Once again, I have written enough of a new book to ask why I’m doing this.
That is, what’s the “why” of my story? What is it that I want readers to learn, or find out, or realize, or to continue to think about after they’ve finished the book? My high school English teachers would have called it identifying the “motif” or the “theme” of what I have written. It’s the “message” of the book.
Accomplishing it is not as easy as it sounds and it takes work to do it right. Some stories naturally progress from beginning to end with the message as clear as a bell; they’re called Fairy Tales. I’ve written before what I went through to find The King of Trash a coherent, congruent ending that contained the message that I wanted, and I’m hoping that my new book won’t be that hard.
I always get excited when I start creating a new story: plot, movement, action, location, history, dialogue, characters, context, conflict, drama, and all the things that show what’s happening and who it’s happening to. The story is the ride I want to experience so I know you’ll like experiencing it, too. I also like getting the story out from beginning to end before I step back to see if I’ve accomplished what I wanted. (I never do; I’m still an incessant rewriter. On the other hand, I find it easier to change and enhance a story than to begin over.)
When I do step back, I can see the various strengths and weaknesses of the story and make a decision about how to reconfigure the story to play to its strengths. The strengths should indicate the message that I’ve targeted. If it does, I need then to make it play from the beginning of the story to the end. If the strength of the story doesn’t really reflect my message, maybe my story doesn’t fit the message. If so, there’s then a decision to be made about whether I should tell a different story, or I should look for a different message.
Let’s assume that I’m happy with the message. I can then ask if my characters behave in the way that build that message. In particular, do the characters change in such ways that they demonstrate the validity of the message? Do the characters “prove” the message?
Once I figure that out, I can address the mechanics. Are the changes consistent with the plot? Do I show my main character changing by putting them in situations that cause them to change? Do I present them options of how to change so that they choose the one that fits? Do I let them crash and burn as they’re learning what fits? Do I portray the supporting cast as exerting the right pressures on the main character to convince them that he or she must change?
I have a hundred and fifty pages or so to show what my characters do when exposed to various situations, are put under different pressures, or react to other characters. Best of all, I’ve got lots of room to show the reasons for the characters’ doing what they do. I cannot leave things to chance. I shouldn’t expect a message to “accidentally” work itself out.
A few centuries of writers have formalized the idea of character change and how it centers the message in a story, but it’s still a surprise to me that I can write fifty or seventy thousand words of a great story and yet find that it’s not entirely clear that the story reflects what I thought was my message.
Alright, I can hear my audience going “Dummy! Why don’t you map out the delivery of your message before you start writing all those words?”
I accept that. But, first, in my mind, I knew the message that was being promoted and when – I just may not have written it down in the right places; and, second, I like giving my characters the freedom to change as the story goes along, and to say things that I hadn’t thought of. I like to start a story and see where it takes me. I may see a “message” developing that makes a stronger statement than what I had planned. It’s already happened early in this story and has made an incredible difference in the plot. There’s a definite interplay between the story I wrote and the message I’m trying convey.
What can I do to help myself out?
Write down the questions that my high school English teachers were asking fifty years ago and then honestly answer them.
- What’s the message of the book?
- How is that message revealed through the characters? No matter what, the message has to be driven by the characters.
- Is that message strongly conveyed by how the main character changes?
- Where are the words that show a character behaving in a certain way; where are the words that show them changing because of such things as conflict, accident, confrontation, crisis, introspection, a magic ring, or epiphany (no miracles allowed unless there really was one); where are the words that show them behaving in a different way, so that the readers know that the character has changed, and that the change they made confirms my message?
- What places in the story show a character gradually changing so that the reader is drawn along with what’s happening and, hopefully, aligns with the change?
There are more questions that need to be asked and I will ask them as I’m doing revisions. My main point is that, in the end, the words have to be in the story. I can be direct, indirect, simple or complex; I can use metaphors or imagery; I can do all sorts of things to carry out the building of a theme or a motif. But I still am the author. Nobody can read my mind. If I want the readers to get something out of a story, I have to put the words in there for them to find it.
In the summer of 1980, Larry McMurtry, Pulitzer-winning author of Lonesome Dove, was sitting in the Dairy Queen in Archer City, Texas, reading an essay by Walter Benjamin, early 20th century German philosopher, cultural critic, and essayist. It was a moment of epiphany, I guess, because McMurtry would later write a book called Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, but he wouldn’t get around to it for about twenty years.
The subject of the essay was whether “storytelling” as a medium for conveying culture was disappearing, and McMurtry found it most interesting that he was sitting in a Dairy Queen as he read it. Dairy Queens, found in most little towns in Texas, represented a gathering place for local people who come and sit, for one reason or the other, and talk to each other. This communal watering hole, in McMurtry’s mind, represented a substitute for the back porches, family kitchens, or town square benches where people used to sit around, resting from the day, recalling people or events in the family’s or the community’s historical consciousness and sharing them in the form of memories, recollections, or full-blown stories.
This is usually how historians consider American folklore was handed down from one generation to another.
Perhaps true in the past, I’m not sure we currently have any equivalent to the back porches, kitchens, benches, or even the Dairy Queens, that serve as the vehicle for the younger generation learning about the older generation, if for no other reason than back porches (and front porches) are no longer included in modern house architecture. Or, maybe that extended families are no longer much co-located and don’t gather just to visit.
Whatever the reason, it’s worth my asking how much my oldest grandson knows about me, my father and mother, or my ancestors farther up my family tree.
Which, of course, begs the question: how much do I know about the people, places and events of my own family tree?
I’ve been thinking about this is because of the historical fiction novel I’m working on that’s centered around World War II, having taken my dad’s experience as a starting point for my story. My dad kept a list of when and where he was in Europe, from the time he left for boot camp until he returned three years later, and I am using it as a general progression of the novel.
I am kicking myself repeatedly for never asking him about it. It’s true that he didn’t volunteer anything, consistent with other veterans, and maybe he wouldn’t have even with direct questioning, but I wish I would have tried. We even lived a block from a Dairy Queen. I’m not sure my dad ever stepped inside the place, but maybe if I had forced him into a booth and plied him with chocolate malts, I would have gotten something.
As much as I can recall, my mom and dad and their families didn’t do much gathering and didn’t produce a lot of family stories; Only when perusing old photographs did my mom pass on much historical information. I can remember one instance where most of the brothers and sisters (my dad was the oldest of nine) gathered in the back screened-in porch of my grandparent’s house in Oklahoma, sat around on the floor, and spent an hour or so just visiting. I want to say that I didn’t attend because children were not invited but it was probably more a problem of there being no room.
Did they share family stories? Did they go through memories of people they’d known, or grown up with, or remember what their ancestors did when they were all farmers or such? Or, in my wish, did my dad and my two uncles, at least, talk about what they did in Europe or the Pacific during the war?
I don’t know. All I remember is that the evening did not end well, being as I was caught trying to smoke tobacco in a toy pipe, something that broke my mother’s heart.
But that’s a story that I’ve never told and I doubt that my oldest grandson will ever hear.
I was looking through my bookshelf for a book to read (as if I didn’t have enough already) when I found a book written by Ernie Pyle, titled Brave Men. I had not previously paid any attention to it, much less read it. I knew Ernie Pyle was a war correspondent of some note during World War II but that’s all. Reading the introduction, Brave Men consolidates some of his newspaper columns from the invasion of Sicily, through the invasion of Italy, then during a break when he returned to England, and then on D-Day Plus One (he was on the beach the day after the first wave of soldiers went in), followed by the invasion of France up to the liberation of Paris.
I was immediately captivated by the text. The way Ernie wrote and what he wrote about has opened up new insights into World War II. I sent off for Ernie’s War, a broader biographical treatment that looks at Ernie’s life (during the war, he and his wife had a home in Albuquerque; I took a trip to walk through his house last week. It’s now part of the Albuquerque Library System), and then uses excerpts from his columns to cover his time in England before the United States joined the war, during the invasions of Africa, Sicily, Italy, France, and then what little time he had in the Pacific. He was killed on April 18th, 1945 by a sniper on a small island off Okinawa. He was 45 years old.
Pyle was the most recognized United States war correspondent during the war, writing columns while he was with the frontline combat troops, on board a hospital ship, or sitting in the Savoy in London during the blitz (1940-41). He wrote in a very friendly, down-home way that won him the hearts of readers throughout America and especially with the troops that caught his columns in the various newspapers in which he was published. Dominated by personal talks with individual soldiers (he included their names and addresses in his columns), he gave a down-and-dirty, no-punches-pulled, this-is-the-way-it-is view of what men do during war and how they reacted to its brutality.
What he described wasn’t pretty, but it was truthful. Ernie wrote about the Army, the Navy, the Army Air Corps; tank crews, artillery crews, hospital ships, dive bomber crews; Generals, Colonels, lieutenants, privates; warriors, support personnel, repairmen, doctors, nurses, drivers, and engineers, as well as mule trains, Seabees, and his favorite subject, the men in the infantry. And when he told what they were doing, it was by direct observation – he was there when the bombers flew overhead, the incessant noise of the artillery was going off, and watched as exhausted men came out of combat with their souls hanging by threads. Ernie slept in wet foxholes, in the underground shelters in London, in Italian buildings whose roofs and walls has mostly been knocked down by artillery or bombs; he ate C-rations for weeks, sat around small stoves in the corner of tents while it snowed outside, had coffee with thousands of weary men being continually shot at, bombed, and shelled for days on end, who were getting a couple of days of rest before they returned to the line to do it all over again.
His style of writing is what I enjoy most – simple, straight-forward, good English with correct grammar, honest, full of compassion, and given to the whole truth. He wrote like his readers were his friends and, more importantly, that every reader knew someone just like he was describing and wanted to know how they were getting along.
If you have an opportunity to find one of his books, he opens up the reality of men in combat.
I consider writing fiction books easier than writing non-fiction books; readers don’t expect the same level of “truth” from the first as they do from the second. In fiction, if you need a plot development or a character flaw or a sudden relocation to a different place, you just make it up, right?
That’s about half right, in most respects, but writing a good story still demands authenticity in its characters, locations, and events, even if the “authenticity” is constructed. Science Fiction is a good example – readers are ready to believe anything if you’ve done a good job of creating an environment where it seems real.
My mystery books are true to the geography, the location, and the history preceding the events and, for the most part, succeed in making the stories more relevant, believable, and interesting than if they had arbitrary settings with made-up backgrounds. A side benefit is that any “lessons” in a story are more real because they fit into actual events, people, or cultures that the reader can easily identify with. The “authenticity” works because real history is pretty easy to reimagine, both for me and for the reader.
Ah, those were the good ol’ days.
My current project, currently called Teddy’s War, follows two brothers from 1936 to 1945 and uses World War II as a backdrop. The brothers and their journeys are fictional but the story needs to be accurate in portraying the realities of the war and what would have been the true physical and emotional experiences of typical soldiers.
This is whole new territory for me.
I expected most of my problems would concern names, places, events, and objects involved in the story. That is, I needed to use the real names of guns, armaments, tanks, planes, events, military ranks, fighting unit designations, uniforms, equipment, weather, location, geography, and a few thousand other details that real historians and history buffs would expect (and would likely complain about if I got wrong) and that would give me rock-solid authenticity for the ordinary reader. Basically, I knew that I wouldn’t want want the novel to look amateur from the “facts” point of view and I certainly wouldn’t want to get things wrong.
What I’ve discovered is not the difficulty of being true to the facts but handling all the details that makes writing about World War II interesting in the first place.
Did you know that some of the American dive bombers used in Italy were P-51 Mustangs that had special flaps attached to their wings that, when opened, kept the airplanes from going too fast? The modified wings limited the aircraft speed to less than four hundred miles an hour while flying straight down. Any faster and the pilots would never have been able to pull out of the dive. Even at that speed, the pilots blacked out for several seconds during their recovery from the dive.
Did you know that each Army Division had Grave Registration Units responsible for immediately recovering the bodies of dead soldiers, gathering all of their personal affects, establishing written information archives, including maps, and then burying them in mattress covers in temporary cemeteries until they could be reinterred in permanent locations? They were serious enough that one GRU person jumped into Normandy on D-Day with the 101st Airborne to begin gathering the bodies that he knew would soon appear. From day one, he was negotiating with local farmers to buy fields that could be used for permanent cemeteries. He carried quite a lot of cash.
Did you know that, to get fuel to vehicles as fast as possible, the Allies, immediately after the port was captured, laid three pipelines along the ocean floor that went from the coast of England to the port of Cherbourg, France? Establishing a fuel depot was faster than shipping fuel in containers on ships.
Did you know that the “invasion of Europe” occurred not just along the Normandy coast, but also along the southern border of France, in the Mediterranean? That’s where the Seventh Army came ashore. Imagine truckloads of soldiers riding across the beaches of the French Riviera.
I’ve read a dozen or so books, looked at a few dozen maps, watched Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, other war DVDs, and gone through a number of YouTube videos about the history of the war. The first result was my making a career of irritating friends by quoting obscure facts that they’ve never heard nor cared about. The second result was that I stopped working on my book.
I’ve found so many interesting and fascinating details that people should know that the “backdrop” of my story has swamped the foreground. I’m spending more time reading about the war, finding facts, and understanding strategies, than I am writing, while the overwhelming amount of information that I’m enjoying has nothing to do with the story that I started out to tell.
I expect that I will pull out of my tailspin eventually, but I’m going to have to go back to where I started.
I enjoyed reading newspaper columns and books by Erma Bombeck when I was growing up. She was funny, sometimes hilarious, and was always grounded in real life. My mom thought that Erma and Ann Landers should be required reading for teenagers.
I had never heard of Nora Ephron until I read some quotes in a writing magazine. I ordered a couple of books by her and one compendium of her work. At first, I thought she was the successor to Erma, but Nora didn’t have the simple honest amateurism of an Erma. Nora was a long-time professional columnist, her work appearing in a number of newspapers and magazines. She was funny not because she was a comedian, but because of her wit, insight, and identification with the reader. Nora died in 2012 at the age of 72.
I could repeat what I’ve read in the Nora Ephron pages of Wikipedia, but I’ll just recommend reading them yourself. I will, however, entice you with facts: Remember the movies When Harry Met Sally? Sleepless in Seattle? You’ve Got Mail? Julie and Julia? Nora not only wrote or helped write the screenplays for those movies, she directed a couple, earning Academy Award nominations doing it. Her talent was come by naturally: her parents were Hollywood screenwriters of some fame and Nora grew up meeting the movie crowd that surrounded her parents, and, obviously, watched how the craft was done. She knew most of the actors and actresses in Hollywood, and most of the newspaper and magazine elites in New York City; she lived in both places and was definitely in love with big city urbanism.
She was creative, very liberal, witty, funny, and had a definite style when it came to living. She was also well-known as a self-taught chef and many of her columns and books are filled with recipes. The compendium of essays, articles and stories that I read bear witness to the large number of personalities she knew and the decades-long writings that attracted and entertained her readers.
I enjoy her writing. If nothing else, she exudes comfortableness. That is, she’s a person that you might like to find in a booth in some out-of-the-way diner who would share the time with you, excite you, fascinate you, entertain you, all with a laid-back, comfortable way of talking. She was always opinionated, but I get the feeling that, even with a debate level topic, she’d still be a person to whom communication was important – she’d want to say something that would make you want to listen.
As you talked, you’d probably notice that she not only speaks well, but speaks in whole sentences and full paragraphs. Stephen King believes that this skill is vital to writing, that the building block of good writing is not the sentence but the paragraph. That’s where all those words and sentences, the nouns and verbs and linkages, and the fundamental thoughts come together to clearly express what the writer is wanting to say in a nice, concise package.
Listening to someone who talks in paragraphs is very much like listening to someone tell a story – individual words and individual sentences are not enough to draw in a listener. You need full-bodied paragraphs where the words and structure of the language gives you enough time, time, time to get an idea or thought or comment or explanation across.
Nora Ephron knew how to use paragraphs.
That’s the way she wrote and is how we should all learn to write.
My father died in the 1980s. I often wonder what his life would have been like if he’d lived another 30 years or so. I know my mother would have been far happier.
After his death, my mom and I were going through a trunk and discovered a list of dates and place names that chronicled my dad’s World War II experience. It detailed when and where he was located from when he signed up in Ponca City, Oklahoma, until he returned to Ponca City three years later. We also found lists of names of those in his immediate unit and a few photographs of where he had been. He was a ground-based aircraft detection radar operator in the Army Signal Corps, so he was always close to the fighting, but never in it.
My dad was in England for a year then landed on Omaha Beach on July 3rd, 1944, twenty-six days after D-Day. He traveled with the Seventh Army as it progressed through Normandy, and was close to Paris when it was liberated. He went north into Belgium and Holland, and then back down until he was in a little Belgium town call Bastogne. His radar was considered classified, so his radar unit escaped west out of Bastogne as the German army was attacking on the east.
After the Battle of the Bulge, his unit was assigned to Patton’s Third Army and went into Germany. He was in Czechoslovakia when the war ended; he returned home on the Queen Mary in November, 1945.
I was stunned by what the list revealed. I’d never talked to him about the war because, I guess, I never thought to ask. That was a great mistake on my part. I did research on the locations in the list and built a comprehensive map (using Goggle) of his route during the campaign. I also researched the kind of radar he operated and found several on-line sources describing its history and the tactical operations.
From this research, I thought of an idea for a war story.
In January, I started a new novel. It evolved into a love story set against the background of World War II. I never thought I’d write a love story, but the more I got into it, the more it moved that direction. I’ve gotten most of the plot and the scenes mapped out, but I’ve decided that it takes being there to write the realism that the story deserves.
In October, I’m on the way to Normandy. Accompanied by one of my sons, I’m spending time in London to visit the Imperial War Museum and Churchill’s war-time bunkers, and then will ride the train beneath the English Channel to Paris, and then to Bayeux, Normandy for three days. Bayeux is about six miles from Omaha Beach. I’ve scheduled tours to the different beaches, the museums, and the Allied cemetery. We’ll spend another day at Mont Saint Michel, maybe a hundred miles away. Look on the web for pictures; it’s beautiful and unique. Growing up, I had a large poster of Mont Saint Michel on the wall in my bedroom; I never thought I’d see it for real.
From this journey, I hope to find words to describe some of what my dad experienced and that those words will carry over into describing what my characters experience in the story. This is NOT my dad’s story; it is wholly fictional and the characters do not resemble him, but I do want to honor his experience and to portray accurately the substance of being a soldier in war.
The new book should be finished in December and then I’ll start working with my editor to get it into publishable form next year.
In the March 18th blog, my last one, I reported that The King of Trash’s publication date was moved from April 1 to July 15, my publisher saying that more time was needed for professional book reviewers to review the book (in the blog, I listed the reviewing organizations the publisher intended to send the book). In actual fact, the paperback edition became available through Amazon on April 1 (because I ordered one), but the Kindle version of the book wasn’t available until July 15. Unfortunately, the date shown on the Amazon book website stated July 15 so no one considered that the book was available until then in either format. I expect that I lost customers because of it.
Having a stash of my own copies of the book, I offered in the blog to send a free book to anyone who would consider providing Amazon with a review. I made an error with that offer. Amazon is picky about reviews and prefers to publish reviews from readers who actually bought the book from Amazon, which means they can’t print a review before the book could have been bought. That attitude, which I only partially appreciate, nullifies my sending out my own books to solicit Amazon reviews before the available date on the website. It caused one of my reviewers to sit on his review for three months until July 15, being as, if he had to buy one, he wanted a digital version. Amazon also won’t publish book reviews from anyone who has the same last name as the author, which means that family members can’t provide reviews.
I’m sure that the Amazon rules are in place to keep unscrupulous authors from “stuffing the ballot box”, but I wish they wouldn’t work so hard at it. Of course, I’ve thought before of sending in multiple glorious reviews under different names, so I’m probably part of the problem they’re trying to prevent.
When all is said and done, my book so far has three reviews, all of which are on Amazon’s website. All are good, earning 4 or 5 stars, and I appreciate each one. I’ve seen no reviews anywhere from the formal review organizations to which my publisher sent advanced copies; they would not show up on Amazon but on organizational websites.
The reviews confirmed what I had heard about the book: it’s a creative, original, interesting story, a suspenseful thriller, and well worth reading. People have a high identity with the issues and the solutions proposed in the plot. From more than one reader, people told me of actual similar incidents.
Each of the three readers passed their copy on to someone else to read.
Last week, I hosted a “book giveaway” managed by Amazon. By paying the cost of the number of books to be given away, Amazon advertises the “giveaway” to the Amazon community and delivers the books to the “winners”. I’d not done this before, but, by today’s count, 989 people have signed up for the giveaway and 24 have visited the book’s homepage. I signed up to give away 3 books (Amazon’s suggested beginning point), so for about $70, I’ve gotten a truckload of exposure.
That’s where those reviews prove to be invaluable.
I received the proof of my new book, The King of Trash, in the middle of February. The “proof” is the first physical printing of the manuscript and is acknowledged as an “uncorrected proof”, meaning that it probably contains errors. Once the uncorrected proof is read and a list of corrections compiled (I found about twenty-five), the publisher makes the corrections to the electronic copy and sends a final, approved electronic manuscript to the printer. The result is the official published book.
I expected the book to be delivered within a couple of weeks of submitting the changes to the proof. I received copies last week, a full month after my corrections were sent. The publisher also reset the publication date: July rather than April. He said some words about needing four months for review copies to be sent to various organizations, which means my editor and I must have missed the projected editing timeframe by quite a bit. The book distributor, SBC, will go ahead and fill orders according to the April date.
My publisher sent The King of Trash to be reviewed by the following organizations:
New York Times Book Review
Midwest Book Review
These review organizations are not paid to review the book and can choose not to review the book even after receiving a free copy. There’re thousands of new books published every month in the United States, forcing each organization to develop selection criteria for choosing which books to review. Of the books in my middle-grade Mogi Franklin Mystery series, I have seen reviews only from Kirkus and Midwest, and those were only for one or two books of the series. One might wonder why the publisher keeps sending books to review organizations that have a history of not reviewing their books, but that’s not my part of the business.
We’ll see if it’s different for my adult thriller/suspense novel.
A “pre-publication” copy of the book is called an ARC – Advanced Review Copy – and is identical to what I received as a “proof”. There is a disclaimer on the front and the back that identifies it as an ARC and says that corrections remain to be done. ARCs are sent to the reviewers.
It’s a particular gripe of mine that reviewers are sent uncorrected books. With Print-On-Demand printers, it can take only a short time from collecting the corrections to a proof, changing the master electronic copy, and then printing the final edition. Seems like an author, in particular, would want the best version of their work to be seen by reviewers.
My editor and publisher would probably point out that I am remarkably fast in responding to proofs: usually a day or two. If the author is not fast in responding with corrections, then waiting for a final book before asking that it be reviewed really screws up the timing of the book launch and the subsequent marketing efforts, which I understand. I’m not sure how true it is, having no information about what other authors do, but I understand the theory.
Having a book reviewed becomes the source for those quoted comments that you see on the covers of books, either front or back, or on front pages inside books before the story begins. Good comments can also show up in newspaper columns that review books, handouts given at book presentations, free bookmarks, advertising signs at book signings, ads that announce the book, and other literature associated with book marketing.
The value of someone providing feedback to Amazon by way of a book review has a direct correlation to people buying a particular book. I always read the reviews of books I’m interested in when deciding to buy, and pay particular attention to the spectrum of ratings that books receive. I’m not shy about asking people, if they like any of my books, to write something at the Amazon website.
It makes a big difference.
I’m still looking for reviewers for The King of Trash. Contact me at Willerton@comcast.net if you’re interested and I’ll send you a free book.
I had a dream several years ago that resulted in a fiction novel that I finished writing in the spring of 2018. I’ve told about this experience in previous blogs and am continuing the saga today.
I submitted the first major draft to the publisher of my middle-grade mysteries on May 4, 2018. The publisher accepted the manuscript and the senior editor put it into his queue. A publication date of April 1, 2019, almost a year away, was set so the company had firm deadlines for the sequence of publishing steps.
My first meeting with my editor was on July 9th. It resulted in a list of 44 items to address in the manuscript. I worked the next two months on a new draft, growing it to be a little less than 70,000 words, which is small for a typical adult fiction novel but not unusual. I submitted my second major draft on September 5th. Fortunately for me, my editor was editing other books and had not started mine.
Meanwhile, the cover was designed by the publisher and the blurb for the back cover was written (by my editor), allowing the book to be listed on Amazon, to be available on the projected publication date.
I was fortunate that my editor was busy with other work. I wrote three different endings (the last three chapters of the book) that I sent on Sep. 12th, Sep. 26th, and Oct. 8th, respectively. I needed a good, significant, strong ending but just could not get it straight. I was figuring out the “meaning” of the story, and it was hard.
Knowing that my editor would soon begin, I dedicated a full week in November to rework the manuscript. I rewrote the first four chapters, combining them into three, cutting out 3,000 words, and finally found my ending, which summed up the actions of the story, made sense of how the characters thought and acted, and produced solid resolutions to the moral dilemmas that I had created.
My final draft was sent on November 11th (more than six months after the first draft), and my editor began his edit. He finished during the second week of January, so that’s roughly two months of going through the manuscript word by word, sentence by sentence, and remodeling the story into something readers would like to read. It was still my story, but I hadn’t told it as well.
As he went along, he sent me emails with detailed questions and I responded with answers and/or rewritten sentences or paragraphs. He was particularly interested in the logic of the story—that what I had written was not in conflict with what I had said in other places, nor was unnatural with how readers might reasonably think. In all, we exchanged seven emails, with 98 detailed questions and responses. Sometimes, the length of my response to a particular question would be a rewritten passage of multiple paragraphs long; sometimes it was a single word change. And, yes, one of the results was that I had to rewrite the ending.
After the editing was finished, I read through his version of the manuscript twice and changed the text in many places, mostly smoothing out passages where individual changes did not fit the surrounding context and fixing errors brought on by cutting and pasting from our emails. I kept reminding myself that it was my book, not his, so I did not hold back if I thought something needed to be changed. However, I was not trivial or foolish and left things alone if I did not have strong reactions; I did not rewrite the story. I probably changed only a very small percentage of the words.
I submitted my fixed version as the final manuscript of the novel on January 16th, with a last meeting between us on January 17th to resolve a handful of sentence conflicts.
With regard to my editor’s edits, he made many small changes regarding grammar, sentence structure, word choice, and paragraph structure; he amended some passages to increase the emotion, drama, or tightness of the story; he deleted extraneous sentences that didn’t move the story along, and added material to help complete the actions or thoughts of my characters.
Several passages came out much better than what I had written. He restructured two chapters in particular and made them simpler and more dramatic. He also made four changes that I did not accept; my original text was restored each time.
Overall, I’m a happy writer and the manuscript is far better than my November version. The story reads smoothly and well and feels complete. It has fast-moving, plausible action, is consistent and well-paced, the characters are well-fleshed and involving, and the story wraps-up with specific and concrete statements of values and principles that address the conflicts in the story. I want to repeat my encouragement to other writers to make the investment in a good editor. It makes all the difference in the final product.
The publisher will now have the manuscript reviewed by a proofreader, format the manuscript into proper paperback form, and have a few paper copies printed as “proofs”, at which time I and others will read the book for any typos introduced in formatting and as a final review. Several preliminary copies will be printed and sent to reviewers. I expect that the whole process will be done by March 1st.
I am looking for reviewers and will provide free books to the first twenty who volunteer. If you are interested, mail me a street address at Willerton@comcast.net and I will send you a copy. After you read the book, you can decide if you want to send a review to my publisher or put it on Amazon directly, or decide not to provide a review at all. You can be anonymous if you wish.
There will be a final print run and the book will be available on Amazon beginning April 1st.
Let me say up front that this is not an ordinary novel. I have seen few books with the structure that I use, and fewer still that deal with conflicting core values on topics as diverse as mine: I want you to consider doing something that you believe you would never, ever do. It also has a few scenes that may cause nightmares. This is not a kid’s book.
I apologize for my sporadic behavior towards writing this blog. When I first decided to write on a supposedly regular basis, I promised myself not to write about the trivial. I don’t have dogs or cats or fish, so I can’t muse about what they’re doing or thinking. That makes me uncompetitive in the blogging world, but I had hoped rather to write about things significant to the readers of my website: thinking, writing, editing, and publishing, as well as the craft, practice, process, roles and relationships, incidents along the way, and the emotions involved.
Now, at the end of this year, I’m thinking about something that I want to write about and it doesn’t have much to do with writing. However, it is not only significant but critical to the process that is me, so that makes it relevant.
In May of this year, I became sick (acute necrotic pancreatitis). Seriously sick. Serious enough that the emergency room doctor put me into critical care overnight to see if I’d live or die. When they found me still alive the next morning, I was sent to a different hospital for treatment. Not counting December, it’s taken seven months to recuperate and heal. I am about back to where I was, minus a gall bladder and about thirty pounds.
Around the first of June, when I got back home, I couldn’t lay flat or on my side because of the damage to my abdominal organs and tissues, so the best I could do was lay in my recliner for 24 hours a day. I couldn’t read or watch TV for various reasons having to do with concentration and focus and a heightened resentment of commercials, so I either lay still in silence or would occasionally listen to music.
I learned to be still. Yeah, okay, it’s not like I could do anything else, but it’s a mental struggle to do it without guilt or regret or sadness. I had my moments of despair, but, on a repeatable basis, I learned to do nothing but lay in my recliner and be accepting of it. Without sleeping. I listened to myself breathe while I tolerated pain that would not go away. I had narcotics but was off everything by early July.
Jump to the end of the story. I’m now fine. I did have my gall bladder removed in August, with some complications, and I had pain meds and sleeping aids along the way, and now I’m fine. I began sleeping somewhat in a bed in August, walking in September, and was driving somewhat and gaining weight in October. I was pretty much normal by November, though still physically slow and I couldn’t pick up things of much weight. On November 27th, my doctor declared me recovered; my next appointment isn’t until May.
Learning to be still has stuck with me. I can and still do it on a regular basis. I learned that when I am lying still in a recliner, in a house that is empty except for me, and in which there are no activities and little outside noise, I hear a rushing sound. You know when you’re in an empty house and you can hear a faucet that’s been left on upstairs, or a water leak in the basement, or you hear a fluttering from a bird on the outside of the house, or even the scratching of a mouse somewhere in a wall around you? You hear a sound when you’re not sure you’re hearing anything, when all things are supposed to be quiet?
I hear a quiet rushing sound and I’ve decided that it’s the overflowing of joy. For me, maybe not for you. Try almost dying sometime and then see what you hear when you think there’s nothing to hear. I hear the overflowing of joy because I got to live and that sound is my reward for learning to be still and accepting God’s grace when I cannot possibly have done anything to warrant it.
I’ve talked with others about learning to be still and the response is usually “Oh, I can’t do that. I have to be up and moving. I’d die if I couldn’t do anything but lay there.” We are apprehensive that we mortals are expected to be productive and that we won’t be able to stand the guilt if we are not always doing something, as if our products are our worthiness. Instructors who teach meditation probably have the same problem with convincing people that it’s okay to be still and “do” nothing. My being still is probably meditation, in a way, but without the conscious effort to direct my brain. Either way, it’s significant.
Being alive is a considerable accomplishment; it’s a gift we shouldn’t downplay. We should always have moments of stillness in which we hear the rushing sound of joy overflowing. If we also have products, then those are but icing on the cake.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.