Writing Hedi’s Book of Rules
When I started this blog, I decided that I’d go in with one rule of conduct: I’d tell the truth. Full disclosure over every tweak in the trail. No trills of cuteness to camouflage an inconvenient fact.
Truth: writing Hedi’s Book of Rules just about gutted me. The first five pages of version number four were a gift from Hedi and a benevolent universe. The other three hundred and twenty-two pages were plain, nasty, hard work.
Mistakes one and two: I teed up on the book with a preposterous, elaborate back story and only the vaguest idea of a plot. I quickly followed up with a series of wide swings that resulted in a draft that covered every dumbass, writer error you can imagine—wobbling conflicts, meandering speeches, scenes with weak motivations or no turning point, and miles of naked dialogue.
I spent a lot of time thrashing about in the undergrowth for my plot-ball.
Fixing those errors of judgment meant deleting a lot of prose. For every word on the page, I’ve probably tossed five. I’ve chiseled away at the back story so much it resembles the poor, mangled, duck decoy my old dog chewed to a nubbin. I’ve revised, rewritten, and rehauled this novel to the point that I doubt one sentence has been left untouched. Oh wait, that’s not true. I just thought of one:
I don’t know who’d want to screw around with one, but the pause struck me as pregnant.
Let’s see if that makes it through the editorial process. By the way, if you steal it in the meantime, I will find you.
I needed to learn things, and so I attended seminars and workshops while continuing my courses at the University of Toronto and searching the net for published author’s blogs. In so doing, I accumulated a few insights that helped me cross the finish line:
1) From my first creative writing class, show not tell. Duh, right? And yet, so hard to do.
2) From C.J. Lyons’ workshop, the three act structure. It made sense to me, and it’s something that I paid attention to as I tried to shape Hedi’s story into a novel.
3) From Donald Maass’ workshop, I learned that a character wrapped in cotton-balls is not half as interesting as a character who’s been batted around a bit. I think that was the hardest thing to train myself to do–to hurt Hedi. There’s one chapter in Book of Rules that made me ill. Headache, neck-ache, backache, brain-ache. It took me three weeks to do—a turtle-slow page a day–and it tortured me. I loathed the chapter, I loathed the keyboard, I loathed the thought of getting up and staring at those words for five hours, and then reworking them, over and over until I’d uncovered the truth of the scene.
4) From my friend, Caitlin Sweet, I learned that I have a tendency to be coy, and that I couldn’t just put a bomb on the dining room table and then walk into the kitchen and make some guacamole.
5) From all the critique workshops I’ve attended, I’ve learned the value of listening to other people’s opinion about your work. Be wary there; not all of them are right about your work. Don’t take everything to heart. Example: when I critique someone’s writing, it usually turns out that I’m not a 100% right. It’s an opinion. But if you hear much the same opinion voiced about your work by more than one critiquer; it’s no longer an opinion, it’s a trend. Time to pay attention.
6) You will get stuck on a scene. There are various ways of getting yourself free. I found the most useful insight on that topic came from Charlaine Harris. She says that when she’s feeling she can’t move forward on a scene, it’s her unconscious trying to tell her that she’s done something wrong. Go back and look at it differently. Tackle the scene from a totally different direction. These strategies helped me.
7) Writing the middle part is daunting, even with a plot. Jim Butcher wrote that the best way to attack a swampy, sagging middle is to keep writing. I took that to heart, and did just that. I wrote my way through it, knowing that a fair amount of what I created would be tossed. The thing is, the story is there, floating among old love notes and recipe cards, hidden deep in your soul. You have to coax it out, but it won’t nibble at your fingers if you wander away from the manuscript and start fooling around with the pool boy. The only way to find your way to the end is to write your way. Here’s a soothing thought: you can always massage the prose afterwards. If it helps, think pool-boys as you do it.
7) Writing the end of your first novel is hell. I got so frustrated over my stall-at-the-last-act that I slapped myself. Yup. Alone in my office, my dog snoring at my feet, I slapped my cheek, and shrieked, “Come on. Think. Come up with a way to make sense of this.” Then I pounded the desk a few times. Hurt my fists doing it too. Interestingly enough, I made a breakthrough that very day.
I wrote the last sentence of Hedi’s Book of Rules near the end of July, 2010. I hit enter a few times, just for the fun of it. Thought about putting ‘the end’, but that felt hokey. So I stood and reread the last few paragraphs. I found a sentence needing a comma, and I put that in. I informed the dog that I’d finished the book. He didn’t lift his head. I texted my husband, kids and sister. I walked around the kitchen with my hand on my stomach. Fingers drumming on my tummy.
I didn’t feel done.
And you know what? I wasn’t. Since then I have revised the book five times. I rewrote the ending twice (without the need for further brute force). And I’m still not done. My editor, Holly Blanck, will have some editorial comments. Sounds like the front end of the book needs work. As of this minute, I’m inserting something as requested into the manuscript, just to get a leg up on the whole editing business. I figure it will take about 8,000 words to do so.
Here’s the thing. I signed on to be a writer. At this point, and probably for the rest of my career, revision is a big part of it. I have learned something with every edit.
When my book comes into print, I have some greedy demands. I want my reader to read the best work I’m capable of producing. I want them to disengage from their real world, and enter the one I created. All subterfuge aside, I want them to love my book. Each revision has sharpened my book and skills. They’ve been tough, but as I said, I have some expectations. To make Hedi’s story worthy of a reader’s money and time, I have to be prepared to spill a little of my own blood. And even so, they might not love my book. I might have to earn that with more sweat, words, and experience.
Suck it up. Apply bandaids where needed. Dry your eyes.
And keep writing.
These are my observations about my first book. I’m just starting my second and so, I’m still a baby author…yes, an old baby, but a babe in the world of writing, none-the-less. Perhaps one day, I’ll write a blog telling you that everything I said in this post was absolute tripe. But for the moment, it’s the truth, as I know it. Bye for now~ Leigh