Last December, I did something scary and expensive but necessary to advance my writing career. I sent my novel to Tim Storm, founder of Storm Writing School and an excellent editor, in Madison, Wisconsin. Why? I had finished my first novel, revised it as well as I could, but had reached the end of my knowledge (and my patience) for how to make this particular book the best it can be. I sent it to Tim because I trust him. I’ve taken classes from him and know his skill with editing and also his thoughtful way of handling stories and authors. Mostly, I sent it to him because my writer’s instinct told me something was wrong with my manuscript that I didn’t know how to fix. And I was right.
A little over a month after I sent my manuscript to Tim, he emailed me with his feedback. He included a comprehensive letter telling me what I had done well and what still needed work. He included an outline and critique of each scene in the book, and he returned my manuscript with comments throughout the pages. He sent me so much information that I’m still a little overwhelmed and am processing how to move forward. But more information delivered expertly is a good thing. It shows me what to do, and I no longer feel bewildered and stuck. Now I just have to digest his advice, decide what to do, and move forward one step at a time.
Why is this particular novel so complicated for me? I think it’s because it’s my first one, and also because I didn’t outline it before I started writing. I pantsed it–meaning I wrote it from the seat of my pants, so I don’t have a plan to look back on, only the story, which is big. It’s an historical novel with two points of view, which I love, but that makes twice the problems for a new fiction writer. The story takes place in 1868, so I have history woven in. It’s a lot to deal with.
The main protagonist is Faith Gentry; and the secondary protagonist is Josiah Hamilton. They each have their arcs of change, but Faith’s has never been as clear to me as Josiah’s. I worked on her arc, which should show how the character changes over time. I even rewrote the book from its original incarnation, but something was and is still missing. Tim confirmed Faith’s arc is not well-developed, so now I have to do the real work of clearly showing how she changes so I can FINALLY finish this first book of mine. I call it my “learn-to-write-a-novel book.”
In the time before I Tim sent his feedback, I worked on my second book. This time I am using a book by Jennie Nash, called Blueprint for a Book. I may be slow to learn, but learn I do. No more pantsing for me! While I was browsing Instagram, I ran across a newly certified book coach named Kerry Savage who was trained using Blueprint, and she was inviting people to sign up for a free book coaching session before she booked clients. I signed up and loved talking about my book with her for an hour on Zoom.
We discussed how I was struggling to figure out the main character’s wound or misbelief. That’s important because the wound is something that causes the character to believe something, which turns out to be wrong. Throughout the book, she has to change to get what she wants in life. Without that piece of the puzzle, you basically don’t have a story, just a series of events. (Remember Faith’s problems? Yeah, this is what i have to do for her arc.) Kerry’s advice to me was to write several scenes of backstory from the character’s childhood and adolescence to help me find her misbelief. That stuck with me. I figured it out for my new book, but I can use the same process to figure out Faith’s misbelief. Thank you Kerry Savage!
What are my next steps you ask? With a sense of excitement and something akin to dread, I’m reading my whole manuscript along with Tim’s comments again. I’ll be taking notes on sticky notes and adding them to Tim’s comments so I can ask him questions. After that, I’ll call him, and we’ll discuss. Then I’ll probably eat the frog: deal with the most difficult of the problems in the manuscript first, which for me is Faith’s arc. Changing that will affect many scenes in the book.
I don’t know how long it will take me to finish revising this manuscript. I’ll set a goal, but if these past two years have taught me anything, it’s that I can make plans, but that doesn’t mean I can keep them. All I know is that before the end of summer, I’ll either be querying agents, or I’ll be working on publishing Faith Can Move Mountains. I’m still astonished that I’ve written a whole book! Maybe that astonishment will fade over time, but I doubt it. I’ve achieved a goal I’ve had for as long as I can remember. Isn’t every English teacher’s goal to write the great American novel? Probably. Now I just have to make sure I’m proud of the final result.
If you’ve written and revised a novel, I’d love to know how you revise. What do you do first? Do you follow a plan or do you take it one page at a time?