The Most Important Pair Of Eyes

What day is it? Wednesday, got it.

Monday I sent (via email) chapters 1 through 10 of my 1962 novel to my editor along with a letter about where the story stands now, what I think is working, my concerns and questions, and a thank-you-in-advance for her good eyes on the story. Then I started chapter 11.

Tuesday I finished chapters 11 and 12. These chapters came from mostly-known and already-written material, but they also catapulted me into a brand-new place... more on that in a minute. I sent chapters 11 and 12 to my editor with a note: the plot thickens.

Franny's mother suddenly becomes much more important than I realized. Much more. I finally figured out how to write the new character, Chris, into a scene -- how to let him make his entrance, how to get him to the gravel pit with Franny and Drew, and how to paint the beginnings of their relationship. And this is what led to a completely new scene, in chapter 12 (hence, rewriting the last half of the chapter), in which I found out that Franny's mother... well... it's complicated. Still too fragile to talk about. But good enough at this point to send off.

I need feedback now, 12 chapters into a new revision. I purposely don't have a writer's group and I share my work with only a few eyes. The eyes I trust most are my editors'.

Who knew?

My editor is new to me. We started working together in February. I was devastated by the loss of two editors at Harcourt within one year; one I had worked with for 12 years and had written all three Aurora County novels with. Would a new editor at a new house be the kind of editor I needed? Would I be the kind of author she could work well with? etc... all kinds of fears surrounded this new path, and some of them kept me from writing for a while. Fear -- a topic for another time (many other times).

I asked my editor if I could send this new novel to her in pieces. She graciously said yes. This is largely how I worked with Liz Van Doren at Harcourt, after RUBY, our first novel together, and for some reason this serves my work well -- I get feedback I need during the process, and can revise as I go, think-through, consider, have what amounts to a constant companion, critic, and champion by my side... I don't have to go through this alone. I try not to abuse this partial-sending. My editor does not hear from me frequently... but she will, in this last thirty days. We both want the best book we can make together.

I know editors (and writers) who will absolutely not do this -- they want a novel of-a-piece. That's perfectly acceptable. That's how I wrote RUBY. It was my first novel, and I had a writer's group at the time, and I used them (ad nauseum, poor things) and their generous skills to help me learn. I am still learning. And one thing I have learned over the years is that too many eyes on a story can hurt my ability to see a straight trajectory and listen for my characters' true hearts.

So I have taken a leap of faith with this new editor, and she with me. Months ago, I whined to anyone who would listen to me that trust was so important, that it took time and more time to establish it, that we didn't have that trust yet, my new editor and I, by virtue of the fact that we were so new to one another, and how was I going to write this next book on this tight schedule and yadda yadda yadda, and then... then. It came:

A trust born of real professionalism, a willingness to plunge in on both our parts (I dragged my feet but finally did it), and to be honest about what works and what doesn't, in a totally smart way. When my editor told me in September that the new beginning I had written really took off in chapter 3, I could hear her.

"If Tom West didn't exist, would you miss him?" I asked.

She answered with a quick and unequivocal "No."

Well... I wasn't all that wild about Tom myself, I discovered. I was using him to set up a new chapter one, a fresh start, and a canvas for Franny to showcase her personality. It wasn't working and it set up the reader falsely, as Tom was too prominent.

"It's very high energy," my editor said about chapters one and two. I heard her. Chapters one and two stole good energy from chapter three, which is where the story took off.

I ditched chapters one and two. Then I sat here for a solid month trying to move ahead with the story and not able to -- slogging mightily, keeping to myself, and seeming to get nowhere. I needed that beginning. A solid beginning tells me I am okay with a story.

On October 8, that new beginning came to me... I consider it a gift of the slog. I pulled up this beginning from a long-forgotten memory of my school days, for I had decided to start this novel in school, in Franny's 5th-grade classroom, and then segue home -- something I've never done before (if you look, you'll see that I have never written school scenes -- they don't exist in any of my books).

I took this old memory that just "appeared" out of nowhere (process, slog) and put it on the page. I started with that line I've already shared with you: I am invisible. I wrote chapter one. I didn't wait or sit on it or even let it cool off. I sent chapter one to my editor (and cc'd it to my agent). "I think this is better," I wrote.

My new editor called me. On the telephone. Within minutes. I could hear the excitement in her voice. We were both excited -- we fairly squealed like little kids about this new beginning. Instinctively my editor knew how to strengthen even this new beginning by suggesting a cutting of the first paragraph and moving other stuff around -- what did I think? I think YES! I said. It's perfect! Yes, the new first line: I am eleven years old and I am invisible.

The entire conversation lasted less than two minutes. It included tons of rah-rah-this-is-it! and a hefty dollop of critical thinking. It was a display of trust on both our sides. Only there aren't sides... there is one side, and it's the side of the story. What will best serve this story? We are partners in this endeavor, my editor and I.

I trust her.

Armed with her enthusiasm and constructive criticism, I went back to face the page. Thirteen days later, I have written more new material for a new beginning, and have worked hard to tie my middle to this new beginning -- I think I have finally done that. I have tossed scenes that are dear to my heart -- I have, and it still pains me to think of it. But the story is stronger. And I am writing forward.

Tuesday, yesterday, I sent my editor chapters 11 and 12. I sketched out chapter 13 so that when I start in this morning, Wednesday, I know my direction, as much as it can be known -- the lovely, wondrous thing about creation, about art, is that it has a mind and heart of its own, and at some point, if we are lucky, we tap into that alternate mind and heart and race to keep up... yesterday was something like that for me.

Today's challenges:

1. Write a completely new chapter 13.

2. Sketch out 14, which will also be completely new.

3. Try to keep from freaking out as I realize that most of the rest of the book is going to end up being new material for one reason or another.

Be still my heart and pass the salts. Although... why should I be surprised? The entire second half of RUBY and LITTLE BIRD was rewritten at this stage, this far into the process, and this close to needing to be done-done. Still. I am always surprised.

My desk is a mess. I need to clean it up so I can find things (I write at the pink chair on my laptop these days), answer mail, pay bills. I will take some time to do that today.

The notebook pages you see above are the notes I took on the drive into the mountains on Sunday. Taking that day to stay away from All Things Electronic helped shake loose some caked-on stuff. On Monday I used these notes to help me begin -- I lined out chapters in my notebook, but I didn't follow my notes when I got down to the actual writing -- but the ideas, that's what I needed, those ideas. If that makes sense. You'll see that I use my notebook for everything. On the right side of a page are my notes on how to vote early, where to go, and where Richard should go to get a permit to serve beer and wine at his new restaurant job.

It all goes into the notebook -- but I have said this before. I'll stop now except to say thank you so much for your wonderful mail about these 30 days of process. I'm hoping I'm answering much of it in these posts since I'm not very present on email right now. I appreciate the comments and the questions.

It's good to know I'm not alone, that everyone struggles with wrestling Story to the mat, and that each story is different, each writer's process is different, and yet the most magical thing every writer can do is sit down and be present -- suit up and show up -- and write. Just write.

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