My heart is a bit heavy today. I got news that the publisher who had been evaluating my manuscript for the past seven months–and who gave me reason to believe they wanted it–doesn’t actually want it.
My heart is not heavy because this specific publisher rejected me. It’s heavy because I got my hopes up…and because I don’t have anything left to give this project right now.
I know the typical course of action would be to reread, revise, and re-submit. And I’m sure I’ll do that eventually. But right now, as a stay-at-home mom of a very active toddler, that thought exhausts me. Physically. Emotionally. Spiritually.
There are also a number of signs telling me my time for a published memoir has not yet come. Chief most, I’ve realized I’m “stupid in love”–stupid in motherhood and wifehood and homemaking (I will post on that next time–and maybe write a second memoir about that one day)–and I don’t have the time and energy both to correct those faults and to build a platform, an audience, a website, and otherwise handle the activity that a published book demands.
Did I mention that we’re trying for a second baby?
Yes, my cup runneth over with good and challenging things right now; I don’t need a published memoir to add more to-do’s.
I just have to get over the disappointment of this rejection, which was a very nice rejection, by the way. (The editor who notified me said the editorial board liked my manuscript, but they just weren’t sure it would sell.)
So, given my exhaustion and my full plate, my strategy right now is not to rush revisions, but to rest and pray until I next feel God telling me to move. In the meantime, I will tend to other good things on my plate, like The Love Dare, a planned family picture wall (so Sam doesn’t forget his relatives), and a stack of books on raising toddlers. But first, if you’ll excuse me, I might just cry for awhile.
The last two weeks have hosted a flurry of creative work…during naptimes and on the days my sister-in-law watches Sam (thanks so much, Joanna!). I’m hesitant to publish my high hopes, lest I’m getting too confident…but, of course, here I go.
In the last two weeks, I’ve basically rewritten the last third of my book, or created 80 new pages. This is my first big change since I rewrote the first third of my book last fall. So, now I have a different book from what I had last August. Same story, different book.
I’m not all that sad to have hacked up the first draft. That draft was very repetitious and wallowing. I see it as having cleared the pipes for what really needed to come out. Plus, I’ve saved all that cut material in a word document, and I envision it fueling numerous short articles. This new third, which still needs some organization and editing, focuses much more on Jesus and my healing. It explains the prayer process that changed my life, and shows those changes through new scenes of me reaching out to and praying with other women.
Now that I have the scenes in place that I want in the final draft (meaning I have a reliable outline), I will proceed with writing a book proposal and polishing the first three chapters. I’m not going to set a hard date for sending out the proposal, but I’m hoping for within a month. (I will only be sending to one publisher for now—a press within my faith community which God has laid upon my heart.) While the proposal is being reviewed (or sitting in a slush pile), I will polish up the rest of the book, and possibly get one more edit from my excellent book consultant, Trish Ryan.
I have prayed long over this memoir, and I feel God has delayed its progress so that I could make the recent changes. Now, I believe my book goes beyond telling a sad story women can identify with to showing how Jesus can bring beauty from ashes.
With the help of a generous sister-in-law, I have returned to writing my book. One day a week until the end of the school year, she babysits Sam so I can write.
How has it been, reentering this manuscript I put aside three months ago?
There is the feeling of visiting a foreign country, as well as the feeling of returning to terrain I know very well. Above all, there is a clarity about the message of my book—and with that clarity, knowledge of what to cut and what to add. I surprised myself by spending most of my recent writing time cutting unnecessary chapters or scenes. Whereas several months ago I couldn’t have imagined cutting these scenes, now, there was no doubt about it: they had to go.
These cutting decisions signal so much: not only a writer’s process, but also a woman’s healing. Let me explain.
One of the standout tips I received from my professional book consultant last fall was: After the first few pages/chapters, cut the crying! (She elaborated: instead of describing your crying, describe for readers what made you cry). And related to that: Add in scenes with other key characters so we are not left alone with you and your brain for 300 pages.
In recent months I’ve thought a lot about how this advice relates to my memoir, which means I really have been working—thinking, planning, pondering—if not actually writing. I realized I had lots of crying in my book—in lots of solitary scenes, and my consultant helped me realize that this was not the best approach for a general audience. The types of books most people want to read are built around action, not a person sitting and thinking (and crying).
As I thought about why my first draft was sopping wet, I realized I wrote it for myself, and perhaps for the handful of friends and family members who read it last fall. Writing all those solitary crying scenes was a way for me to acknowledge how alone I felt in my pain. Having several loved ones read that manuscript allowed me to share that part of myself—and it felt good. Now I feel vindicated: that part of myself has not been shoved into a closet. However, that part of me (though present in the book) will not be the book’s focus.
What I am working on now is describing more of my healing, less of my hurting. To set the stage for why I became so broken (as requested by my consultant), I had to write over 100 new pages for the book’s beginning, just so readers could understand what led to my suicide attempt, eating disorder, sudden move to Texas, and shotgun wedding. But I am trying not to draw out the personal anguish after that (plenty of other memoirs excel in that area). As suggested, I am trying to show myself in contact with others—how I began to relate in more healthy ways to my family, and how I eventually extended my healing insights to others: my high school students, and then women in my church.
The new theme of the book, and maybe the new title, is “breaking silence.” I want to encourage readers who have suffered not to stuff their pain, but to get it out and deal with it—in the proper venues, of course. I believe I could have healed much faster had I not learned to hide my issues from friends, close family, and church family. What good are friends and family if we can’t tell them what’s going on? What good is religion and faith if we can’t get healing for our brokenness at church, and/or among our Christian friends? With my revised memoir, I hope to paint a picture of how honesty with ourselves, with God, and with certain loved ones is the right thing, the healthy thing, and the healing thing to do. Readers can take my advice or leave it, but for my book and my own health, I’ve learned honesty is a must.
It’s a lesson I’ve been hearing and trying to apply for years: Don’t underestimate the power of good words. Today I’m not talking about skillful writing (per se), but uplifting words, written or spoken. I hear this advice as a wife, when my husband entreats me to stop nagging him for his shortcomings. “Positive reinforcement,” he says, “Is what will get me to change.”
I heard this advice at graduate school when learning best practices for teaching writing: “If you only criticize students, you will freeze their writing process. You must encourage what they are doing well so they can gain confidence to keep writing.” And, “Wait until later to correct their grammar and punctuation. If they only see red marks on the page, they will be so scared of screwing up, they won’t take any risks.”
The Bible says, “The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit” (Prov. 15:4), and, “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones (Prov. 16:24).
Putting Wisdom into Practice
I’ve tried to put this advice in practice this semester as a college writing instructor. This doesn’t mean I never comment on what’s bad in an essay, but I give as many compliments, if not more, as criticisms. And I waited until about halfway through the semester to significantly address punctuation or grammar. I’m not sure if it was this approach, or my sequence of assignments, or the natural improvement that comes over time, but by essay four, all my students were writing their best papers yet. I think it has something to do with all of the above, plus the fact that the fourth assignment, modeled on a magazine article submission, was a true story of their choosing written for teens. They seemed to care more about this task, given the topic and the clear audience, and it showed in their writing.
I think older, more experienced writers, can handle criticism without letting it derail them. Same goes for older people in any context, if they are well adjusted adults who have learned to let adversity lead to growth. Still, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings…” (Isa. 52:7). As one who has just received some good news, I am reminded just how life giving good news can be.
My Own Good News
This weekend I received the edit letter on the second (partial) draft of my memoir. I sent Trish 130 new pages thinking, “These suck,” but I sent them anyway, because I had done what she suggested. As I awaited her letter, I expected to read, “You were right; I see why you didn’t put these things in the book originally; they don’t work, they aren’t well written.” I thought she would confirm my self-diagnosis, and I would be stuck at square one, trying to figure out a book structure that’s been problematic from the beginning.
Guess what? I was wrong. Her letter positively glowed. Here are some of the good words she gave me:
I am so, so proud of you for digging deep.
It was a vivid, powerful reading experience.
I didn’t do much line editing, mostly because I was really caught up in the story.
These are great scenes. There are lots of pages where I don’t note anything because the story was carrying me along. That means you’ve done it right.
Overall, you have raised your writing level so much with these new pages. I know this is taking longer than you thought it would. But you will be glad you took this time and wrestled out these scenes. The end result will be a book that you will be really proud of, and will entertain and bless your readers.
You’re a fun, talented writer to work with.
The Results of Good News
After the second time I read through the six-page letter, I felt light, like a weight had been lifted. A week ago when I sent in my pages, I felt heavy, lost in my writing process, and unsure what I was going to do after she told me to try again. I resisted working on my memoir for the entire week, figuring it would do no good until I knew what she would say.
Now I am re-energized. Last night around bedtime, I even felt compelled to sit down and outline some new scenes that will finish the book. The outline poured out and suddenly clarified the structure of my book. I saw how the new pages would circle back to and unify this new, as yet unwritten, ending. I realized I could not have conceived of this ending until now, because the events have just happened within the last month.
One lesson for me to learn was, again, God’s timing. Though I tried to set a date on this book project from my very first blog post, I couldn’t, because I didn’t know what all needed to be in the book.
The other lesson was good news. How lovely was this good news to me! Would I have seen the vision for completing my memoir without Trish’s good words? God used her words to revitalize my writing, and now I can’t wait to get back to work!
“Pause for a minute…that word order is confusing. Instead of ‘my spiritual life post thirteen,’ how about ‘my post-thirteen spiritual life’?”
I was reading chapter 2 of my memoir to my writers’ group, which, this week, was only one other person. She was stopping me every couple of paragraphs to suggest a syntax change or a modifier deletion.
“The action ‘I put my head in my hands’ makes pretty clear that you dreaded what was coming next. I know you’ve heard it before, but this is a case where you show and tell. You don’t need the telling.”
Putting It into Practice
Two days later as I sit at my keyboard trying to jump back into my memoir, I’m glad for the prose tightening advice. It will be really helpful later…but it’s not what I need right now. Since adding more than ten new chapters, I’m just trying to figure out if the scenes I’ve extracted from my reluctant psyche even belong in my book.
Show, Don’t Tell
“And tell us what you were wearing. I can’t see you as an eleven-year-old. Show the makeup or lack thereof. How did you know it was snowing outside? Show us how you are seeing this. Are you looking out a picture window?”
This writer, an excellent writer, by the way, is a visual person. Her prose overflows with color, texture, and shape. She lent me a memoir, The Summer of Ordinary Ways, by another fellow Minnesotan (my critique-er and I are both Minnesota girls who ended up in Texas), and I wonder if she modeled her writing on Nicole Lea Helget’s style. Helget writes with beautiful imagery that places readers right in the scene.
For example, here’s an excerpt where she’s describing watching/hearing her father “pitchfork” a cow:
A sound snapped the thick air.
Like eggs dropped on the wooden floor of the chicken coop. Or metal bats whacking leather-covered baseballs. There was something of a wooden ruler slapping naughty palms. Something of thunder breaking against the sky. Only more primal, more rooted. I recognized it immediately… It was the sound of girls splitting wish-bones, of Mom dividing chicken breasts, and of shovels crushing black rats breeding in the granary… It was the sound of field stones hitting the loader bucket or hay wagon or rock box….It was bone.
I don’t write like this. At least, I don’t write like this about my early years. These years feel like a cold case. I can’t remember. Or is it that I don’t want to?
The first draft of the memoir I sent off for editing begins with me at age twenty—and I believe that draft was more descriptive than the chapters my writing group has seen in the last month. I can deal with those more recent scenes.
The early scenes? I’ve been writing them, but they kind of suck right now. I feel something about my early life is important, but I’m not sure if I’m capturing it.
I always had the idea I’d save my early life for another book. It deserves a whole book, and, in fact, was going to be my first book. I prepared the manuscript as a series of journal entries, and to this day, the scenes are preserved in my memory as the journal entries. I fear I’ve forgotten the actual scenes—I just remember the journal entries. The scenes I’ve written for draft 2 of my memoir feel fabricated—or at least really detached from my feelings and memories.
Moving Forward, Nonetheless
This week I’m going to send off my new part 1 to Trish. Because I’ve had more time to talk to Trish, and because she’s seen the rest of the manuscript (or where I am going with it all), she will understand that, more than prose tightening, I need help deciding what to include about my early years. Maybe I even need help unlocking memory.
I doubt memory will come back in full color like it seems to for Helget and my fellow Minnesotan, and maybe that’s okay. In my daily life, I don’t often notice what’s around me (I know, I know—as a writer, I should work on this). I don’t think I’m going for a full-color memoir, though. I’m not sure. This is a style question I can work out later. But first things first: figuring out content, order of events, and narrative thread.
Wait a Minute…
Right before I hit “post,” a thought occurs: is writing in “full color” a way to actually unlock memory? What do you think, readers? Have I got the process wrong?