The Dementor Blues
My husband and I spotted this dementor/moss creature hybrid on our morning walk. I love the way its hair glows against the leaves. J.K. Rowling drew from her experience with depression when she created the dementors. She introduces the creatures in her third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban with Harry describing their effect as cold that reached inside his heart and Ron saying he felt he would never be cheerful again.
That sums up my mood as I dealt with Caroline Leavitt's review of my new book's first ninety pages. After almost two weeks, I've sorted her advice into: Totally Agree, Need To Think About It, and What? I can't find my story's start now. The emotional conflict departed with the first two chapters and the plotline driving the following eight chapters was destroyed. In other words, it's a train wreck. In order to continue working on the rest of the novel, I swept the wreckage into a metaphorical room and I'm not opening that door until the entire book is written.
But when that time comes, I'll want clear notes that help reconstruct the book's opening so I need to ask more questions. I hope I've recovered enough to respond to Caroline's advice with some objectivity. I like that she encourages questions. I imagine if she taught a physical class, there'd be lots of lively discussion. She has a good sense of humor . . . more Dumbledore than Voldemort. I'm not sure what I'll do with her suggestions that conflict with my previous learning. I was committed to that learning and its sources and I don't know Caroline well enough to toss it out. Maybe I need to shut the opposing views in another room and let them duke it out. I'm tired of wrestling with the issue and I have dementors to battle. Caroline offered advice from John Irving: If you don't feel you are on the edge of humiliating yourself or losing control of the whole thing, then what you're doing isn't vital. If you don't have some doubt of your authority to tell this story, then you're not trying to tell enough. I can't argue with John Irving.
Writer Needs Cape
That's a rain tree in bloom. In another couple weeks the yellow blossoms will morph into papery rose-colored seed pods, followed by an invasion of rain tree, seed-loving insects called Jadera bugs or soapberry bugs. The rain trees' brilliant show is one more sign Florida's easing out of summer.
But I digress. I should be writing about my mentorship. Correction. I should be working on the second hundred pages of my novel. I'd like to blame this lethargy on Monday. Truth is, I'm tiptoeing around my writer self, leery of undoing the flimsy bandaid that's holding her together.
Caroline Leavitt responded to the first ninety pages of my book with constructive criticism and a dollop of praise. She asked questions that drove me deeper into the story, addressed weaknesses in the plot and undeveloped characters, and encouraged me to ask questions. I digested the review and a few days later I responded to Caroline with more questions and some clarifying notes about plot and character motivation. So far, so good. Sure, hearing I started the story too early (meaning chapters one and two were trash) hurt. But I was feeling challenged and motivated and the story was growing.
Then, I got Caroline's response to my response. She liked some of the new plotlines and character development and she says this is a great story . . . at heart. Who doesn't want to hear their story's great? It's the caveat that worried me. That along with the rest of the comments that felt like they wiped out the other eight chapters I sent. It's amazing how fast the thrill of seeing ninety pages in print turns into the agony of imagining them shredded. I spent four days in a torrent, my brain spinning around and around the issues with no results. Yesterday, my brain shut down and I'm leaving it be. In the meantime, my story's stopped and I wonder, was this mentorship a mistake? Maybe I'm not ready for this level of criticism. I've only been writing for four years and my education's spotty. Maybe, I don't know enough to understand what Caroline's trying to teach me.
Trusting someone you've only just met with your book is hard. No matter how much you respect the person who recommended them and how shiny their credentials. When they ask you to put aside your doubts and believe in their instincts, it feels like jumping without a parachute. If their advice conflicts with what you've learned, you need a super hero's courage to jump from the plane. I've never worn a cape. Right now, I'm hiding in the bowels of the aircraft where no one can find me.
Ninety Pages and a Synopsis
Look at that . . . there's blue sky and trees out there! I've been huddled over the computer for fourteen straight days, finishing ninety pages and a synopsis to send to my mentor, Caroline Leavitt. Today, I printed them and tomorrow I'll mail the package. It was so cool to see that stack of printed paper, the beginnings of a real book. It feels like an accomplishment. It's hard to get that sense from a computer file.
Two weeks ago, Caroline said to send the messy draft but I couldn't do it. The story had changed too much since I started. Plot lines had veered and I worried it wouldn't make sense. I thought, I'll just zip in there and tidy things up, a week, ten days tops, I'll be done. Uh-huh. Once I opened that door, the story took over. It whispered new thoughts, enlightened me about characters' motivations, tweaked scenes. I carried a notebook around, scribbling through the day and night. I'd edit ten pages; then each morning, I'd pull out my notes and revisit scenes. Finally, I stomped my foot, faced the story and hollered, "This isn't supposed to be a real revision!" And so it allowed me to finish what I started but only if I promised to keep taking notes for the REAL REVISION.
Day before yesterday, I faced the synopsis with headache-inducing dread. I started this book without an outline and so far the story's unfolded chapter by chapter. I have a clear image of the ending but the unwritten chapters in between are up in the air. After one-hundred pages, I feel I'm just getting to know my characters. The story arc isn't complete and it's unclear how conflicts will be resolved. I wasn't sure how to approach the synopsis and I can only hope what I wrote makes sense. As uncomfortable as the experience was, I'm glad to have attempted it at this stage. I think it will help when it's time to write one for queries.
This afternoon, I'm taking a break to catch up on friends' blogs and write this post. Tomorrow, I owe everyone and their brother an email. Friday, I pick up where I left off . . . Page 91.
Warning: Drama Dump Imminent
And by drama, I mean writer hysterics. It won't be pretty and it's likely to continue for the next few months. The cause? I've entered a mentorship agreement with New York Times bestselling author, Caroline Leavitt. When I first heard of mentorships, my brain conjured images of Dorothy and Glenda, Harry and Dumbledore, Frodo and Gandolf. I loved the idea of a sage hand guiding my work. But I knew I had much to learn before I'd understand a mentor's wisdom.
So for three years I continued learning: in critique groups, books, conferences, online classes, and I wrote and wrote and wrote. Last week, Julianna Baggott, the author who led the YA workshops at Eckerd College's 2011 Writer's in Paradise Conference, wrote a post about building your own MFA. She listed several writers who teach, edit and mentor. This seemed like divine intervention. I had been scanning 2012 conferences but none of them felt "right." Was I ready for a mentorship? I tiptoed through the writer's links in Julianna's post and settled on Caroline. Why did I choose her? First, the information available provided a good picture of what to expect from her services. She teaches online classes at UCLA, which offer course descriptions and a syllabus. Then there's her website, featuring a bio, her books and a blog. I was impressed with her writing and her syllabus and I felt I knew a little bit about her after my research.
I drew a deep breath and sent Caroline an email. She promptly responded with an enthusiastic message, thorougly describing her classes and personal mentorships. She feels the writer/editor relationship should feel right to both parties and offered to review three pages for free. I sent the first three pages of my book Sunday afternoon and a couple hours later they returned with Caroline's comments. I was pleased with her balanced blend of encouragement and criticism and it appeared she could stomach my writing. Another deep breath later, I agreed to send the first hundred pages of my book along with a synopsis, followed by the rest of my book in chunks. More deep breaths, or was that hyper-ventilating?
Then self-doubt demons attacked. What was I thinking? I only had one hundred pages of a first draft; how did I know I could write the rest of the novel? Maybe I wasn't cut out to be a novelist. The story probably wasn't worth Caroline's time. Those imps spun a convincing doubt campaign. I pictured my protaganist and a fierce voice rose to her defense, sending the demons back to their dens. The story would be told. Tuesday, I withdrew from my critique groups to clear my schedule for intense writing time. The hardest to leave was PB&J, my picture book group. They're a source of inspiration and they feel like family. For two days, I've been saying temporary good-byes and receiving best wishes for this project. I feel bolstered by these friends, fellow children's writers traveling a well-worn path to publication. Yesterday, I explored my expectations for this mentorship. I'm not Dorothy, searching for home, Harry, battling evil or Frodo, tempted by a cursed ring, and I don't expect magical wisdom from Caroline. I hope this partnership bolsters my drive to finish this book and the guidance to make it the best it can be. Mostly, I hope to be a better writer when its done.
I write middle grade and young adult books with a magical twist. I'm represented by the fabulous Leslie Zampetti of Dunham Lit.
Lorin Oberweger - Freelance Editor