Category: editing

A Special Sort of Patience

Thirty years ago, I was a young mother with two preschool children, one of them less than a year old. The necessities of life transplanted me to a tiny house in a tiny South Dakota town, where I was lonely and exhausted, with a touch of the postpartum blues. There were cloth diapers to wash, a home to maintain on a shoestring, cheap meals to prepare, a baby to nurse, kids crying and laughing, me crying and laughing and not one friend within a 500 mile radius. Life took a special sort of patience, then.

It was a good, messy, joyful and hard time, and I sensed even then that my children would bring me a lifetime of rewards. Yet, in the midst of it all, something was missing, specifically the creative writing process that inspired me as a college student. In a life-changing moment of temporary insanity, I resolved to add fiction writing to my hectic days.

So at five a.m., while everyone else slept, I would seclude myself in our little enclosed front porch. There were no heat vents out there and the chill poured off the old storm windows, requiring socks, sweaters and, if memory serves me, a blanket over my shoulders. I wrote for a while by hand, then bought a used typewriter (a major investment in those lean days). Between ideas, I’d sit looking at my reflection in the glass (which is all you can see at five a.m. in South Dakota in winter, in case you wondered) and make up stories. Some were long and some were short, and few were notably good. But I knew I ‘d learn, if I didn’t give up.

In order to have something else to look at besides my own ghostly pre-dawn image, I took a 3×5 piece of notepaper and wrote on it a quote from Gustave Flaubert.

Talent is a long patience.

I taped that quote to the woodwork between the windows above the typewriter. Of course, the day I copied it down, I didn’t imagine how long my patience would need to be, to become the writer I hoped to become. And yet, I was already a writer from those first days, because I was putting down stories, editing them and sending them out.

This was back when we ambitious, wordy folks with delusions of publication typed stories on paper and sent them through the mail. With stamps. You know, to publishers and editors, who sent back rejection letters. If you remember, you probably did it, too. I looked forward to the rejections and those mostly-kind editors sent many, but I kept writing. I took pride in having been gently, even personally, rejected by some of the best publishing houses in New York. Yes, a personal rejection with a note of encouragement went a long way, in those days. I even had a close call, coming a hair’s breadth from having a short story published in Redbook. An agent represented my second novel manuscript, and I felt discouraged when that story didn’t become a book. Now I’m glad it didn’t. It wasn’t ready and neither was I! But I kept writing, and more short stories and novel manuscripts followed, along with skill and confidence. They were just the practice I needed.

Because practice didn’t put bread on the table, I pursued other lines of work, some quite happily. I went to grad school, studied writing and medicine, ran a home-based writing and graphic design business, learned about the world from different viewpoints and raised my family. Writing fiction and telling stories ran through it all, like an underground river, coursing unseen while sustaining me.

The tools changed . . . I graduated from typewriter to word processor to computer, from dot-matrix to digital printing and from typed letters to email. Publishing changed, too . . . it opened to everyone, even as it became more challenging to land a book contract with traditional publishers.

an occasional payment for words

an occasional payment for words

Inevitably, I changed, as well . . . there were personal problems, life problems and health problems. Unforeseen interruptions appeared to veer me off track, then turned out to be the stuff of life and writing. It’s been quite a time, the past thirty years. Good news, though. Everything got better! (Everything that matters, anyway.) Even my writing skills, apparently, because a few stories found publication in journals and in an anthology, The Arduous Touch: Women’s Voices in Healthcare. Every now and then, a check came my way. I went out on a limb and embraced publishing my own novel, The Darkwater Liar’s Account, in 2013, a grand adventure because talent isn’t only a long patience, it’s being willing to take a risk now and then. I have two more novels sitting on my desk right now. One is en route to an editor, and the other, its sequel, is a completed first draft.

In thirty years, some things haven’t changed, perhaps most notably that I’m still writing. I enjoy research and growing stories out of what I learn, about life on the Great Plains and in the West, history, family life and health. That scrap of note paper with its message is constant, too. Eleven different apartments and homes have housed me since I first taped up that quote. Everywhere I’ve gone, it’s followed. The tape’s changed so often, the paper’s upper edge is tattered as if someone’s been chewing on it. It’s a little wrinkled, too, like me. We’ve both proven ourselves in ways that the twenty-something girl I was wouldn’t have expected, and may have terrified her, had she known.

Talent is a long patience.

 As I write this, I look up and it’s there, between the windows in my workshop, over my desk. The words still inspire me. After all this time, I don’t intend to lose them.

Teapots & Wisteria

I like to talk about writing, especially someone else’s. Talking about my own work feels risky, as if I might let too much steam out of the kettle and there will be no hot water left for tea.

photo by John Frenzel

Then there’s that most puzzling question, asked with genuine interest: “What’s your novel about?” Who knew that a five letter word could leave me feeling powerless about something I love to do. “About?” I find myself echoing, trying to buy some time. “It’s about . . .” Oh, boy.

I spent four years on this novel, to complete a first draft and that’s a long time, even for me. Of course, my health issues take about as much time as any “day job,” so writing hours aren’t as abundant as they might appear. I’ve more quickly written my four prior long manuscripts, which I called novels. I don’t think those had as much going for them as this one has. I’m hoping the time has been well spent.

My process in this fifth manuscript moves now from generating to editing, a momentum change that is so significant as to almost have its own feeling and sound, like shifting gears on a standard transmission. I’m not good at doing both simultaneously and more experienced writers have told me not to combine them, that generating and editing are different sorts of brain activity entirely. For me, that has proven to be good advice.

photo by Peter Caulf

Unlike the previous manuscripts, this novel did creep up a well-developed outline from its origin, the way wisteria can follow a trellis. But the novel suggested new characters and action and, as wisteria is known to do, nearly broke the structure intended to hold it up. It’s big, green and smells good, but boy, does it need pruning.

A family member once inscribed this in a book on editing, “Editors make a long story short.” Succinct, but there’s more than volume or length to be considered. Down the line, I may employ a professional copy editor, but for now, I want to discipline myself to see the manuscript in new ways.

One of those ways involves moving my giant green blooming project from Microsoft Word to Scrivener, as writing and editing software. I’m still in the trial stage, but so far I see that Scrivener offers interesting options, especially during the early research and outlining stages of writing. Those benefits will have to wait for the next novel or short story. Even as an editing tool, however, Scrivener may help me manage the text. I’ll report on that later.

Another approach is reading and pondering Sandra Scofield‘s The Scene Book. It seems a wise place to begin my effort to edit.

So at this point I’m only willing to say, “My novel is about…30,000 words too long and needs a workout.” Effective editing should make it easier for me to talk about what I’ve written. Of course, I’m open to editing suggestions. How do you take that first draft and make it better?