Revisions with Celia, Part 2

You can read Part 1 here, or on the Absolute Write Water Cooler, along with a lot of other fabulous Halloween stuff.

“You’re avoiding the worst of it, you know,” she said.

I don’t know what I expected her to sound like. Joan Cusack, maybe, or Mel Blanc when he did the voice of that mobster who looked like a baby. But she sounded like a flight attendant, only less rehearsed, like the one on the flight I took back in 1986 when the TWA people were on strike: cheerful, slightly insolent, and not at all interested in whether or not I liked her.

“This chapter needs work, too,” I told her.

“Not the kind you’re giving it. You’re not fixing what’s wrong.”

“What do you know about it?”

“It’s too isolated from the rest of the story,” she pointed out. “You could remove the rest of the book, and it’d lose nothing. You’re not tying it into anything else.”

Well, hell. She had a point there. I picked up the second page and frowned at it; there had to be somewhere I could weave in some plot. A sentence or two, maybe. Maybe just dropping in another character’s name would do it.

“Plus there’s too much sex.”

I put the page down and looked at her. She was looking at me sideways. “There is not,” I said. “There is exactly as much sex as their needs to be.”

“There doesn’t need to be any.”

“Shut up.” She had made one good point, but I was done listening. She was a doll; what did she know about writing a novel? I picked up the page again, but my concentration was shot. I threw it down. “All right, what’s the worst of it?”

“You have no third act.”

This was getting ridiculous. “You’re talking about the first draft. I fixed that part.”

“You have no third act,” she repeated. “There’s no tension, no peril. Nobody really believes anything bad is going to happen. It’s like the sex; you could take it out, and it wouldn’t matter.”

“Would you get off of the sex?” I thought about the third act. There was a prison! And torture! And…Celia was really beginning to annoy me.

Celia stared at me from underneath her drawn-on eyelashes. “Look. The first act is workable. It starts kind of slow, but it has promise. The second act you set up some interesting questions. The denouement has a few moments, although you tie things up too neatly for my taste. But the third act…it’s tissue paper. You can see right through it. It falls apart if you push on it too hard. You want to sell the book, fix that.”

Now I had her. “But nobody’s read it,” I said smugly. “It’s not the book that’s been rejected, it’s the query letter.”

“You’re not working on that, either.”

Apparently there was no way to please Celia. “That’s a different art form. It’s marketing. I’m not in query-letter-mode right now.”

“You haven’t been in query-letter-mode for months.”

“So what?” I picked up the same page and stared at it, but really, it was just for show. “It’s not ready yet anyway.”

Celia sighed, and I’ll tell you, dolls really shouldn’t sigh. It’s a rickety, thick, contrived sound when you have no lungs and are made of plastic. “I take it back. It’s not your third act, or the sex. It’s you.”

Now it was my turn for the sideways look. “Is this the part where we switch personalities, and I wake up in the morning sitting on the nightstand, watching you get my kid ready for school?”

“That’s less derivative than your book.”

“What’s wrong with derivative? Derivative sells.

“Not if you don’t fix it.”

“So what would you have me do?” If she knew every damn thing, let her prove it. “Add something life-threatening? Earthquakes? Volcanoes? Killer bunnies? Oh, I know – a talking doll that kills people by driving them bat-shit crazy! Right?”

She looked at me, and she didn’t say anything, and I really wished I hadn’t said that.

“Look,” I said after a while, “I’m sorry. That was out of line.”

She was silent so long I began to wonder if I’d hurt her feelings.

“It’s just that I’m frustrated,” I explained. “With all the time and effort I’ve poured into this…I can’t get it right. I know if I just work harder, work longer, I’ll get it, and it’ll sell.”

No response.

“Fine.” I gathered up my mangled Chapter 2, and tossed the stack of papers onto the floor. “Be in a snit. See if I care. It’s late and I’m tired. Get off the bed and let me sleep.”

She didn’t move.

“Now you’re just being childish.” But it was no use; I’d wanted her to shut up, and shut up she had. With a sigh I picked her up and put her back on the nightstand, straightening her skirt so it covered her pudgy molded knees. She was looking the other way, staring at the opposite wall, unblinking, smiling. That was it; in the morning Celia was getting her picture taken, and I’d subject her to the vagaries of eBay.

I crawled under the covers and turned off the light, turning my back to Celia and burying one hand under my pillow. Slowly I began to lose awareness of the world around me, slipping comfortably into my own head toward sleep.

And then she finally spoke.

“You know,” she mused, “that killer doll thing? That’s not such a bad idea.”

I rolled over. I couldn’t see much of her in the dark, just a faint silhouette against the far wall of my bedroom. She didn’t move, but I stared at her all night, just to make sure.

Of course I must have dozed at some point. When I woke the sun was bright in the room, and it all seemed rather silly. She was sitting on my nightstand, posed, not a worry in the world, and the pages of my chapter lay scattered on the floor. I’d been working too hard, clearly. Never mind query-letter-mode; I hadn’t been in decent-novel-writing-mode in weeks. Months, maybe.

Celia was right. I needed a break.

I spent the morning buried in the Job from Hell, which has the virtue of sucking every creative impulse from my body. I did not think for one moment about third acts, query letters, or killer bunnies. I didn’t even think about Celia, but that’s mostly because I stayed holed up in my home office, studiously avoiding any reason I might have had to wander back into the bedroom. Yeah, there was the laundry, piled on the floor; but she was still sitting in there. The laundry could wait.

That afternoon I did what I always do when I work from home, and wandered down to the end of the driveway to get the mail. You wouldn’t have known it was routine based on my neighbors, though. The old lady who passes me every day jogging couldn’t be bothered to say hello this time; she just stared at me as she ran by. I figured maybe I’d forgotten to comb my hair when I got out of the shower; but before I could check, a passing car swerved and nearly ran into a telephone pole across the street. People are stupid around here at this time of year. Maybe it’s the impending holidays, or maybe it’s just the days getting shorter.

And of course my three outstanding rejections were in the mail. Lovely. Just what I needed after a sleepless night staring at my little plastic kibitzer, after I’d decided I wanted to ignore the damn book for a while. Well, might as well get the ego abuse over with. Leaving them on the kitchen counter wouldn’t make it any better. I carried it all back into the house and tossed the junk mail in the recycling bin, then ripped each letter open.

“Thank you for your interest. Unfortunately…”

“…appreciate your submission. Please note we do not…”

“…intrigued by your query, and would be interested in receiving pages.”

Wait, what?

I dropped the form rejections on the floor and started at the last one again…and sure enough, it wasn’t a rejection. It was an actual agent who actually wanted actual pages. Not just pages, but chapters. Even the problematic, honed-to-the-bone Chapter 2. She had liked my premise. She had liked my perky little sales pitch of a query letter. I had, so she said, piqued her curiosity.

“I am especially interested,” she wrote toward the end, “in seeing how you work the killer doll into the rest of the story.”

I frowned at that. Had I put a killer doll in after all? Well, why not? It wasn’t a terrible idea. Done before, sure; but done properly, in the right context? It could work. It could provide all the tension and peril I needed for my still-sagging third act. Celia was right. She was wrong about everything else, of course; but she was right about the third act.

The agent asked me to call when I received the letter so we could set up a time to meet, but before I call her, I need to find Celia. Just to thank her, you understand; after all, credit where credit is due. But she’s not on the nightstand anymore, and I can’t find her on the floor. She’s not in my daughter’s room, either, or anywhere else I can see.

Well, it’s not a big deal, I suppose. If I can’t find her I’ll comp my mother what Celia would’ve fetched off of eBay, and if she turns up, she turns up. In the meantime, there’s my wardrobe to be considered. What does one wear to meet a literary agent? A suit, to look professional? Jeans, to look confident and unconcerned?

Damn, I wish I had something to choose from besides this poufy purple dress.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real people is…oh, hell, you guys know who you are.


Revisions with Celia, Part 1

When it comes right down to it, this is all my mother’s fault.

My mother has always loved dolls. When I was a little girl, she gave me some of the dolls she’d had as a child: gorgeous, eighteen-inch beauties with real human hair and eyes that closed. Each came with an extravagant wardrobe hand-made by my grandmother, including everything from evening gowns to muslin underpants. Each doll was pristine, clean and cared for – my mother, even when she was little, was meticulous with her things.

Oh, how she wanted me to be a doll girl…but I hated them. After all, what could you do with a doll? Dress it up? Change its clothes? Do its hair? I didn’t even like doing my own hair. And baby dolls? I was the youngest, but I still knew about babies. Sure, they were cute; but then there was the feeding and the changing and the cleaning up. And the crying. I never saw a baby that was anything like one of the elegant dolls my mother gave me.

I never understood the purpose of dolls. I still don’t. And my mother still loves them. Which is how I ended up with Celia in my bedroom on the nightstand.

Celia is one of those weird Kewpie dolls, with the red mohawk and that mischievous sidelong look. She has clothes, at least, although my mother tells me they are not original. Someone sewed her a hideous poufy purple dress, and tied a matching satin bow around her plastic head. I am having trouble deciding if the clothes make her more or less weird.

“She won’t like it,” I told my mother, when she brought the doll for my daughter. My daughter is eight, and an organizer. She collects only Barbies because they are all the same size. She strips them naked and lays them down in neat rows on the floor, arranged by hair color. Her room looks like a little Mattel morgue.

“That’s okay,” my mother said airily. “If she doesn’t like it, we can sell it. It’s in good shape; that woman at the garage sale didn’t know what she had. You can help me list it on eBay, can’t you?”

My daughter, with her wonderful streak of brutal honesty, took one look at Celia and frowned. “What’s that?” she asked me.

“It’s a doll,” I told her. “Grandma brought it for you.”

Her nose wrinkled. “It’s kind of weird.” She looked at me. “Maybe you should keep it.”

So Celia ended up on my nightstand, waiting for the day when I’d have the time and inclination to take some fuzzy photographs and list her online.

The timing has been awful. There’s the Job from Hell, of course, which still pays the bills; but mostly it’s my damn novel. Turned down by twenty-seven agents already, with three rejections pending. When I started all this I promised myself I’d give it at least a hundred; but that was back when I thought, in the back of my mind, that my novel would sell really fast. Twenty-seven form rejections later, I’m realizing I may have a problem. Evenings I spend editing the damn thing, polishing it down to the bone. If anybody ever asks me for pages, I’ll probably have nothing left to send. But I keep polishing anyway, and lately I don’t sleep very much. My daughter comes by her OCD honestly, I guess.

So last night, while I was sitting up in bed poring over my double-spaced printout of Chapter 2, I was not entirely surprised when Celia stood up, jumped onto the bed, and sat down next to me.

Part 2

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real people is…oh, hell, you guys know who you are.


Next week, I’m going to be posting something a little different here.

A friend of mine on my writing group asked if I would participate in an on-line All Hallows Eve party, and I’ve written a little short story for it. The idea is to post the first part on the message board, and then link to the blog for the second, but I’ll include the first part here as well.

I don’t think it’s especially scary, but it has been fun to write.

Look for the two parts to go up on Tuesday the 30th.

Impostor Syndrome

(For most of my life, I thought “Impostor” ended in “-er.”)

I’ve learned a few things over the last couple of days. One of those is that the bravado I wrote of in my last post was somewhat premature. Criticism might be necessary to get a book finished, but it can also make me seriously consider skipping the whole thing. (Yes, I know that’s an overreaction, and I’ll get to that.)

I submitted the Problematic Prologue to my writing group for critique, and I feel like I’ve been run over a cheese grater. Little peels of bleeding, oozing Lizmonster are littering the floor of my house. My husband has no idea what to do with me; he’ll probably never agree to read my book now. (I may ask him to read but not critique, which would let us both off the hook.)

In retrospect, I made a few errors when submitting. First and foremost, I should have told people I thought the piece was a problem and was looking for help. That would have alerted people that I knew there were issues, and that they could skip all the “You need to go and learn about writing” advice. Second, I should have told them why I thought I needed a prologue. (Someone asked me that in his response.) Prologues are viewed with deep suspicion, and probably with good reason. Without a distinct purpose, they really shouldn’t exist. I should have made the purpose of mine clear; people could have helped me figure out how to make it do what I wanted, instead of just telling me it was dull.

Because that was the gist of it: dull and uneventful. And they are right, and for the most part I found that really helpful to hear. It made me realize I’ve been approaching this prologue from the wrong angle all along – no wonder I haven’t been able to make it work. I’ve been trying to jam it with exposition and background and backstory, and introduce some character relationships. That’s not a hook, that’s a reader’s guide. It doesn’t belong as part of a prologue to a suspense story.

My writing buddy – who appears to have figured out I’m still something of a hothouse flower in this environment – was extremely tactful and precise in pinpointing what was wrong. In the prologue, my character is thinking about one thing while doing something else. Instead, he needs to be doing something while thinking. What he’s doing – an action that precipitates the entire plot of the book – needs to be the focus. Noodling around in his head may be OK, but only if it adds texture and tension to his actions.

And all that backstory and character crap? Who the hell needs it in a prologue? Why was I jamming it in there?

I actually found an answer to that one: Because I forgot what my book was about.

For a while I’ve been wrestling with how science-fictiony the story is. More than one person has asked me why it’s set in the future. “Because it is” seems to be an insufficient response. I tried, in the query letter, emphasizing the other-worldliness of it, but for the most part those details just got in the way. In the prologue, I tried to include more setting to fix the reader in my universe – and there it’s nothing but clutter.

I’ve known from the beginning I have a genre problem with this book. It’s not hard SF, despite faster-than-light travel and terraforming. It’s an amateur-detective mystery, complete with the fish-out-of-water living in the small town. It’s a romance, after a fashion, although that’s not a point of conflict. It’s speculative fiction, set in a relatively now-like future, and I’ve been trying to evoke ray guns and high tech when that stuff just isn’t important to this story.

Genre, I think, is mainly at issue when you’re marketing. When you look for an agent, you want to send a query to someone who represents your type of book. When you’re selling, you want people to understand what kind of book they are buying so they aren’t disappointed. I’d call my book a murder mystery, but there aren’t a lot of futuristic mysteries out there that aren’t sold as SF. (J.D. Robb comes to mind, but I suspect a lot of her audience crosses over from her romance fandom. Additionally, her universe is only about 50 years in the future.)

I’ve known from the beginning that this one – even if I write it the way I want – would be a tough sell. Until a few months ago, I was on the fence about attempting traditional publiishing. I finally decided I should at least give it a try, and suddenly I got caught up in trying to shoe-horn what I was writing into what I thought might be marketable.

Like the prologue, I was doing it backwards. I was trying to change my book into what I thought someone might want instead of figuring out how to find out what agents might want the kind of book I have.

It’s interesting. My sequel is, in a lot of ways, much more traditional SF, and much more traditional romance. I suspect it will be easier for me to write a query for it that falls into a well-defined genre.

But what of this book?

I’ve taken the next week off of work, and I’m going to do one last hard revision before getting ready for beta. (Because, despite wanting to wrap it up in cotton and keep it safe from naysayers after the prologue critique, I’m still sending it out to beta.) And while I’m doing that, I’m not going to think about what I need to add to make it more science-fictiony; I’m going to think about character and consistency and pacing. That will likely include more science fiction elements, but it’ll include a lot of other things as well. I’ll be fleshing out the whole story, not just soldering on window dressing.

So, given that posting for critique got me such great answers, what was so awful about it?

I’ve been writing for more than 40 years. I have a style. There’s a rhythm to my prose that sometimes wanders toward stream-of-conscioiusness. Sometimes it works pretty well. Sometimes it turns into chewing gum and needs to be pulled apart. My style, though, is what it is, and it’s not going to change.

One critic hated my prose. It flat-out annoyed him. That, above and beyond the useful criticisms I got from him and others, really threw me. I dropped right into the black hole of self-doubt. What if I can’t do this? What if the problem is not my prologue, or lack of ray guns, or too few suspects? What if – despite a lifetime of practice – I just can’t write?

I do recognize what an overreaction that is. For one thing, a couple of people specifically said they liked the style of it, and were just pissed off that nothing happened. For another thing – oh, all the famous writers I don’t enjoy. Hemingway, Faulkner, Melville, Thoreau, Steinbeck…undeniably great writers that people have loved to read for decades. I don’t like their prose. That doesn’t mean they can’t write; it just means that they’re not writing for me. And so what?

I’m not writing for this critic. He would hate the rest of my book, even the parts I am happier with. Guess what? He’s not the only one. A lot of people are never going to like the way I write, no matter what story I am telling. That’s not humility, it’s just statistics.

And still, the self-doubt spiral. Impostor syndrome. This thing that I’ve wanted to do my whole life – what if I am really terrible at it?

What would convince me I’m not?

The Importance of Critics

“It is dreadful. Scrap it.”

That is an actual quote from a writing critique board that I frequent.

It’s worth stating that the critic provided additional feedback that was more substantive, and the author had the good grace to thank him. It’s probably also worth noting that the piece being critiqued was indeed rough, sloppy, and unfocused (in my opinion, of course). In other words: harsh or not, there was more than a grain of truth to what was written.

But I think most writers fear hearing something like this.

It’s a funny thing. We sweat and slave to tell a story that we hope will be read by complete strangers, but soliciting critical feedback is terrifying. Not because we worry someone will point out a repeated phrase, or too many paragraphs of backstory, or some massive continuity error (well, actually, that one is pretty worrying) – but because we worry someone will say “No, you can’t write. Now stop it and go home.”

Impostor syndrome is hardly isolated to writers; but I think artists in particular can be vulnerable – which is especially odd, since artists also tend to have remarkably resilient egos. I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and there’s nothing anyone could say – no matter how harsh – that would make me stop.

Which does not mean I’m any good; but I digress.

I realized, in chatting with one of my soon-to-be-beta readers, that my book is just about a year old. I came up with the idea in October, and dashed out an anemic first draft with the help of NaNoWriMo. If it ever sees the light of day, it will likely be at least two years old – and it won’t look much like it did at the start. If it ever sees the light of day, it will be entirely to the credit of my critics.

I distinguish here between critic and critique. Critiques are also important, of course. A good critique is an invaluable gift: someone who reads your work, and can explain in detail what does and does not work – and, more importantly, why – should be treasured, and lavishly rewarded.

Not every critic will write a good critique. Not every critic will write a critique at all. But every critic who is willing to share is offering a different perspective on your work. Agree or disagree with what they say – but what they are offering is a truth. A critic is sharing with you their personal reaction to your work, and whether or not it’s easy to hear, it’s reality.

I had a hard time putting my work up for critique. The first time I chose a fairly safe venue – the forums at NaNoWriMo. The second time I chose my mother. (It really doesn’t get much safer than your mother; although my mom has assured me that if she thought I was going to embarrass myself publicly with this book, she’d find a way to tell me so.)

The third time, I posted a draft query letter to the same writing group that produced the critique I quote above. After all, I thought, surely I’ve seen the worst. Surely nobody could say anything worse to me than that.

These people pulled apart, rewrote, criticized, and asked questions. They told me what just didn’t work, what they didn’t care about, what I should be making them care about. They made confetti out of what I had posted – and I’d thought it was pretty good.

It was wonderful.

I had myself, and one good-hearted responder on NaNoWriMo, and my mother believing that maybe this book wasn’t some horrid piece of dreck I ought to abandon. And now…I have another half-dozen or more who may or may not want to read the book – but who didn’t read the query and say “Wow, give it up!” More than that – they commented on what I wrote with the assumption that I could make it better, that it was not ability holding me back, but simply a lack of perspective.

The value of a critic is not specific to what they say. The value of a critic is that they are not you. They are not scalp-deep in character and story and plotline. They are not madly in love with a metaphor or a turn of phrase or a lovely piece of backstory that isn’t really necessary – but oh, isn’t it pretty? The value of a critic is that they are a reader who is willing to talk to you about their experience with your creation.

What I posted was a query letter – a sales pitch. That, too, was a cop-out of sorts; I asked for critiques of an advertisement, not a product. I have been considering posting my Problematic Prologue, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just as terrified as I was before.

But I understand better, now, what I might expect to learn from how people respond – regardless of whether they find anything redeemable in the passage. Even bad feedback – or feedback I disagree with, or choose not to act on – helps me to see my own work more clearly. It helps me make this book the best it can possibly be.

Bring on the critics.