. Its modern history is at least as complex: a land rich in natural resources, with an infrastructure and population that attained stability and productivity, reduced to horrific footnotes of “blood diamonds,” boy soldiers, hacked-off limbs and a generation of children born of rape.

But all politics is personal. And The Memory of Love wraps the war around multiple characters and two eras to show the progression from hope and happy times to defeat and resignation.

The central characters in this story are men: Elias Cole, a mid-grade professor of history and his charismatic alter ego Julius, married to the woman on whom Elias develops a obsessive crush; Adrian Lockheart, a British psychotherapist fleeing a loveless marriage in the UK to treat PTSD sufferers in a Freetown hospital; and Kai Mansaray, an orthopedic surgeon whose work schedule seems to be self-inflicted retribution for having survived the war when tens of thousands of his fellow citizens did not.

The story opens just before the 1969 Apollo moon landing, when Freetown bustled with progress. Elias Cole, a young professor at the time, relates his story in first person to Dr. Lockheart, who comes to Sierra Leone thirty years later, after the civil war ends in 2001, to a crumbled city beset by poverty, crime and disease.

Women are central to the narrative, though we never hear their voices directly: the enigmatic Saffia, Julius’s wife; Ileana, the chain-smoking Romanian doctor who navigates crazy, sad Freetown with wry dexterity; Kai’s former lover, Nenebeh and Adrian’s new lover, Mamakay. And there is Agnes, a Sierra Leonean psychiatric patient suffering from a rare “fugue” state where she wanders off for days, lost in a world of memories. There are prostitutes and slutty foreign aid workers, cuckolded wives and neglected daughters. Women bear the greatest injustices and losses in this novel but their experiences are interpreted by their lovers, husbands and physicians.

Aminatta Forna explores betrayal on an epic, political scope and an intimate, every-day relationship level. The Memory of Love is many individual but linked strands of characters doing whatever they can to survive, even if it means survival of the body but decimation of the soul. Friendship is one of the central themes—how easily we find and create connections and how it takes just a moment, a misunderstanding, a cruel coincidence, to tear them apart.

This complicated and intelligent novel demands careful, slow reading to keep track of the multiplicity of characters, the frequent changes of points-of-view, time and place. Aminatta Forna’s writing is evocative, deliberate and authentic. She infects the narrative with tragedy and anger, then lances the wounds with sweetness, affection and hope. There are competing feelings of pent-up illness and catharsis that are partially, but not fully, resolved by the end. Not an easy read, but an important one.

View all my reviews

The Kindest Cut

This is what three weeks of revising and editing get you. A laundry basket full of shreds. I have another three hundred pages—a draft’s worth—to add, but the shredder cried “Uncle!” and I was forced into a time-out.IMG_1460

Three weeks ago—after taking a day to celebrate writing the final scene of The Novel and to buy a new shredder—I put together a revision plan. Then I printed off a fresh copy of The Novel, clicked my red pen and started reading. Three revisions later, I come back to The Plan to see how I’m doing.

Holy Shit, this is a lot of work.

Here’s the thing. At the end of October, I wrote this here blog post Pitchin’ and Moanin. Filled with determination, I set out not only to  finish my first full draft by the end of the year, but to have it in good enough shape that I could hit the “Send” button with manuscripts attached, confident I was sending something I could be proud of.

I made and didn’t make my goal. The agent received the first 100 pages and a synopsis last week, in the final hours of 2013. I was saved from the hell of the standard query letter by the grace of my pitch. She asked that I simply cut and paste the content of my pitch as my query; she’d remember the rest. Ditto the publisher. Query hell postponed by two.

Two days later, the novel critique group I recently joined provided feedback for Chapters 1 and 2. Incredibly helpful, just, funny, awesome feedback that made me wish I hadn’t hit “Send” quite so soon. But let’s be honest: though the changes are significant on the small scale of two chapters, they aren’t anything that would cause an on-the-fence-agent to say “Oh, now THAT makes me want to represent you!”

My patient, tireless and outrageously supportive spouse is providing much-needed line edits—ferreting out typos that my eyes no longer register—and getting as excited about “what happens next” in the story as I am for him to discover it.

I’m on track to deliver the full manuscript to the publisher by the end of the week (keep in mind, this is an arbitrary deadline, set by me. No one is actually waiting to read The Novel). I took another hard look at the publisher’s submission guidelines over the weekend and fully registered this bullet point: DETAILED synopsis. My tight four-pager ain’t gonna cut it. Thank Pete for Scrivener—the heavy lifting of a chapter outline is done, I just need to make it pretty and comprehensible. And this week, it’s one more read through before I hit “Send” and put this baby to bed for a few weeks.

The Revision Plan? I haven’t followed it to the letter, but it’s what I’ve been doing every day—no holidays, no weekends—for three weeks. And in a few weeks’ time, I’ll take it out and start all over again. When I’ve recovered from killing six thousand of my darlings.

“I’ve found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.”
― Don Roff

Revision Plan

MACRO: Story Arc, Character Development

  • Conflict Arc: Identify Inciting Incident, Conflict within the GAP, Moments of Increased Risk, Mid-Point, Black Moment, Point of No Return, Crisis, Climax.
  • Within the Crisis & the Climax: Identify Dilemma, Static Moment, Insight Moment, Choice, Reversal
  • Character Arc: edit just one character at a time. Follow him/her in each scene he/she appears. Check micro-details and macro-development & POV issues (consistency within scenes)
  • Scene Endings does each scene end with a resonant line or image and/or is there a call to action? Will it make the reader late for work or keep them up past their bedtime?
  • Internal (emotional struggle) & External (plot) Conflicts: Are they present on every page? Identify scene by scene.
  • Setting: does every scene have one?
  • Dialogue: does each conversation do at least two of these: create setting; develop character; create tension; foreshadow; escalate conflict; move internal conflict; move plot; give information.
  • FLOW & RHYTHM: variation of sentence length
  • DOES THE STORY BEGIN AT THE TRUE BEGINNING & END AT THE TRUE ENDING?

MICROGrammar ~ Punctuation ~ Spelling

  • SEARCH & REPLACE:
*TO BE verbs. Replace with active verbs.
*-ING verbs
*Change meaningless action words: look, smile, nod, frown, wink, laugh-all opportunities for an action that can develop character
*"TURN” “REACH” Eliminate and just DO THE ACTION
*“KNEW/KNOW” 
*Eliminate “weed” words: that, still, just, very, so
*“FELT” Replace with emotion or action
*ADVERBS  Replace with active, transitive verbs
*ADJECTIVE Replace with lean (specific) nouns
*Check semicolons, exclamation points, ellipses
  • Find Beta Readers. Steel Yourself for Heartbreak. 
  • WALK AWAY. WALK AWAY. WALK AWAY. Find something new to dream about. Write short stories. Read phenomenal books. Plan Novel Two.

Recognition for my Revision Plan to Wendy Call, Chuckanut Writer’s Conference 2012; Ann Hood, Port Townsend Writer’s Conference 2013; Anna DiStefano and Sabrina York, Emerald City Writer’s Conference 2013