Thursday, February 3, 2011

Surviving February

Another month gone by, sliding into and past midwinter, and what a joy. The storm blew in, stayed a couple days, and created a deadly fairyland of ice-covered everything. After the power went out, and the heat, with all the candles lit, we sat in the quiet and listened to the craaack of huge branches, weighted down with ice, falling into yards, houses, and the streets. A house without heat, lit by candles, may look oh so romantic in a period English drawing room drama, but it's a lot less so. Still, we bundled and sat by the fireless fireplace and read. Luckily, we only had one night to imagine always living that way. Many are still without power, their homes getting colder and colder.

But, unable to stay home, disconnected from the world and freezing, we went to a local coffee house, which was full with others plugging in and escaping their own freezing homes. Quite convivial, actually, and not a bad way to spend the day. After checking my work and personal e-mail, I pulled my manuscript out of the cloud and resumed this edit. (Note previous posts about the never-ending process.) This one is going much more slowly than the last, mainly because of the astute eye and ear of a fellow writer who steered me to looking at the writing with both more distance and a sharper scalpel. In my cutting away anything that didn't drive the story forward, I'd sacrificed some motivation that remained in my head not on the page. We do need to know what's driving our characters, don't we? And knowing it, let the reader in on it as well. In short, the reader needs to care about the characters and understand them as much and as well as we do. But then the other side of that blade edge is the paring away of superfluous details, where, in our attempting to put the reader in the scene, we've felt it necessary to show every item on the breakfast plate. So, I've gone over the ever-important first paragraph, first page, first chapter, first three or four chapters, up to 50 pages (these being the order of importance in grabbing and holding the reader) and gone over them again. I had gone farther, but kept coming back and finding more honing needed.

So, to start this, in my opinion, dreariest, most difficult month of the year (yeah, Valentine's Day. Right), I decided to throw my first paragraph into an annual contest held by Nathan Bransford, an author, blogger, and, until recently, a literary agent at a top agency. He maintains a great blog full of incredibly useful information for writers about writing and about the publishing industry, and he has a huge following. Over 1,500 writers submitted their first paragraphs, so I thought my chances of being noticed were slim at best, but why not. Just before the storm hit, he posted his selection of finalists (the winner to be selected by vote by readers of his blog.) No, I wasn't a finalist. He chose 6 for that honor. But my paragraph was selected as one of the 11 honorable mentions. Okay, that's not going to buy me anything or even land me an agent or get me closer to selling this baby, but it sure as hell is nice to get a nod of validation from someone whose livelihood was reading queries and first paragraphs. Out of 1,500 first paragraphs. It helped get me through the storm. And, you know, they say writing is a lonely job, but I have to say that there are others out there who, in this age of electronic networking, make it far less lonely. I freely, humbly, and with gratitude, admit that my paragraph would not have been there without some really good collaborative reading and suggestions. Huge thanks to those eyes and ears (and the humans they belong to) for their comradeship and generosity.

Sometime it would fun to go back and count, through the many many revisions, how many different "first paragraphs" this story has had. It's a big number, I know. But now, while business is slow and winter is settled in, it's time to move forward, not back, with purpose. The ice outside is metling now, and the late afternoon sun is creating brilliant, dripping diamonds lining all the branches and shrubs, and I have a manuscript to get through, again. But hey, someone really cool thought my writing was worth a mention. I want to live up to that.

For anyone who cares to read that paragraph, by the way, look here: