Monday, September 22, 2014

Crafting A Vision For A Novel

Writing can be a cruel taskmaster, a friend said. Writing is not about the “feel good” stuff, getting the 5-star review, the buzz going, the Facebook high-fives, although all of that can be energizing. It’s about the gruelingly hard work of polishing and honing your craft to become a better writer.

It's about bringing your reader into the story as an active participant, offering him or her what Hemingway said was the true measure of a good book – what can a reader learn that he or she can apply to their own life? Because if there’s no lesson there, why bother to pick up a book?

Over the summer I sent my novel based around a true story, my late husband’s West Point memoir, to five beta readers and a developmental editor. I waited expectantly for responses.

I was impatient to move forward with the book, decide whether to query or continue the journey of independent publishing.

 As the responses and critiques started coming in, it became clear more work was needed.  The differing opinions proved, if not enlightening, then testament to how six different people have six different perspectives on how they thought I should have written the book. All had definite opinions about Ava and Jay, the two main characters.

One beta reader told me. "I love it. It’s your best work yet. I don’t need more of Ava."

Yet another: "I want more of Ava, more of the love story."

"Jay's story is most compelling," another said. "Ava gets in the way."

I suspected one reader might have tossed the manuscript aside after the first 60 pages. "Who is Ava?  What does she see in this guy?" the reader wondered.

"Learn from the criticism," a friend advised. "Something can be gleaned."

I work in a small office with a view of a maple tree, photographs of my family tucked in desk cubbies just above eye level.  My yellow Lab, Lily, sleeps on the small flowered sofa under the windows.

 My house is quiet. I live alone.  No need to rent office space like some writers I know desperately seeking a quiet retreat without distractions.

I have written before on this blog and in my memoirs about John’s memoir gathering dust in a bedroom closet. How to bring his story to life, as well as give it a broader readership?

This was my vision, my creative expression. I decided to interweave his West Point memoir, which takes place in the past, with a love story that takes place in the present. So much for chronology, the story structure I employed with my memoirs. That got thrown out the window as I wove back and forth between first and third person, past and present.

Although I have been a professional writer all my life, I learn anew every day that this work is grueling. (We all know Hemingway’s famous quote – There is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit at the typewriter and bleed.)

Like most writers, I need to sort through the confusion, the anxiety that my story isn’t worth much or doesn’t offer the reader anything new. 

This interview in the Paris Review with Hemingway is a must read for any writer:

In it he says he started out with 100 possible titles for A Farewell to Arms.

What might my readers take away from my story? What do they learn about themselves? These are the questions I continue to hold most valuable as I continue this journey and craft my vision.

Do you have a vision for your book?  How do you go about realizing it? Beta readers? Editors? Your own creative intuition?

FOOTNOTE: What did Hemingway consider the best training for the aspiring, would-be writer? “Let’s say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.”

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