Layer Cake

Cake baking has never been my thing. Too fussy. The ingredients make it look deceptively easy—butter, flour, salt, sugar, baking powder, milk, eggs and Bob’s your uncle. But the ingredients must be at a just-so temperature. The flour must be aerated, light. And if we’re talking layers and frosting, know that my inner klutz is cringing. Candy thermometers. Cake plates. Offset spatulas. Crumb coating. Pastry bags. Cakes that bubble on top or sink in the middle. Cakes that cling to the bottom of the pan, peeling away like a thick layer of epidermis. Frosting that is too thick, tearing at the fragile skin, or too thin, running down the sides like desultory rain, pooling on the plate, soaking your cake’s feet.

 

But when it comes to writing, I’m Martha Stewart. I’m a Six-Layer Coconut Cake with Lemon Curd filling.

 

I’m revising my second novel, The Crows of Beara, following my agent’s suggestions, questions, and cautions as a guide. I’m in a bit of a rush, emotionally. Agent wants to get this out “on sub” by mid-spring, before the summer doldrums sweep everyone out of their offices. On sub is writer jargon for ‘agent sending manuscript to editors, looking for novel’s publishing home.’

 

Practically speaking, the story is hitting its stride. When I finished the first draft a year ago, it had 105,000 words. After three revisions last fall, I submitted a 99,000 word second draft as my entry for the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Fiction. The Crows of Beara was one of two finalists for the prize, which gave me confidence that publication was worth pursuing.

 

Now into my second revision of a third draft, I’m working with 88,700* words. Over fifteen percent of a novel, gone. *Um. Since first publishing this post on Monday, I’ve lost a few more words. 87,500 now. 

 

My first drafts aren’t brain dumps, per se, but I do try to silence the inner editor. I do resist returning to earlier scenes or chapters, for fear of falling into a doubt trap, or miring myself in the revision process. I’m simpatico with Cheryl Strayed, who so succinctly gets it, “I write to find what I have to say. I edit to figure out how to say it right.” (From The New York Times Sunday Book Review, March 24, 2015

 

Once I begin revising, it’s a meticulous excising of excess detail and repetitive language and meandering thoughts and conversations to get at the heart of the story.

 

I may delete. But I never throw anything away.

 

During the first round of writer-editor revisions of In Another Life, I encountered notes from my editor requesting more detail here, more exposition or background there, clarification of background. In some cases, she was asking for layers—character motivation, a shoring up of sub-plot; in other instances, she was looking for frosting—a rounding out or plumping up of detail, filling in the crevices of the story’s foundation. Fortunately, I had nearly all of what she wanted from earlier drafts. It was a matter of copying, pasting, refining to fit the story as it had evolved.

 

The notes off to the side of The Crows of Beara read a bit differently. My agent has been unsparing and insightful at pointing out where I’ve gone too far, given away too much, overdone it, rambled on. These revisions have been like restoring a piece of furniture, stripping away the layers of thick paint to reveal the clean bare bones beneath.

 

In careful revision, I see the layers of story for what they are. I’m able to shift sentences and phrases around, picking up something I discarded on page 113 and adding it to a paragraph on page 87. I see where the second scene in Chapter 12 really should be the first scene and a thoughtful transition shows something about a character not yet revealed or a clean end to a chapter leads the reader naturally to the next. All these minute layers building to a stronger whole.

 

I’m a bread baker. I have a predilection for yeast over sugar. The sheer physicality of bread making is a release and marvel to me. I’ve learned over the years that it all comes down to the knead. You can knock most mistakes out of a lump of yeast dough if you’re willing to put time and energy into kneading (bread machines and Kitchen Aid bread hooks need not apply. That’s not bread baking, that’s an assembly line). Forget what the recipe says; most underestimate the time it takes to knead dough into submission by at least half. Probably because they know you wouldn’t start the process if you knew the truth.

 

Kind of like writing a novel.

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Pumpkin Layer Cake with Maple Frosting. I made this. Yes. Yes, I did.

 

 

Things Fall Apart

Last night the adapter cord to my MacBook Pro gave out. There is a notice flashing on my printer’s display panel that the drum needs to be changed and the toner is nearly depleted.  I have a raging case of tendonitis in my right arm and my neck wobbles on my spine, as if it can’t quite carry the load of my heavy head–technological and physical manifestations of too much time spent on the computer.
 
The computer power cord is a minor crisis.  A new one should arrive Wednesday. In the meantime, I’m coming to you from an iPad, wondering how anyone types on this thing without a keyboard. Just don’t judge. This week’s formatting and editing will be half-assed. I’m typing with one finger.
 
Folks, the power cord incident could have been a major crisis. A meltdown of epic proportions averted by the mere shadow of days. Monday (tomorrow as I write, today as you read), my next-to-penultimate round of novel edits is due. Not only that, but a literary journal to which I’d submitted a short story back in July finally turned around their edits last Wednesday, requesting that I make my changes by . . . Tonight. Yup.
 
Done. Dusted. Damn. I submitted novel edits on Wednesday and short story edits Friday. You just go ahead and fall apart on me, Crucial Technology. I’m way ahead of you.
 
The end of the edits is nigh and I’m so ready. I’ve read The Novel so many times in the past two months, I can quote entire passages by heart. Knock Wood, revisions are behind me as of one draft ago; now I’m fine-tuning, line-editing, killing not plot darlings, but literary ticks. I read The Novel out loud last week, catching repetive words and phrasing (I had a thing for the words bitter, bloom, flat, drain, north, and all manner of breath, breathing, inhaling, exhaling. Jeepers). From the Read-Aloud Edit alone, I cut 1000 words.
 
For my next edit trick, I shall read The Novel backwards. I kid you not.
 
My editor promises to hand off the next round by Wednesday, just in time for that power cord to arrive. For me to hope that the fix is a simple change of hardware. Otherwise I am, to put it bluntly, screwed.
 
I’ll have about ten days to edit, and then back to the publisher it goes. A month of freedom to tackle revisions of THE CROWS OF BEARA, which my agent turned back to me last week (I used precious battery power last night, printing off the manuscript; printer toner and drum survived to print another day), then The Novel will be shuffled off to the Production team. It will undergo a final scrubbing–line editing and proofreading–before being formatted into something resembling a book. A cover is forthcoming. A frontpiece map. Sometime in April I will have galleys to proof. Then that’s it: other than minor corrections that become apparent after the ARCs go out this summer, it is what it is, and it will no longer be mine.
 
Three elements of The Novel remain on my to-do list: Acknowledgements; Reading Group Discussion Questions; and an Author Q&A. Yesterday, I made an iPhone video of myself talking about the inspiration for The Novel for the Sales and Marketing team. No, you don’t get to see it. Don’t even ask.
 
I realize I keep calling The Novel, The Novel. It does have a name, but it’s not what it was once, or even what it was after that. Can you bear one more title change? Although I’m learning never to say never when it comes to publishing changes, I’m thinking this one may just stick. And I love it. At last.
 
Here’s a glimpse of the editorial decision making process:

Hi Julie,

We have come up with an incredible new title for (the book formerly known as REFUGE OF DOVES, and then REMEMBERING! This title came out of taking a hard look at the positioning of the book and what the heart of the story is. Part of what you wrote in your first response to my editorial letter was really helpful for us– We’re not concerned with the how of reincarnation, but rather the more profound emotional reactions to it. This pointed us in the direction of focusing on the experience of reincarnation and got us thinking about books like THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE and LIFE AFTER LIFE, both of which have time travel/reincarnation elements, have been hugely successful, and also have very revealing titles that tell you basically what the book is about.

My latest idea was to shift focus from just the title to concentrating on the entire front cover—what the title, cover tag, and cover image together as a unified package will communicate about the book. I think we have come up with a really strong title and tag that play off of each other in a compelling way.

Title: In Another Life
Tag: Three men are trapped in time. One woman could save them all.

 
Well, I’m tapped out. Please laugh at that. I need to know you’re laughing.
 
Just one last thing.  Do you know what else I ordered yesterday, in addition to that damnable power cord? Of course you don’t. I ordered a portable keyboard for this tablet. It’s coming with me this summer on a grand adventure. Which I’ll tell you all about, soon . . .

Blooming! Copyright 2015 Julie Christine Johnson

Theory of Convergence

“I have this theory of convergence, that good things always happen with bad things. I know you have to deal with them at the same time, but I just don’t know why they have to happen at the same time. I just wish I could work out some schedule. Am I just babbling? Do you know what I mean?” ~ Diane Court, ‘Say Anything’ 

“Julie, I’m so glad to know you are writing. With all that’s been happening, I wondered if you still had the energy or will to write…” So said my colleague as I stood in her doorway. I’d just regaled her with a breathless recap of the book proposal workshop I had attended the previous weekend (a shout out to publishing divas Jen and Kerry and The Business of Books. If they offer a seminar in a neighborhood near you, get thee registered).

The energy and the will. With all that’s been happening. Still writing. I was touched that someone would wonder if I continued to write despite the distractions of anxiety and anger. And surprised to discover that instead of becoming the thing I push aside, writing itself has become the distraction. The refuge.

Where do you retreat in times of crisis? I turn within. I read – finding solace in others’ worlds and words – January alone saw me plow through a half dozen novels. I exercise, tucking in the headphones and letting the miles unroll beneath my feet in an attempt to outrace, or at least wear out, the demons. I try to control what I can, while waiting for what I can not to play itself out. IMG_1105

And in the endless play of shadow and light, in the convergence of good things happening with bad, my writing life has blossomed. Two stories published in the past two months; writing workshops that have injected me with inspiration and motivation; connections made with writing buddies who surround me with empathy and enthusiasm; the application to an MFA program finally out the door after months of equivocation.

And 80,000 words. That’s where she stands.

In July, when I started The Novel (at another time of crisis; beginning to see a pattern here), I had a vague notion of a word count goal. 100,000 words seemed just shy of impossible; 50,000 wasn’t novel length. Seventy-eight grand sounded about right.

I upped it to 84,000 in October; 92,000 in December. Now I’m headed for …. 105,00? 110,000? Does it really matter? The story will know when it’s finished. And then the real work – the slicing and dicing, the killing of my darlings – will begin. And begin again. So much to do – the research, the details, the fleshing out of scenes, the dialogue to bring to life. So many revisions ahead of me that if I think about it all too much, I won’t attend to the blank page in my hand.

But in the meantime the story flows. Characters whom I never intended to introduce run into each other in the queerest of ways. Portals open in walls of solid stone. Characters find depths of compassion they are afraid to admit.

I have altered points of view and tenses. I have changed character names and flirted with revising history (talk about an A-ha moment: listening to Ben Affleck interviewed by Terri Gross for WHYY’s Fresh Air about the film Argo. Affleck discussing how a writer isn’t REQUIRED to follow historical fact with precision. The key is remaining true to history’s essence. Discuss.)

After grinding through an extended period of doubt and reluctant writing in the late fall, I find myself aching to get to the page each morning. I transcribe and add to my scribbles at the weekend, curious to discover what my brain wrought during the wee hours, while at its most relaxed and vulnerable.

In coming posts I’ll explore the process of assembling my book proposal, how I’m applying what I’ve learned about scenes in commercial fiction, what it feels like to change POV thousands of words, images and plot points into my story. And what I’ve been shy about discussing: being published, despite myself.

There is a hint of coming convergence of good with good in life as I know it. It may be February on the calendar. But it is looking like Spring in my life. Beginnings, renewal, growth, hope and all that.

“You probably got it all figured out, Corey. If you start out depressed everything’s kind of a pleasant surprise.” ~ Lloyd Dobler,’Say Anything’