One of my favourite topics to write about is the messages we weave into our work, be them intentional or not. Sometimes, the very existence of the work itself is it’s own message and, sometimes, that message becomes outdated and an ill representation of who we are. In today’s Guest Post, there’s a lot to learn about creating something and not being afraid in letting that piece of work go… Please welcome, Angela Noel of You Are Awesome!
Angela Noel’s Work in Progress
I was mad. That’s why I started writing again after more than twelve years of crafting nothing more creative than an email. More exorcism than work of art, the first draft of the novel aspired to point the finger at those who had hurt me and say, “I know what you did.” Ken Dornstein, documentary filmmaker and brother of a man killed in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight, explained in the New Yorker, “ . . . there’s an odd bond between the victim and the perpetrator. They’re locked in a relationship, and the role of the avenger is to deliver a message.” I thought of myself as the avenger, my novel as the message.
This first draft, written in 2010, wasn’t the worst thing I’d ever written, nor the worst I’d ever read. It failed, however, because truth constrains fiction. Never mind the flimsy premise and rooky mistakes of every description, the real trouble with the novel began with my desire to document my experience as close to my version of truth as possible. My faithful aunt, courageous enough to read what Anne Lammott, author of Bird by Bird refers to as a “shitty first draft,” told me the manuscript was both too short and too true. No one could believe the details I’d included. The fact that they had actually happened didn’t matter. Truth, as you know, is stranger than fiction.
The second draft was better. The characters gained nuance. I abstracted real-life events into make-believe. Because I didn’t know any better and wanted to sound legitimate, I added pages of details that established, I thought, credibility. I began to convince others and myself that this draft wasn’t about avenging the past anymore.
Another set of readers dug in. Most of the detail I’d added to sound legit bored and sometimes mislead them. Descriptions of street signs or settings that had no role in advancing the story crowded readers’ brains with possible hints or plot points they thought might matter, but ultimately didn’t. Boo. Fail. Give the reader what they need, but not more.
Another draft. This time as I took out my scalpel (and sometimes the butcher knife depending on how wordy I’d become). Huge swaths of words fell to the floor like inky bloodstains. It’s not you, it’s me, I told them. Your death is necessary for this project to live.
I like to believe the words understood.
I also began to pay more attention to language. I read hundreds of blog posts about filler words and ways to tighten and enliven my sentence structure. I followed Jane Friedman, K.M Weiland, Sacha Black, Carly Watters and many others on Twitter, gobbling up all the wisdom they shared. I slashed hundreds of extraneous instances of the word that. I deleted dialogue tags and adverbs. Even adjectives went under the knife. I killed darlings and slayed passive voice. I changed character names (four had started with the letter a). In short, I overhauled that sucker like a Fairy Godmother with her Cinderella. The manuscript went from 125,000 words to 87,000. This thing felt real.
I started to think about publication. I knew a little about how the business worked. During my senior year at college I’d worked for a literary agency. As an intern and later as an agent’s assistant, I read hundreds of query letters and manuscripts. I’d tell the agent what I thought of the novel and summarize it for her. Then she’d decide to read it or not based on my recommendation. This was before email submission, so authors would send inch-thick chunks of fuzzy-sided dot matrix printouts for my agency to review. I dutifully read the submissions. I’m proud to say that my recommendation was part of the reason at least one author was published.
Twenty years later, the business had undoubtedly changed. But I knew I would need an agent. And I knew my submission needed to stand out to spark the interest of whoever, agent, intern, or assistant, might be wading through the submissions inbox. I read about query letters and how to track submissions. I researched agents and found as many personal contacts as I could to make my “cold” submission just a little bit warmer.
I took a class with Writer’s Digest on query letters taught by Jane Friedman and I thought I was ready. I began to submit.
Of course, the novel was rejected, often kindly, sometimes with encouraging, personalized messages. Once, an agent requested the full novel. She declined, but provided pages of feedback. Though rejection is never delightful, I remained undeterred. I took the advice from agents and decided the novel needed more work. A friend recommended I meet with a lovely former literary agent who left agenting to rejoin the corporate world. She offered to read my novel and provide her insight. She became the second half of my shitty first draft squad.
Another edit. It’s now 2014. A new first chapter. Ramped up tension. Needed a new ending. Cut the backstory. Killed the prologue. Then, I began submitting again, this time through Brenda Drake’s #Pitmad. Devising a 140-character pitch to interest agents who then “favorite” your pitch means, at the very least, they asked me to send the work, rather than me reading about their lists and sending an unsolicited submission. The first time I tried #Pitmad it was crickets. The second time I had a request. The third time, another one. The fourth time, with the help of a friend who tweaked my pitches for me, four requests. None panned out that round, though two asked me to send other projects when I had them.
Momentum–I could feel it building.
I’d joined a writing critique group about a year after meeting my former-agent friend for the first time. As I submitted to #Pitmad they cheered my success while they read long sections of the novel to help prepare me and it for my first writing conference at the Loft Literary Center this last April here in Minneapolis. Though I felt confident in the novel overall, I wanted a spit-shined final draft, and a perfect pitch for the conference. I’d meet with three agents, each in eight-minute sessions. If they liked what they heard, they’d request a submission from me. My intrepid writing group–a beautiful, supportive, and incisive group of women–worked as much as life would allow reviewing my manuscript. Their questions brought more things into focus, like shifting timelines and point of view tweaks.
Again, another draft. At least the first half of the novel was shiny and perfect. I went to the conference with confidence. All three agents requested my work. But, I wasn’t ready to send it. Not yet. The agents at the conference all said to send it when I was ready. And I wanted it to be the very best I could make it. Every time I thought it was at its peak, I found it could be a little better. I wanted to give my writing group time to read the rest, and myself time to incorporate all their feedback.
Four months passed. And then it happened.
With seventy pages to go before my critique group had read the whole novel, I sat down to edit. I stared at the words. I thought about the work. I thought about my writing career and who I am today. I thought about what I believe, what I want to say, and what I stand for.
I remembered watching one of my writing mentors at her launch party for her debut novel tell her story and read from her book. I couldn’t imagine myself on a stage talking about my own story. I didn’t want to. I couldn’t muster the love and the passion that she had for her story for my own.
This novel, I realized, had become an endless home improvement project on a house I didn’t want to live in anymore. I was spending time and energy (and other people’s time and energy) on repainting and knocking down walls, planting rosebushes and building backyard fountains when really the only right answer was to move.
I decided a few weeks ago, to let it go. Though I’d heard enough good feedback and knew enough of my persistence to see it someday in print, I don’t want to. It no longer speaks to me. It no longer speaks for me.
But there is a happy ending to this story. I have another novel I’m writing, and a third germinating in my head. I’m a happy blogger with a small, but (I hope) engaged following. I plan to write short stories and submit them for publication. I love writing. I don’t plan to stop. I don’t aspire to J.K. Rowling status as an author. I long for simpler things.
I want to have a conversation with readers through the medium of my books. I want to learn from them–from you–something I didn’t know before. I love how narrative take us out of ourselves and plops us, for just a few hours, into other people’s worlds and experiences. I love how words are magical vehicles for meaning, open to interpretation and imperfect, but beautiful, too. I want whatever novel of mine that eventually makes it into the world to be about something I could talk about for days, weeks, months, years, and never tire of.
In short, I want my debut novel to be the start of my future, not the ending of my past.
And so, onward.
You can read more about Angela at You Are Awesome
On Twitter, Angela is @angiewrite
On Facebook, Angela is AngelaNoelAuthor
Or you can ask her questions below!