Feedback: Early and Often

Feedback: Early and Often

Once I finished the outline for my book, I started writing Chapter 1. Actually, I started with a Prologue. I worked it and reworked it a hundred times, and as I wrote the early chapters, I kept going back, revising my earlier work little by little. I was trying to hit a target of 1,500 words per chapter, and it was hard! I thought outlining was challenging, but compared to actually writing the book, outlining was a snap! I am continually surprised by the difficulty of this whole book-writing experience!

So, I was writing, editing, revising, trying to get each chapter absolutely perfect before moving on. Then going back with more revisions as the story grew; it didn’t take long for me to get bogged down in the complexity of my own work. Something had to change.

I realized I just needed to get the story down on paper. I threw word counts out the window and stopped focusing on perfection. I knew I would have to go back and edit, but I concentrated all my efforts on recording the story. My chapters got shorter, but my book was growing faster!

Isn’t it great how new challenges always arise? By the time I was working on Chapter 6, I realized that I had a pretty good start to a pretty good book. But I also realized that I needed confirmation. I decided to pause, polish up the twenty pages I had written, and get some feedback. After all, I didn’t want to write an entire book with no input from anyone, and end up with a book that no one wants to read! So I gave out a few copies and asked for feedback. Any kind – “Tell me if it’s terrible! Don’t let me write a boring book!” I asked family members and friends who are readers. I asked for a few specific pieces of advice, such as whether to use past or present tense, but mainly I just wanted to know whether the story was interesting enough to awaken a desire to read the rest of the book. And then I waited. And waited.

As a matter of fact, I’m still waiting. Does that mean I’m not working? Certainly not! Waiting isn’t an excuse for inactivity. I’m still showing up, I’m still writing, I’m working on maps and diagrams, revising my outline, and keeping myself too busy to worry about why I haven’t heard anything yet.

“I don’t believe in writer’s block or waiting for inspiration. If you’re a writer, you sit down and write.” – Elmore Leonard

I love this quote. I actually do believe that writer’s block is real, but I also believe that we have to push through it. We can’t give in or give up. We have to keep showing up, keep writing something, even if it’s just a ramble about how there’s nothing to write about. It’s just like exercise. (Or so I’ve heard . . .) We have to do it even when we don’t feel like it, or we won’t grow.

How about you? What challenges have you overcome, and how do you remind yourself that it’s worth it, even when it’s difficult?


To Outline, or Not To Outline?

To Outline, or Not To Outline?

Outlining isn’t a universal first step, but since this is my first book I decided to try an outline to see if it would be helpful to me. I spent about a year on this step, and now that I’ve moved on to the next Phase here are my thoughts on the outlining process:

  • Taking a year to just think about the characters, the setting, the plot, etc. was very helpful. Now that I’m doing the work of writing the story, I have a good foundation laid in my mind. I’m not super imaginative, so I needed this world to be real to me before I could make it real to anyone else.
  • I’m finding myself revising my outline constantly. The story doesn’t unfold exactly as I expected it to; this could be because I’m inexperienced as a novelist, or because the story evolves naturally over time on its own. Maybe a little of both, but as I make adjustments to the story, I have to update the outline so that I still know how to get where I’m going. It’s kind of a pain.
  • The outline gives me a good synopsis. Theoretically, this could be a good summary to give someone who is interested in the story, but I find myself protecting it. Whenever anyone asks me what my book is about, I give them a very vague overview. Am I afraid to be more open because they might think my book sounds stupid, or am I afraid they’ll steal my idea and run off and write the book themselves? No. I think it’s more that I don’t want to give it all away before the book is finished, because then it won’t be new to them when they pick it up for the first time. I love the thrill of a new story, and I don’t want to ruin that for anyone.
  • Outlining provides a framework, but it’s not an end in itself. When I finished my outline, I had this false sense of accomplishment, as if my book was already completed and all I had to do was write it down. In reality, there are thousands of details, lines of dialogue and situational considerations that the outline can’t touch. The book isn’t mostly written when the outline is finished; it’s really just ready to begin. Making an outline did not prepare me for the difficulty of writing a book — it’s a lot more challenging than I ever expected!

So, would I recommend outlining? Yes, absolutely. I intend to outline every book I write; for me, it’s an essential step for two main reasons: my story won’t wander aimlessly because I’ll know where I’m going, and I’ll have a chance to soak in that world before committing it to paper. If outlining isn’t your thing, that’s okay. But you should definitely have the end in mind before you start writing. I’m not just talking about the resolution of the plot; I’m talking about the message you’re sending.

Like it or not, every time you put a book down, it leaves you with something. A book is a commentary on life, among other things, and it will leave the reader with a sense of . . . what? Think about the message you want to send, and make sure your story will reflect that message, whether subtly or overtly. If you don’t know where you’re going, and why you’re going there, you’ll never arrive. In fact, you’ll probably never finish writing your book, and if you do, it will lack conviction.

My outline is my roadmap, and while it may change as I write, I dare not cast it aside and forge my own trail, in disregard of my destination. Who knows where I would end up?

On Writing

On Writing

I am always tucking things away in little places. Sometimes I forget all about what I’ve put where, and years later I’m surprised to find some little trinket or card from a dear friend hiding in a box or drawer. I do this on purpose; I love the idea of finding things, or of my kids someday going through my old journals and discovering little hidden treasures amidst the yellowed pages. A person could browse my overstuffed bookshelves for hours, exploring all the nooks and crannies where I’ve squirreled away various mementos. Everything has a story. Everything has value. We can choose to notice it, and we can choose to mark it – to keep the purple rock we find on the hike up to the waterfall, or the musty old copy of Shakespeare that smells just how an old book ought to smell, and to put them somewhere special, where we’ll find them again someday and be reminded of the way we felt that day, who was there and why it mattered.

Isn’t that what it really comes down to — the stories? My favorite people are the ones who ask.  They sense that there’s a reason behind all the clutter, that it’s more than just amateur level hoarding. Then, I get to share something with them, and perhaps they’ll be reminded of a story to share with me. I guess it’s like bait; I’ve set my trap and I’m waiting, hoping to ensnare a kindred spirit. The most fascinating people are the ones who engage. Those who have done some living, who have gathered their own collection of tales to tell, are the ones who notice, who ask, and who have something to offer in return.

For me, that’s where writing comes in.

There has always been something liberating to me about writing. I’m not a good speaker; the words get stuck somewhere between my brain and my mouth, and I fumble and second guess and generally make a mess of whatever I’m trying to say. Writing has always felt more natural to me. It’s safer, yet more powerful. I can keep trying until I get it just right. And when I share it, it takes on a life of its own. If I give someone a piece I’ve written and they love it, it becomes theirs too. Words spoken are soon forgotten, but writing lives on. Ideas can travel, endure, and reach places deep inside people.

If we read the same story, we are bound together by it even if we never meet face to face. If you love the same authors that I love, we are automatic friends. I know you have been where my imagination has been, loved characters I have loved, and cried at sorrows that broke my heart. That is the power of writing, and it’s why we get hooked.

Do I write because I want power over others? Yes, and no. I want to be a part of the story, but I also want to give the gift. I am sure that I am not the only one with these ideas. The same thoughts and passions swirl in another heart, and when that person reads my work it will resonate in his or her soul. That connection makes it worthwhile, even if a thousand people find it boring. The one who cherishes it is my soul mate in that moment.

That’s why we love authors, and not just the stories they write. That’s why we want autographed copies of their books, and why we look them up online. And it’s why authors reach out to their readers, craving feedback and responding to fan mail. We sense the connection, and it’s real. It’s something beautiful we can hold onto.

I could think about writing, and wish I had time to write. I could let myself get bogged down by doubt, distraction, fear and busyness.  I could envy those who do write, but where does that leave me? I just have to do it. Make the time, find the space, duct tape my kids’ mouths shut for a half hour of quiet… okay, maybe not. Most people never get past the wishing. Everyone has dreams, but how many of us are making sacrifices, fighting to turn them into reality? That’s what it feels like to me a lot of the time: an arduous fight up a jagged mountain covered in cactus and infested with a horde of leaping, screeching monkeys, with a bundle of bananas on my back. And ice, too; the mountain is also icy. But I’m not giving up, and I’m not turning back; I’ve brought my baseball bat and hiking boots, and I am going to make it to the top of this mountain. I will. And I’ll be waiting for you to join me there.