Revising the Novel: Knowing When You Need Help

If the writing life wasn’t also my career…
If the success of a first book wasn’t a platform for a second book…
If I didn’t need an advance to jump-start my next-step life objectives (ex. owning a house, growing a retirement fund, planning a honeymoon)…
If a self-funded, cross-country book tour was something I’d ever do again…

…then I could take my sweet time with this novel. I could spend, perhaps, ten years coming to it and leaving it alone as life dictated, eventually considering submitting to a smaller press regardless of whether or not I lost or made money.

But none of those things are true; not for me and not anytime soon unless I have a major change of heart and shift in my life focus. I chose this pressure and these parameters just like I pointedly understood I was not going to graduate school in order to become a full-time professor. Full-time writer, yes. Full-time teacher…wasn’t that the job I left in order to write more? Yes, yes it was.

To that end, I’ve hired help for my novel. I received professional feedback in August of 2013 that was curt, condescending, and occasionally accurate. The former two left me hollow (and I’ve got seriously tough skin, let me tell you–you don’t live out of your car for 3 years and get 44 rejections from presses and over 50 rejections from fellowships without getting tough skin), the last left me hopeful but also slightly directionless. I muddled through that, in thanks to many hours of self-designed study plans and Wonderbook, finally handing over 1/3 of the newly revised work last month to an agent I thought might make my dreams come true.

Dreams are dreams for a reason, though, and while mine certainly motivated me for many months to get the work done, I also received a hearty reality check when that agent made it clear once and for all that my plot sucks eggs. Among other things.

Time to hire more help, and this time I found someone with expertise in narrative exposition (my weak spot) who was likewise affordable and kind, while also not beating around the bush. Her feedback was diagnostic and prescriptive, inspiring me to step back and consider starting over with a new vision; the kind of feedback that sends writers back to the page, rather than running from it.

All of which is to say that, although writing may be a “solo sport” during the actual toosh-in-chair time, knowing when you need help and investing in that help (and therefore in yourself, your passions) is crucial to success. I know my limits. I’d taken the lessons from my last editor as far as I could take them and improved some things, but other large problems still loomed. I knew enough to know they were there, but not how to fix them. This most recent help doesn’t have all the answers, but she’s set me up for success in this next go-round and that’s priceless.

I might have been able to teach myself what she taught me with two, three, or four years of self-study and reflection, but I don’t have that kind of time and I know it. In the coming months, as I work through her tips and my own kinks in the creative process, I hope to share some of what I’m learning along the way. Meantime, I’m still processing and trying to let the feedback seep in deeply–as deep as possibly–as I regather and reorient for this next great leap.

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