Dear Dream . . .

From “Blogging 101,” Day Four’s assignment:

Publish a post you’d like your ideal audience member to read, and include a new-to-you element* in it.

So that audience would be . . . my dream agent, who may at this very moment be checking out my website to see who this new voice is—the one whose manuscript she requested three months ago, and she hasn’t had time to read it yet, but she just pulled it from the slush pile yesterday afternoon, and she stayed up all night reading and finished it at four this morning, and then she couldn’t get to sleep, couldn’t wait to pick up the phone–what time will Gerry be awake, Central Time? Is 7:00 too early to call?–and give me the news I’ve been waiting breathlessly for:

Yes, she loves my historical novel! Yes, she wants to represent me! Yes, she already has an editor in mind who’ll love the book as much as she does and will be fabulous to work with! Yes, she anticipates a six-figure advance.

Isn’t that everybody’s dream?

Just in case you’re cruising blogs right now, Dream Agent of Mine, this is for you:

About the book

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Process / G. Wilson

Dear _____________:

Spirit Lamp, a literary historical novel set in the harsh landscape of rural Mississippi around the time of World War I, is the story of Leona Pinson, a sixteen-year-old white girl who gives birth to an illegitimate son. A feisty girl, Leona refuses to name the child’s father and lives with her shame. An elderly black sharecropper, Luther Biggs, is Leona’s only ally against her troubled brother, Raymond. As Luther’s strength fails and Raymond’s cruelty escalates, the survival of Leona and her son depends on her courage and cunning. When the child’s father, Walker Broom, returns after the war, the deception that has kept Leona and Walker apart unravels. Ultimately, Leona faces her brother alone, a confrontation that leads to his death and freedom for Leona and Luther.

Here are the opening paragraphs:

In the early, dark hours of the morning, Leona Pinson’s aunt perched like a doll in the straight chair near Leona’s bed, her short legs dangling. Sometime yesterday, Aunt Sally Pinson had put the sharpest knife they owned under Leona’s bedstead.

“To cut the pain,” she’d said. “An ax blade would do better.”

That knife was not helping Leona much.

When she cried out, her aunt slid down off the chair and went to the bureau where the basin was. She used a milking stool as a step, wrung out a cloth with her stubby fingers, came back to the bed, and hoisted herself up. She started to bathe Leona’s face, but Leona covered her eyes with her hands and turned away. She didn’t want to see Sally’s large head and jutting chin, her bulging eyes, her stunted arms and legs. What if her own baby were born like that as a punishment?

About the author

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At Lemuria Books, Jackson, MS

A seventh-generation Mississippian, I was born in the hill country I write about in Spirit Lamp. The place and the characters ring true for me. I grew up in the household with my maternal grandmother, a terrific storyteller whose tale of her father’s murder figures in the novel.

I sometimes call myself a late-blooming author. I raised my kids as a single mom, taught English and writing to high school students for more than twenty years, wrote late at night in little scraps of time I could steal. I retired to do what I’d always wanted to do–write fiction.

Now I have a collection of short stories to show for it–Crosscurrents and Other Stories–and last year, I was a Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Fellow. I’ve published stories in some good places. “Mating,” a short story, won the Prime Number/Press 53 Short Story Award in 2014. I’m working on another book, a contemporary novel this time, that nags and niggles away at me, keeping me awake nights, with a main character who will not let me go.

I write because I love to do it. Well, that’s not quite true: sometimes I hate it, but I can’t not do it. Maybe I should be satisfied with writing good short stories, keeping up this blog, taking a great workshop now and then, publishing some.

But you know, I want the dream.

So Dream Agent, if you’re out there–and I know you are–how about giving me that call? I’m here. I’ll answer. I’ll work hard. I’ll give you the best book I possibly can.

Sincerely,

Gerry Wilson

phone: xxx-xxx-xxxx

*The “new elements” are the epistolary style and, well, a little humor!

Challenge: Are you searching for an agent? Do you have any tips you would like to share here?

 

 

Story Surgery

A week or so ago, I re-read one of my short stories I hadn’t looked at in a while. I have to confess I’d felt a little smug about this one. (I almost never feel confident about what I write.) It’s unlike anything else I’ve written—a little edgy, playing around with POV and dialogue. Tight. Or so I thought. But I’d submitted it a few times with no luck–a sign the story isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s not as good as it could be.

I had never been truly satisfied with the ending, so I started there. I agonized. I lost sleep. I worked on the last two paragraphs for days (yes, sometimes that’s how long it takes), and finally, the ending seemed to gel. No small victory, that.

Then I read the entire story again—one last time, I told myself. I looked at white space, checked for typos. I had already read it for clichés, sentence variety, scene/narrative summary balance, tension, character arc/change, “flow” . . . If you’re a fiction writer, you know the drill. As I read, though, I realized the story was still heavy with gratuitous details and phrases, even whole sentences that didn’t contribute much.

Cutting Room Floor

"Possible Cut" by patpitchaya. Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
“Possible Cut” by patpitchaya. Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

So I started cutting. By the time I was done, the story was almost 500 words lighter. Tighter. Stronger. Why had it taken me so long to see what it needed?

Sometimes, time and distance give me perspective. I agree with the advice to “put it away for a while,” then reread with a sharp, critical eye. I often puzzle over a story for a long time before I figure out what it really needs. (Occasionally, I never figure it out, but that’s another post.)

Someone—surely more than one writer of advice on story craft—has said that nothing should go in the story that doesn’t advance it in some way. Nothing.

That, I believe, is the crux of revision whether you’re writing short or long fiction.

Ask yourself: Does this scene/ paragraph/dialogue/sentence/image/particular word (yes, word choice) move the story forward and/or grow the character? What does it add? Strike it out and read the passage aloud without it. See if you miss it, not because it was a brilliant turn of phrase but because without it, something absolutely essential has gone missing from the story. If not, cut. Cut. Cut. Painful, but necessary.

Be wary of language that calls attention to itself. In this story, I threw away a metaphor I loved. It was a beautiful image, but it didn’t do anything for the story. Sometimes we do indeed have to “kill our darlings.”

Granted, it’s possible to chop the life right out of a story. I know. I’ve done it. But sometimes, if we cut a story to its bones, we find a better way to tell it.

Before and After

I want to share a couple of examples. This story, “Miracle of Doors,” is about a woman recovering from breast cancer. Out of context, these passages won’t mean much, but they illustrate the kind of cutting and refining I’m talking about. (Her cat, Miso, plays an important role in the story.)

Here they are, side by side:

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Before, after

This gives you an idea of my “tightening” process when I’m down to the last passes through a story. Sometimes it’s not the number of words but the words themselves that matter most. Maybe you’re able to write concisely or revise as you go. I tend to discover as I go; I write long drafts and whittle them down.

A story draft is the easy part. Revision is key to a polished piece of writing you can be proud of. Before you send the story out into the world: Refine. Make every word count!

Do you have favorite revision strategies? Share one with me!

Create/Gerry Wilson
Create/Gerry Wilson

I haven’t shared a Monday Discovery with you in a while. Here’s a quote from “Mantra for the Novelist” by Jael McHenry, debut novelist and contributor at Writer Unboxed. The entire article spoke to me, but these words really hit home:

People who don’t write any better than you do are making money doing what they love. People who made the right connection. People who were in the right place at the right time. Don’t begrudge them their success; they have nothing to do with you. You are your own person, writing your own words, working toward your own goals. Don’t be bitter. Don’t be angry. Be focused. Be self-centered in that good way, in the way that means you are wholly dedicated to perfecting your own craft, executing on your own plans, diligently moving forward, ever forward.

If you are a novelist who has not yet published a book, this inspiring read is for you! Go read it. Now.