We are in Seattle, our last day of a vacation that is both more and less a typical vacation. We have been to here half a dozen times so we’re not tourists anymore. What we have come to see and insert ourselves into for a week is the lives being lived by our beloved grandchildren and their awesome parents best told in pictures.
I write a first draft with no revision. Just flat out write it. I finished my current WIP “Jane” in November 2018. Then it was Christmas. Then I went to Florida for six weeks. During this time I kept pulling chapters to feed to my critique group, even though they were first draft. I would not recommend that. By the time I settled back into my writing routine, months had gone by and I had a big mess of a manuscript with many many suggestions for improvement on the first five chapters from my writing group.
After writing an unfiltered and thus awful first draft, I like to let it sit for a bit and simmer. I left it a little too long this time and showed it too soon and the result was a mess. But I knew my next step. I like to read the entire book in a day (or two) making brief revision notes as I go. Before I could do the read-through, I had to organize those first five chapters and get things coherent. So I did a little more than the usual. I went over the five chapters, incorporating suggestions I liked. I outlined every scene, and made a summary for my critique partners, because we only meet once a month, plus the six week break was in there and people forget.
It took a few days just to get that first chunk in order, but I’m happy I did it instead of just reverting to the uncritiqued original. I also liked outlining the scenes. I felt organized enough to go ahead and read the rest of the book. It took two days, not one, but the thing is to have my whole book in my head. The entire plot needs to be clear to me so I can figure out what went wrong, how to fix it, and where in the manuscript those fixes need to be inserted.
I didn’t outline the rest of the manuscript when I did the read-through. I did make brief notes to myself about the changes I wanted to make. I knew I had a crap bad guy so I was able to come up with a semi-solution for that and I even figured out the final twist at the end. Mystery novels often have a sting in the tail that is the final surprising twist. I got that in the read through, surprising even myself, because I usually struggle with that. Jane the book and Jane the character both need more work, the crime story itself needs some work, but that’s fine because now I will go back and outline the entire book and find those places where I need to up the stakes, delete the nonsense (an entire character this time) and fill out Jane. At this point, I also revise the character list of names and places.
The other problem I’ve been thinking about is that the book is in first person point of view (Jane’s). But two random chapters are in other voices. I contemplated changing the whole thing to third person and adding other points of view, but then decided to keep it in first person and try to figure out how to do those other pov chapters later. Not sure I’ve ever told an entire book from one first person point of view. But it feels right this time. So much of revising is just hearing the click in your head that signals “yes, this.”
After I outline everything, I look at the structure and make sure my turning points, my big moments, are in the most effective places. Jenny Crusie taught me about turning points. (And so much more). She has an entire blog about writing and revising a novel. It’s extremely helpful. I always go looking for Jenny when I am in revision mode because she always has the exact answer I need, even when I didn’t know I needed it.
All that done, I read the book again. I add the scenes I didn’t write but that need to be in the story. I add dimension to characters who lack it (Jane needs a bit of help and my bad guy needs a lot). Then I read the book again to make sure everything tracks. At this point, I do a timeline. It starts when the book starts and ends when the book ends. I buy a calendar with big blank squares as they are dirt cheap right now. After I do all that, I read the book again to make sure the added scenes flow, that Jane is as heroically flawed as I can make her and that my bad guy is terrifying. I’ll have to add things and take stuff out. When I’m happy, I’ll do one more read through. (Ha.)
I polish sloppy sentences and look for inconsistencies. An example of an inconsistency is Jane has two grown children. She’s also a granny. (I was scared to write a granny as a main character in a crime novel but then I decided to do it because I wish more crime novels had aging female characters who have actual families. Also I like writing what scares me. “Too scary” is like a clue to the writer that you are on the right track.) So inconsistencies. My example: Jane’s kids and their families live on different coasts. Every time I mention a family member of one or the other I have to make sure they’re in the right city. This is one reason why annotated character lists are helpful.
After all that I am pretty sick of my book. I love it but I need to let it sit and rest for a week or so. Then I read it again and hope I don’t have to use my pen. Most of the time I do find more things to fix. When I start taking out commas that I put in on the previous edit, I know I’m done. Then I mail it to my editor and she and I go through a few more edits together. I hope I am lucky enough to have the same editor I’ve had for the last several books, because I have gotten good at anticipating what she’ll have problems with, and she’s always right.
If there’s a way to not be messy in revision, I have not found it. The most difficult thing is to dive in when it’s just chaos in a stack of paper. It feels good when I tame all that down to pretty folders for research, old drafts, current pages, critique group, to-be-revised and my favorite, finished chapters. I have a free download of my writing manual on the landing page here. I used it for my students when I taught creative writing. There’s a chapter on revision. I should probably read that myself.
My husband loves that I turn 64 today because he can say he’s married to an older woman…for two months. He works it. Paul McCartney sang “Will you still need me, will you still feed me?” when he was 16 years old…for his father’s 64th birthday. When Macca was 64 he had lost love of his life, Linda, to cancer and was in the process of a second divorce. His kids fooled around with the lyrics a bit and sang it as a surprise for him at his party.
The significance of 64 is that it’s old. I’m old. Not officially according to google. That happens at age 65. I like to get a head start on things. Old is not bad. It’s really very good. We made it this far! We get freedoms we’ve never had and can choose a new life direction if so inclined. I stopped believing the negative stereotypes of “old” a few years ago when I let my hair go gray and the worry about my weight and attractiveness simply fell away. No big deal. Especially in Florida. Where I get to live now in winter and soon maybe all the time. When I’m not traveling the world with my younger husband.
In preparation for this birthday, I’ve been reading “Women Rowing North” by Mary Pipher. She asks us older folk to think about what sustains and enriches us going forward. And then do that. Pipher says old age is a time of “vibrant living” and it’s true. All the cares of busy adulthood really do fall away if you’ve planned it right. Or in my case because my husband planned it right. I got to retire early from teaching and write books. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do and I did it! I read novels instead of student essays these days. As many as I want, whenever I feel like it. I have a library full of books I’ve saved through the years so that when I was old I could reread them. The time is now. I’m happiest with a book in my hand.
Like Pipher, I plan to navigate life’s currents and flourish as I age. It’s true that older women are devalued in our society, but that doesn’t bother me. I know my worth. I’ve done my work, raised my children, written my books, made connections that have lasted most of my life. I’m content with how my life has turned out. Friendships sustain me and my spouse is a safe harbor. My grandchildren are a special delight. Words can’t do those little lives justice. We are traveling to see Ben in April and Owen and Julia in May. Because we can. Other people’s schedules no longer hold us down. We make our own schedules now.
Even if you’ve never been inclined to get to know your body before, with old age the skin and what’s in it won’t be ignored. It likes to be walked like a dog and stretched and flexed like a cat. It needs attention and wants to be fully inhabited. For me, yoga works. Old bodies are not happy being used and abused. If you put something into your body at age 64 that it does not want, it will tell you. You have to honor that. I’m working on it.
Every life is a work in progress, and at 64 I’m taking a step back from the canvas to appreciate the beauty of this birthday gift. Thanks for being here with me today!
If you want to be a writer, start with what you know. What do you like to read? Newspapers, magazines, blogs, short stories, novels? All of the above for me and maybe for you, too. When I first began writing, I tried short stories. I figured they were short so I was pretty sure I’d finish one. I did finish one, then another, and then another. A few were printed in literary journals. My biggest check for a short story was $700. That may sound like a lot of money, but don’t quit your day job. You may find homes for your stories, but the pay rate varies wildly. Sometimes the magazine can only pay you in free copies. And it takes time to write and then sell your work. If you sell 2-3 stories a year at the really decent rate of $700, that’s still only $2,100. Can you live on that for a year? Maybe you have a partner or parent who supports you. That’s the only way you’ll be able to eat, at least for awhile, if you decide to dedicate your life to writing short stories.
After some long years of writing for magazines, I decided to try writing a novel. I was a teacher, I had the summers off, it was perfect! Except as I went into writing my first novel, I had nothing but blind faith and my serious novel-reading addiction to guide me. The internet had not been invented yet, so I read Writer’s Digest magazine for clues on how to publish a novel. Writers often think about how to get published before they actually write the book. Publishers ask that we finish the book before we send submissions.
Writing a novel in three summer months can be done, but not by me. Not then. I had kids at home and a husband, too. We took vacations in summer. I needed summer to wind down from teaching, which is a tougher job than you might imagine. I did get some chapters done every summer but it wasn’t until I went back to school for a master’s degree so I could teach a few days a week at university that I really had enough time to finish a novel. These part-time college teaching jobs are abundant and many published writers need these jobs on top of their writing paychecks. Once I had that second degree, I only taught a few classes, with five days free for writing novels. Friends learned that if I was home, I was writing until 2 o’clock every day. Blind faith that this novel writing thing would work out plus the hard work of actually completing and revising and submitting a novel…that’s all it takes.
The most important thing you need to be a writer is blind faith. In yourself. In your ability to craft a novel that someone will want to publish. In your tough skin when the rejections come in. Rejection is part of the writing gig and if you are super-sensitive, as so many creative people are, you may give up after one or two rejections. Again, you must have blind faith that at some point, someone will say yes. It is often said that persistence is more important than talent in writing. That was certainly true for me. I got rejected dozens of times before I found a publisher. I’m proof that persistence pays off. Persistence and blind faith.
I don’t write my first sentence last like some writers suggest. I write my books in chronological order, even first drafts. So, lots of revising, but I kept the original first sentence of my last book. Kept it through many rewrites. Was never once tempted to change it. It’s still there, the only first sentence I’ve kept all my writing life. I just went and looked at it. I still like it very much. That’s why I kept it.
I dislike clutter, both in my life and on the page. Every day, I bring order to chaos. This happens in a variety of ways. Some days I dust and vacuum and do the dishes. Other times I notice what’s not flowing in the room around me. Maybe the furniture arrangement is unbalanced or the collection of framed photos on the mantle looks jumbled. When some such disarray snags my eye, I do my best to smooth it out.
I’m no homemaking queen. Far from it. I spend a lot of time escaping my surroundings by reading and writing. Reading for pleasure and writing for another kind of fun. Writing is the way I make sense of life. I figure stuff out through stories. Fiction writing is like acting that way. You have to think like the character, even if the character is nothing like you.
Good writing is what comes after discarding words over and over again. Which is why that first sentence of my last book is such a miracle. It survived! That almost never happens. My first draft of this page began with “only the good words.” Then: “I keep good sentences.” Okay, closer to what I wanted to say, but not there yet. I erased maybe six opening sentences that didn’t quite work. And so it goes with every sentence, every word, every page. I far prefer this kind of creating order from chaos than any other. Especially housework.
If you liked my first sentence enough to read on, and that’s the work of a first sentence, purchase Lily White in Detroit. And thanks for reading.