Tag Archives: second draft

Rewriting, third drafts, feedback, and elevator pitches (in summary)

I decided to give myself the day off consulting work today and tackle the last chapter of the memoir rewrite instead.

73,276 words later I have a full third (or, uh, tenth or thereabouts) draft! I still don’t have a good title, but never mind. The marketing team came up with my hands came away red for my first novel and I loved it. Titles don’t seem to be my forte, and I’m hoping someone out there will be similarly inspired for this book.

That assumes, of course, that this book ever goes to print.

I’ve been reading a lot of writing blogs lately and one thing is for sure, everything is changing fast in the publishing industry with the rise of e-books and the rapid growth of self-publishing. I think I’d still like to go the traditional publishing route if I can get a contract that feels right, but that is by no means a given. It is perhaps even less likely now than it would have been even five years ago.

But that challenge is in the future. For now, I need to run this version past Mike, and then family and a few of the friends who populate the pages, before sending it to my agent. There’s a long way to go yet in this process of figuring out whether this book will ever find a home.

In my efforts to get this book as agent-ready as I could during the last four months I tried something new, hiring a professional to act as an external editor (thanks Amy Lyles Wilson!). It was a useful investment. Amy provided several key pieces of feedback, including that my opening wasn’t as strong as it could be (those all-important first few paragraphs needed to get to some action quicker). I should, she said, consider looking for a cleaner way into the story.

Most importantly, I think, she also recommended that I reconsider my use of letters between Mike and I. Given that some of this memoir tracks the development of Mike’s and my long distance relationship, I was faced with the challenge of how to write about this when we had no communication except via email before we met for the first time in Australia. In the second draft of this book I tackled this problem by crafting entire chapters composed of nothing but our emails.

These letters, Amy essentially told me, contained too many details that were mainly meaningful to Mike and I. They were too long, and it became too hard to track the thread of our story as well as the other themes through these chapters. Some of the issues we discussed in the letters were conversations worth having, but I needed to figure out how to have them in another way.

This feedback wasn’t as surprising or demoralizing as it might have been had I not previously given the manuscript to about ten good friends to read before it went to Amy. Opinion among the friends had been divided on the letters. About 40% of people loved them and 60% told me that they got bogged down or felt too much like voyeurs while reading them. Even before Amy mentioned the letters as an issue I was resigned to the fact that I’d need to re-craft those middle chapters.

It’s not fun pulling something apart  and redrafting yet again, but this is the seesaw process of editing. In the first draft I think I had too little of Mike’s voice in the story. In the second draft I inserted too much. Hopefully this third draft, like the little bear’s porridge, will be just right.

Another useful piece of advice Amy (and several others – thanks Joslyne in particular) gave me was to craft an elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is a summary of your story that could be delivered during the length of an elevator ride. The main benefit of this exercise, I do believe, is not to hone your pitch so that should you corner an unsuspecting editor in an elevator you can badger them. No, I found it valuable mostly because it forced me to think through how to distill the essence of the book in a way that conveys its themes and also piques interest.

So here’s what I’ve come up with so far as an elevator pitch. This, like everything else, is subject to future editing but it’s a good place to start. And, for me, starting is more than half the battle.

This is the story of an old-fashioned courtship made possible by modern technology – the tale of two people separated by the Pacific Ocean who build a long distance relationship entirely via email. Along the way the narrator – a global nomad who has spent her life as the transient resident of eight different countries – must confront troubling questions about where home really is and what it means to commit to a person, a place, or a career.

Writers, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned while rewriting your own work? Are you working on something now? If you have an elevator pitch, share it in the comments!

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Writing and rewriting our drafts

Michael Crichton is reported to have said, “Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”

I don’t know if I’m rewrite seven yet for this current book, but probably at least that if you count all the false starts I had before I even managed to piece the full first draft together.

I finished that first draft in November 2009, just before Mike got back from a month long consultancy in Aceh, Indonesia, and pretty much the minute he got home I thrust the manuscript into his hands. In retrospect, perhaps I should have waited until he was out of the jet lag zone before demanding feedback. Or perhaps I just don’t take feedback well from my nearest and dearest on my first drafts.

After finishing it, Mike told me that he didn’t have a great deal of empathy for the main character (me) because I hadn’t made myself vulnerable enough and taken him on an emotional journey.

“You come across as an interesting person,” he said. “But that is not enough to sustain my interest for a whole book and make me wonder, intrigued, what you’re going to do next. You need more depth. You need to take me on an emotional journey.”

I believe my graceful response to this feedback was, “You want a journey? Well you can just get back on a plane to Indonesia then.”

The book went on hold during the first half of last year as we traveled the world for work and prepared to move. But right after landing in Laos I settled in to my first big rewrite. I finished that in October last year and (after getting some invaluable feedback from friends, writing buddies, and an editor) I have just started my third rewrite. Apart from some prenatal yoga I haven’t done much else with myself this week, actually. It’s been book, book, and more book.

I find rewriting a little bit easier than writing, but it’s still a painful, absorbing, slog to pull apart something you’ve pieced together so carefully and try, again, to put it back together in a way that is tighter, cleaner, and better. It means cutting out passages you may have spent hours on, little details that are close to your heart, or things you think are funny but don’t do enough to move the story forward or develop character. It means sacrificing some passages you quite like.

Today I bring you one of those passages – a scene set during a seven hour drive from Arusha, Tanzania up to Nairobi, Kenya before flying home after a work trip.

The road from Arusha to Nairobi

“…There is little that is cute about villages in Tanzania. The houses are single rooms. The square ones are made of grimy beige bricks glued together with mud paste; their roofs, single sheets of rusting tin weighed down with rocks. The round huts are crowned by pointed cones of thatch – two or three of them clustered together, encircled by a tangle of acacia branches sporting wicked thorns.

No, these villages might be brave – to stake a claim to home in the face of the insistent bare dustiness that surrounds us – but they are not cute.

Occasionally the doorway or window frame of the tiny houses we passed were painted sky blue, but that bold dash of color only served to accentuate the surrounding shades of grey. It was mid October. The summer rains were due any day and they would be welcome, for in this waiting land everything was parched and crumbling. Some walls had holes in them. Many fences had gaps. Doors sagged, and cloth hung limp in windows that were empty of glass.

The feet of the children were whitened by dust.

The kids we saw were young – eight, maybe, or ten. They raised their hands and waved as we drove past, then went back to minding the goats or gentle-eyed cows that they were watching over.

We bumped along in the van, branding the emptiness behind us with a cloudy signature, and I gazed out the front window and tried to find something to think about that would prevent any dwelling on the fact that I was starting to feel carsick.

What would it be like, I wondered, to grow up here? What stories would you tell when asked of home by strange men living in Papua New Guinea? What sort of home did that stranger find himself in tonight?

As we motored north the sun sank slowly left and a full moon rose from the right. In seven hours we only stopped three times to allow herds of camels or cows to clear the road, once for the border, once for toilets, and once for a masculine pissing match on a one-lane bridge in the middle of nowhere.

It seemed to me that the bridge incident was sparked, as many pissing matches are, by sheer pigheadedness.

I was sitting in the front passenger seat of the van. It’s arguably not the safest seat on a local minivan in Africa, but I weighed seven hours of sweating and motion sickness in the back of the un-air conditioned bus against the high likelihood that I’d be killed or maimed in any accident and decided it was a risk worth taking.

So I had a perfect view of what happened when car met bus in the middle of the bridge at sunset.

Nothing.

Both vehicles powered down the bridge without pausing and then pulled to a fast stop, inches apart. Both drivers stared without moving for at least a full minute.

Three minutes later, however, doing “nothing” had escalated to flashing lights, gesturing at each other to back up, and yelling out the window.

I sat quietly. Very quietly. It’s usually best to avoid jumping into the middle of other people’s pissing matches if possible. Especially when you’re traveling alone in a foreign country and they are abusing each other in a language you do not understand.

The passengers in the back of the bus, however, didn’t share my compunction or my citizenship. When the driver of the other car opened his door and got out, shaking his fist, three men piled out from the back of our minivan. They were as exercised as the drivers and they strode to the front of the van, surrounded the other driver, and banged on the hood of his car.

I started praying that no one had a gun. In LA, this is the point in the story where someone would get shot, and that someone could well be the innocent bystander in the front passenger seat.

No one got shot. What happened instead was that the men from my van shouldered the other driver out of the way – almost toppling him off the bridge in the process – jumped into his car, and reversed it back down the bridge in a cloud of angry dust. Then they leapt back into our matatu we motored on, triumphant, to the chorus of many men in the back excitedly abusing the hapless driver of the smaller car and making lewd comments about the Masai woman in traditional dress who had been sitting submissively in the back seat and who was clearly, they said, not his wife.

This, the men concluded, making a stunning leap from the individual to the national after a 15-minute post-mortem of all the excitement, was what was wrong with Kenya today. Life in Kenya had become so fast-paced and cutthroat that it was producing people who would behave so rudely.

I chose not to point out that from where I was sitting it looked as if we’d both entered the bridge at about the same moment.

So that was the bus trip from Arusha. It was drama, and dry plains that stretched out to the low, flat, horizon. Driving into Nairobi in the dark there were just the hazy headlights of hundreds of trucks in front and behind, their bulks bare outlines in the thick clouds of dust we were weaving through. There were people there too – thousands of them – piling on and off minivans, headed for their fragile homes planted tentatively at the city’s edge. I was sweaty, and thirsty, and very small – just one face among many in a world that wasn’t mine.

And then, suddenly, a bewilderingly short time later, there was champagne. And I was staring out at the quiet tarmac from my seat on the plane to London.

We hadn’t even taken off, but I was already a thousand miles from the slums, trying to catch my breath. This world, with it’s neatly coiffed hostesses, seat-back televisions, and filtered air didn’t feel quite like mine either.

But surely, I thought, what was waiting for me on the other end of this month would fit more completely? My friends? My apartment? My bed?

After all, I was going home.

Wasn’t I?…”

A swimming hole near Arusha, Tanzania

If you’re a writer, which part of the process do you enjoy more – writing initial drafts, or rewriting them? What do you find most challenging about the rewriting process?

Draft two, check, and prologues

It’s only Wednesday here and it’s already been quite a week.

For those of you who are tracking with this story, I’ve been lobbying hard for the Samoyed. Thus far I’ve been entirely unsuccessful. Last night over pizza and red wine (lest I lead you to believe that life here is all pepsi and pig fat) I tried again.

“Jesus used the most unlikely raw material to accomplish his ends,” I said, taking a different tack after having talked for several minutes about the merits of dogs that stay playful well into old age. “I could mould her into a guard dog.”

“Let me point out to you, yet again,” Mike said, “that you are not Jesus.”

But it has not been all fun and games (or pleading and pouting) over here this week. All sorts of representatives of the powers that be are in town, discussing weighty matters. We are getting a close-up look at a “strong state” on a collision course with the operational culture of a large development organization. It’s not a pretty picture, but more on that later. Maybe.

I also have an update (quite a good one) on little orphan girl that I’ll try and write up soon.

While Mike’s been out trying to pour oil on troubled waters, I’ve been having Lao language lessons, and smiling my way through long official dinners, but mostly writing. And today, despite the third power cut this week (the electricity is still off as I write this), I reached a milestone. It’s only one of many on this long journey, but it’s an important one. Today I have a full second draft of the book I’ve been working on since we arrived here. I’m sure it’s not ready to go to press, but I think it’s stronger than the first draft. And that is great progress.

I ditched my prologue in this 2nd draft. I was listening to a recorded interview with Jane Friedman from Writer’s Digest recently on red flags in memoir. She had some interesting things to say about the opening scenes of memoirs.

“You shouldn’t put any speed bumps in the way of your readers in the first five pages,” she said. She recommended that writers think very carefully about whether they need a prologue, and that they only use one to add context that the reader absolutely must know.

“Don’t,” she said, “use it as a plot device.”

I quite liked the prologue in my first draft – I certainly had fun writing it. But the longer I thought about it, the more I thought Jane might have a point. The prologue I’d drafted wasn’t essential context, I was using it as a plot device, and it was probably confusing enough to count as a speed bump to a reader unfamiliar with my story (which, let’s face it, I hope most of them are otherwise this next book will sell, at best, a couple of hundred copies).

So I ditched it.

But while I don’t want to put speed bumps in the book, I have fewer hesitations about putting them up on the blog. So here is: the prologue that got axed. May it rest in peace…

Prologue

I didn’t get really nervous until the day before.

Perhaps it should have hit me earlier.

When he sent me that first letter from Papua New Guinea saying that he wanted to get to know me better.

Or when he wrote six weeks later telling me that he’d like to come to Australia while I was there in January, if I thought that would be OK?

Or as I crafted my carefully light reply – “that could be lots of fun” – and then informed my parents that I’d invited someone I’d never met, or even spoken to, to join us for two weeks of precious family holiday time.

But I didn’t get really nervous until the day before, and then it hit me all at once.

Who crosses an international border for a fourteen-day-long blind date – were we both insane? What if it was really awkward? What if it was just a big fizzle, like the last time I’d tried this? What if it turned out in the end that I had to break his heart? What if he broke mine? Would I even recognize him from the couple of photos I’d seen? And what on earth was I going to wear to the airport?

By the time I reached the arrivals lounge at Brisbane airport on Monday afternoon my palms were sweating and a whole rabble of butterflies were performing merry somersaults in my stomach.

I was anxiously early.

Customs was torturously slow.

For more than an hour I scanned the face of every male between the ages of twenty and fifty and tried to remember to breathe. Three times I moved, hesitant, towards total strangers only to stop short, ducking their puzzled gaze, a wave of heat washing up and cresting behind my eyes.

Then, suddenly.

There he was.