Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column # 4: Escaping the Forest of Endless Revision

This post was originally published on the Moving Forwards Memoir Collective Blog 

 

Dear Lisa,

I’ve been told it takes an average of ten years to write a memoir. If this is true, I’m right on track—maybe. Let me explain.

Ten years ago, with my new husband’s encouragement, I read his deceased daughter’s journals. Reading about this dead girl I’d never met, a young woman who died by suicide at age twenty-four, unveiled secrets and hard lessons from my past—secrets about faith, trust and honesty I didn’t want to confront. And so, a book idea was born.

Like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, my story has interconnecting plots linked by a central theme. Weaving the character threads into one story has taken discipline and drive, qualities that are not obstacles for me until I’m mining the next layer of honesty in myself. Then I get lost in the forest of “Revision Times Infinity,” a place where fairies with magical potions like Puck cause me to imagine my name on the cover of a book. The book whose revision I have yet to finish.

I’m currently in the forest of “Revision Times Infinity.” Can you show me the way out?

 

Signed,

Lost in a Midwinter Night’s Dream

  

Dear Lost in a Midwinter Night’s Dream, 

Revision times infinity. Don’t many of us know it. There is no easy way to write a book and no exact timetable to follow, though memoirs generally take longer than fiction. Memoir poses unique challenges. Unlike fiction, where writers build truths around the worlds they’ve created, memoirists mine their experiences to excavate truths that are sometimes deeply buried. Wandering in the dark and bumping against the walls can lead to disorientation. No wonder you feel lost.

The first step in re-orienting yourself is determining what kind of book you’re writing. Some books work on us while others work through us. Writers of the latter form frequently describe their books as having been channeled. These rare projects require just as much effort, but the way forward is clear. Most memoirs are meant to change us. We’re inspired to write them because our experiences aren’t integrated. We spend years patiently picking them apart, trying to understand their meaning. As Andre Dubus III says in Melanie Brooks’s Writing Hard Stories, “Just because we know what happened, doesn’t mean we know what the hellhappened.” Melanie adds, “It’s the figuring out the meaning within the chronology and understanding its impact that makes the writing part challenging.” In other words, until we know what the hell happened, the narrative arc eludes us.

Beta Reader Boot Camp Part One: What Are Beta Readers and How Do You Find Them?

Beta Reader Boot Camp Part One: What Are Beta Readers and How Do You Find Them?

In April, I attended a three-hour glassblowing class in Asheville, North Carolina with my husband. Outside the studio, the temperature was a balmy sixty-eight. Inside the fire room, it was close to one hundred. To make our glass art, we first dipped long metal rods into a vat of molten glass (think honey on a spoon) then worked to keep the glass on center using a series of rocking motions. To apply color, we pressed the hot glass into discreet piles of colored glass shards then returned it to the furnace. Glassblowing is fast-paced, high-intensity work. Sweat drizzled down my back as  I watched the colors fuse with the glass. Eventually, I couldn’t tell them apart.  

 

 Our instructor told us glass behaves with a certain logic.  Her trained eye was able to see that logic and find the colors even when we couldn’t. Stories also behave according to a certain logic. But like students learning to blow glass, sometimes writers lose sight of their stories’ purpose.

 

There are many ways to gain insight into your works-in-progress. Put them away and pick them up later. Join a writing group. Take a class. Hire an editor. Today, I want to talk about the angels of the writing world: beta readers.

 

Frequently mentioned but often misunderstood, beta readers donate their keen eyes to works-in-progress so writers can improve their drafts. Their invaluable feedback can green light a submission process, help writers revise, or signal the need for professional help.

 

But what about my critique partners?

 

 Workshop partners and writing buddies are invaluable members of your writing community. They read multiple drafts of your work, talk you through plot points, and cheer you on during writing slumps. But their support comes with limitations. It’s likely you’ve had long conversations with them about your project or given them so many iterations of your work they unconsciously fill in gaps readers won’t. 

 

 To advance your project, you need fresh eyes. Enter the beta reader. Ideally, beta readers should have minimal information about your story (more on that next month). Some of the best ones will be strangers. Unlike critique partners, they should only read your work once. This makes them precious and their judicious use crucial.

 

There are two times to consider beta reader engagement: post draft and pre-agent submission. After you’ve created a strong working draft, engaging beta readers can help you course-correct or decide whether to seek professional help. At this stage, choose writerly beta readers who can give you honest feedback about plot holes, points of confusion, pacing, and your narrative arc. Keep in mind, a beta reader’s job is to highlight areas of concern, not fix them. While some beta readers might give you detailed feedback, don’t expect a comprehensive editorial review. If hiring an editor is suggested, revise as much as you can based on beta reader feedback before contacting someone. This will ensure your money is well spent.

 

 Once your manuscript is submission worthy, enlist a second round of beta readers before soliciting agents or publishers. These beta readers don’t necessarily need a writer’s eye, but they should love and understand your genre. The main feedback they need to offer is yes, I would read this book, or no, I wouldn’t, along with a few notes to support their answer.  

  

How many beta readers do I need? 

 

Each book requires a different number of beta readers. Early in the drafting process, I suggest no more than three. If it’s a very early draft, one highly competent reader might be enough. Personally, three is my magic number. Three readers can help you see trends and build consensus around areas of concern without information overload, or worse, creating a split decision over an important point in your work.

 

Before contacting beta readers, identify your manuscript’s needs. All books require general fans of every age. Some books, especially science fiction novels and nonfiction books dealing with highly specialized fields, may require subject matter-experts. Books about minority populations may benefit from sensitivity readers. These considerations could bump up your beta reader numbers, but don’t engage more than five at a time, lest you experience information overload  

How do I find them?

 

There are several excellent ways to find beta readers for your book: attend writing conferences, make connections through local writing centers, or join online writing communities. When selecting beta readers, pay attention to writers and readers who understand your genre, communicate effectively, and treat others with respect.

 

While many beta readers don’t charge for their services, find a way to compensate them. It’s good karma and good literary citizenship. At the very least, offer an in-kind review of their work. If your book is already under contract or very close to receiving one, offer them a free, autographed copy of your book that includes your heartfelt gratitude. If neither of these options is feasible, ask your beta reader to name a meaningful contribution you can make to them or their writing community. Perhaps you could amplify their voice during a social media campaign by sharing their posts or serve as a fact checker.  While this may seem like extra work, it’s really a win-win. Offering some form of compensation can ensure beta readers actually read your book and adhere to deadlines.

 

 When working with beta readers who charge for their services, remember you are entering a business agreement. As the writer, it’s your job to clearly state what kind of feedback you need, to ensure the beta reader understands your genre, and to develop a thick skin. All beta readers, but especially paid beta readers, have zero emotional investment in your work or your success. While this may seem harsh, their honest feedback can be invaluable. There’s nothing worse than believing your manuscript is perfect then sending it out to agents who never respond or send generic rejections.

 

 As you mull over your beta reader needs, consider becoming one. Serving as a beta reader is a lot like learning glassblowing. Each time you provide a critical eye toward a writer’s work, you’ll sharpen your understanding of story logic. With trained eyes, you’ll have a better sense of your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses and learn the skills needed to revise like a pro.

 

Next month, I’ll write about the conversation you should have with beta readers before you get started and the skills needed to become one. 

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column # 3: Mining the Gap Between Traumatic Memories and Your Memoir

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column # 3: Mining the Gap Between Traumatic Memories and Your Memoir

This post was originally published on the Moving Forwards Memoir Collective Blog 

 

Dear Lisa,

I’m writing a memoir about the death of my son. The draft has gone through several revisions. When writing about the most painful parts of my story, I need to transition from telling people my thoughts and feelings to showing these things through actions so the reader viscerally experiences my story.

Here’s my big problem: while I can remember my thoughts and feelings from that time, I don’t necessarily remember what I was doing or how I experienced the events in my body. Also, some gaps in my memories feel irretrievable. I can remember what was said and how, the look on characters’ faces, and my internal reactions, but sometimes I can’t remember what room we were in, the time of day (sometimes even the exact year), the weather outside, or what I was wearing. Do you have any strategies for accessing those aspects of memory? If those memories are truly inaccessible, how can I acknowledge the gaps and write around them?

Sincerely,

There But Not There Too

 …..

 

Dear There But Not There Too,

Please accept my heartfelt condolences regarding the loss of your son. All loss is difficult, but when it’s sudden, violent, or out-of-sync with our expectations the pain sears to the bone. The death of a child always fits at least one of these categories. Frequently it wins the grief trifecta.

Failing Forward: Why Every Draft Counts

Failing Forward: Why Every Draft Counts

This post was originally published on the Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog on March 21, 2019

In 2005, I wrote my first book—a horror thriller about a deranged clown who takes a group of modeling-agency students hostage. Over the course of a day, he kills them as they strike poses on the catwalk, certain the most beautiful pictures they’ll take are their last.

It was fun to write, and several friends enjoyed reading it. At the time, I met with a critique group who gathered twice monthly around our leader’s dining room table. Between drinks and snacks, we scribbled notes to each other based on lively discussions about characters that worked and plots that didn’t. Most of our members were working on short pieces for publication or MFA applications. They’ve all gone on to do amazing things and I feel grateful to have worked with them. There was only one problem: the group had never workshopped a book and neither had I.

When You’re Visited by an Unwelcome Guest: Writers, Downtime, and Depression

When You’re Visited by an Unwelcome Guest: Writers, Downtime, and Depression

Six weeks ago, I submitted my latest manuscript to The Writer’s Hotel Conference for review. The project is a memoir about how traveling with a heavy metal band into post-Bosnian-War Yugoslavia helped me survive my brother’s suicide. Always a last-minute waffler, I let my mouse arrow hover over the send button as I simultaneously experienced the delight of finishing my manuscript and the terror of actually sending it out.  When I finally clicked the send button, the knotted muscles in my neck relaxed. I had a good cry. I spent the weekend on an “I did it!” high, aware that the next phase would be even more difficult.

I was entering the fallow field.

Originally a farming term, writers sometimes use the fallow field metaphor to describe the period between drafts when projects are laid to rest. In the idealized version, this fallow period is a time when eyes clear, the mind recalibrates, and ideas marinate largely at an unconscious level. Some see it as a welcome respite. Others go into panic mode as they wonder how to cope with the discomfort that can accompany downtime.

I could write a post about how to capitalize on your fallow period and offer helpful tips about starting new projects, resuming morning pages, or going on vacation. Instead, I want to talk about the Big D that often accompanies any fallow period: Depression.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 10.4% of US women and 5.5% of US men experienced depression between 2013 – 2016. Many research studies point to correlations between creativity and mood disorders, suggesting depression rates in the writing community are even higher, especially for men. In her book The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion writes that depression is “a normal phase of any writer’s life.” In other words, if you’re a writer who has experienced depression your experience may be more common than you think.

Symptoms of depression can range from mild sadness, agitation, and loss of interest in pleasurable activities to suicidal ideation and death. Famous examples of authors who lost battles with depression abound. Virginia Woolf. Ernest Hemingway. Sylvia Plath. Hunter S. Thompson. But many writers silently suffer with what can be a debilitating illness.

There are many reasons why creative people might be more susceptible to depression. In general, we are deeply sensitive. That sensitivity feeds our creativity and allows us to transform ideas and experiences into art. But sometimes that gift is a burden. We feel too much—something a concentrated slog through weighty material can intensify, no matter the genre. Our work requires us to spend lots of time alone. Then there’s the grief writers may feel once a project is shelved and they’re no longer spending time with the characters they dearly love. Self-doubts can surface as you anticipate feedback on vulnerable work. And, then there’s the exhaustion that comes from setting aside big swathes of time to meet deadlines. Add to that the ambiguities we’re forced to sit with (Is it good enough? Am I good enough? Does anyone care?), and the silences as we waitwaitwait for what could possibly be rejection.  No wonder we struggle. 

Depression has been a lifelong companion I’ve learned to live with—one that used to visit often. Past major depressive episodes were so severe I experienced physical pain. Every day felt like I was operating in a world where the air had been replaced by mud. My brain transformed into a bad neighborhood with street names like Piece of Shit Avenue and Who Do You Think You Are Boulevard. Eating ice cream was so joyless it might as well have been creamed fish. I’ve spent many years studying the art of self-care and the causes and treatments of depression. This has lessened the severity of my symptoms, but they still crop up. So, when I submitted my manuscript in February—one of depression’s prime times—I anticipated my old friend’s arrival.

We frequently see depression as the enemy and want to kick its ass as we send it to the curb. But depression isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes it signals your body’s need for self-care. It slows you down so you can rest. It isolates so you can reflect and address feelings that require attention. It makes you vividly aware of the world (even if it only shows you the bleakest picture) and reminds you of the sensitivities you need to nourish.

In short doses and at a mild level, these experiences can be adaptive. In these cases, focusing on self-care and journaling about depressive thoughts or what depression wants you to know can give you insights into your symptoms. But if the duration is long (more than three weeks) or severe (leading to thoughts of self-harm, feelings that you are a burden, or beliefs that others would be better off without you), it’s time to get help. Talk to friends and family about how you’re feeling. Contact a mental health professional. If you’re not sure where to go, or if your symptoms require immediate attention call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline(1-800-273-TALK). Operators are available twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week. You don’t have to be in a crisis to call them.

My fallow period included a couple of weeks of mild depression. The big push to finish had exhausted me. My body said slow down, and I did (though I wasn’t always a willing patient). I journaled about writing fears, reached out to friends, and wrote a few funny pieces that didn’t require much vulnerability. When my energy returned, I resumed my exercise routine, spent time in the sun, and enjoyed the cherry blossoms outside my house in preparation for the next phase of revision.

Mental health issues frequently get a bad rap. Some view these experiences as a sign of weakness, which makes it more difficult to talk about. In her memoir A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, Susan Klebold refers to depression as a brain illness because the brain is what’s sick in depressed people, just like the pancreas is sick in someone with diabetes. We wouldn’t tell a diabetic to ignore their symptoms or suggest a better attitude would lower their blood sugar levels. We would tell them to seek treatment. The same holds true for our mental health.

Over the weekend I attended a spiritual talk given by Don Chudd, a former Lutheran priest. He said, “It’s not our output but our wellbeing that is our greatest contribution to the world.” Wellbeing is an inside job that requires us to nurture our gifts so we can share our best with others.

Wellbeing doesn’t require us to produce anything.

It only requires us to be ourselves.

The real me is very curious, highly energetic, and sometimes depressed. I accept this without shame or self-pity. I share it with you, because I truly believe our stories—both big and small—matter. In saying, “Yes, me too,” we normalize each other’s experiences and help one another care for our precious gifts during both productive and fallow periods in our writing lives. In doing so, we make the experience between the click of the send or save button and the moment we resume our work is a little more pleasurable.

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pin It on Pinterest