Saturday, September 12, 2009

Reading My Own Novel--A Lesson in What Happens When You're Not Looking

The week I got my first copy of my new novel, Qualities of Light, I was like a raft floating in serene blue water. It had happened at last. Holding it in my hands was a thrill. I didn't even open it for a few minutes. Then I gave myself two days and read it cover to cover.

A wonderful editor accepted the book and a wonderful press has published it, but I spent a year trying to sell it before that happened. I'd kept notes from agents and editors who'd seen the manuscript that difficult year. These agents and editors sent me brief or beautiful rejection letters--and I kept many of them. The helpful ones encouraged me. The agents and editors who were kind enough to take time from their busy workdays to tell me why they rejected my manuscript, what they'd recommend changing. This kind of information is gold to the writer struggling to publish.

The most constant comment: "Begin the story in chapter 5." Chapter 5 is where the main character begins to fall in love. I couldn't figure out why everyone thought this was the main story of the novel. To me, the main story is the complex relationship Molly has with her artist father. But everyone else disagreed.

Eventually, I heeded the advice. The last helpful editor sent me detailed suggestions, including the now-familiar "Begin with chapter 5." So I jettisoned the first four chapters. I put them into my "extras" file on my computer and wove the best bits into other chapters. Now the book starts right in with the love tangle instead of the family tangle.

Rereading it this week, I saw why it works. As deeply as I was interested in the family tangle, most readers love a love story. That's what they wanted.

Why We Writers Need Readers
These agents and editors--and my writing partner and writing groups--did me a great service. Their comments forced me to go back to what I was originally excited about in this novel when I began writing it nine years ago. It was the unlikely romance. The family tangle came later, when I was searching for a subplot to give tension to the story.

Once I rediscovered, via helpful advice, the real center of my story and rearranged it accordingly, I sold it within a month.

We writers want to keep our ideas "pure" and untouched by others' opinions. This is downright snobby, a typical ego-driven artist viewpoint. I'm there often, and it never serves me. Most readers, if they're intelligent and kind, will point the writer back to her original focus. They will help the writer weed out the sidetracks that don't serve the story.

This Week's Writing Exercise
Make a list of feedback you've gotten so far about your book. What's the most consistent comment? Is it, like with my novel, to begin somewhere else, with another focus? Why have you listened or not listened to this feedback? What has changed in your writing because of it?

Then make a list of the readers in your life--people who have read your work and given you feedback. Send the most important one a thank-you note. Tell her or him why you appreciate the feedback, what it's taught you.