Preparing to start Revision #1049

Does anyone else feel overwhelmed when they’re about to start a revision?

I can deal with little changes. But big-picture changes, ones that will improve the story arc or theme, fixes that are arguably the most important — those feel daunting. Then again, what wouldn’t feel daunting when looking at a 273-page document? (About 84,000 words, for those of you who are counting).

Here’s what gets me through it: knowing that this revision will make the book so much better. Because every time I rewrite this manuscript, it gets stronger. And that puts me that much closer to being ready to submit to publishers.

How do you keep from feeling overwhelmed when you start a new revision? Or any big project?

Taking honesty to a new level (in your writing)

Writing an awesome memoir requires being honest with the reader.

This is pretty basic, Memoir Writing 101. You’ve got to reveal your true self through your story, because if you don’t, readers will know it. They might not be able to put their finger on it, but they’ll know something’s off. If you’re not completely and utterly honest, your voice won’t feel authentic and the story won’t work.

So we know the importance of being honest with the reader. But what about being honest with yourself?

During my last round of revisions, I kept feeling like something was missing from my story arc, from my tale of personal growth. It took a lot of digging, but I finally realized I wasn’t being completely honest with myself about why I chose to travel alone.

I’m not going to tell you exactly how this plays out in my manuscript because it’s crucial to my book’s theme, and I don’t want to give it away. It has to do with my deep-down fears and how they affect how I live. But my point here is that it took me this long — I’ve been working on my memoir now for a year and a half — for this light bulb to go off in my head. It took me this long to peel back the layers (cue the onion analogy) and see my story for what it really is, and to see myself for who I really am.

Let me tell you, I never expected to confront — or even think about — my fears through this memoir. After all, I’m writing a fun story of adventure travel! But the story arc gets stronger every time I peel back one of those layers. And I’ve peeled back so many by this point that I’m recognizing pieces of myself that I didn’t know existed. I never knew I had grown in this particular way until now. That’s the coolest thing about writing memoir — It has forced me to analyze myself, my motivations and my goals, and helped me learn more about me.

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So next time you sit down to work on your personal essay or life story or even understand the motivations behind a character in your novel, take the whole being-honest approach to the next level. Don’t just ask yourself whether you’re being honest with readers. Think hard about whether you’re being honest with yourself.

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Finding my voice through blogging

Literary agent Nathan Bransford had a great post recently on finding your literary voice.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot as I dig into another revision of my travel memoir. One of the elements I’m focusing on is my voice. Rachelle says my voice is still too journalistic, not memoir-y enough. I know she’s right. This is something I’ve struggled with from the beginning, since my writing experience is mostly in news.

No matter what I do, my style will probably always be slightly journalistic, since I’m a journalist. That’s okay. Some of my favorite memoirs have journalistic voices, including Helene Cooper’s The House at Sugar Beach. (My sister tells me Roxana Saberi’s Between Two Worlds does too, though it’s still in my to-read pile, or as an agent at the conference this weekend called it, Guilt Mountain.) But even with that journalistic undertone, I need to let the reader in. I need to help the reader get to know me, to hear my personality in my words.

So whenever I find myself writing stiffly, I remind myself to create like I do on this blog. To write casually. To string words together like I would in a conversation, not like I would for a news story. On this blog, I’ve developed a conversational tone, one that really sounds like me. (Agree? Feel free to shoot me down!) Little bits of my humor come through here. A taste of my personality. Yes, in some ways I still write like a journalist, but on this blog I feel like I’ve found my unique voice.

That’s what needs to come across in my manuscript. Perhaps, during this revision, I should pretend I’m blogging.

Feedback YOU can use to edit your manuscript

Before I get to the meat of this post, some good news: I’m almost done* with my last round of revisions. That’s right, my LAST* round!

I don’t want to say my manuscript will be complete by the end of the month, because we all know I never meet my self-imposed deadlines. I’m giving myself no deadline — I repeat, NO DEADLINE — for this last revision. But it’s moving even faster than I expected, probably because I love revising. Love it, love it, LOVE IT! Everything’s there, and all I have to do is make it better.

Anyhow. What’d you come here for? Oh yes, feedback YOU can use. The five awesome people who read my book had great suggestions for improvement, and as I’ve implemented their advice, I’ve realized that these ideas might help YOU, too. This constructive criticism is general enough and important enough that it could probably apply to your manuscript. So as you’re editing, keep these suggestions in mind.

Here’s what my readers suggested:

Add more ME. More reflection, more introspection. More analysis rather than simple reporting, as we’d say in the news biz. This was my favorite feedback, because I think I’d held back on this without even realizing it. Yes, I put lots of my own ideas and reflection in the manuscript — that’s what a memoir is about — but I needed someone to tell me that it worked. I worried the reader wouldn’t care or would get bored if I related too many things to my own life. But my guinea pig readers said — unanimously — that these were their favorite parts of the book. So I’m adding more! More of those embarrassing moments we all love to read about but hate to reveal. More me.

Make sure the tone of the beginning of the book matches the rest. This sounds obvious, but it’s something I struggled with for a while, letting my voice shine in the first two chapters. Why? Because I was trying too hard. Because I know how important the beginning of the book is to hook the reader, the agent, the publisher. As a result, the tone of my first two chapters didn’t match the rest of the book. It wasn’t as funny or as conversational. It needed more of what I wrote about above: more me.

Strengthen your themes. The first section of my book jumps around a lot in terms of location, since I’m backpacking through a lot of countries. One way to make it feel more linear is to strengthen my themes, to tie it all together with my “follow your dream”‘ mantra. So I’m beefing that up.

Set up your triumphs. There are a few scenes in the manuscript where I overcome something big. (Hey, if I give you all the details, you won’t buy the book!) My readers loved these parts. But if the scenes were set up better, they said, they’d be even more powerful. How do I do that? Again, it comes back to the more me suggestion. The better the reader feels like they know me, they more they’ll understand and relate to those triumphs.

Make sure your dialogue is conversational. Some of my dialogue, particularly at the beginning of the book, sounded like I was trying too hard to convey information. Fixing this gave me a chance to nix some unnecessary dialogue tags, too, which is so therapeutic.

Cut the boring parts. I’ve said this before, so it’s not new to me. Cutting and trimming makes every manuscript better! And yet, there were a few parts I had left in because I wasn’t sure whether to take them out. Turns out if you think you think a certain part might be choppable (yes, I’m inventing the word “choppable” here), it probably is.

Hopefully these suggestions will help you as much as they’ve helped me!

*Last round until I seek out a literary agent. Done as in the best I can make it. We all know an agent and publisher will probably want me to revise more.

All I want for Christmas…

… is to finish revising!

Between now and the New Year, I’ve got a lot going on. Not only will I be spending time with family and friends, next week also is the last week before my self-imposed revision deadline. That’s right: by January 1, I’m hoping to finish revising my book.

So rather than blog during the last week of December — when few of you will read blogs anyhow — I’m going to focus on my book. That means no posts until 2010.

See you then! And for now… HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

Writers’ Roundup: December 18

Slim pickings in my Google Reader this week. Here are my faves:

  • Please stand to the right (if you’re a loser), from adventurer Alastair Humphreys. “Standing on the right (of the escalator) is a metaphor for complacency,” he writes. “Is that REALLY the best use of 20 extra seconds of your life?”
  • When writing becomes revision, check out these eight articles compiled by Chuck Sambuchino at Guide to Literary Agents. This post is particularly helpful for me since I’m in the midst of revising.
  • My former colleague and friend Lindsay Wise (along with photog Mayra Beltran) is off to Iraq to cover the war for the Houston Chronicle. I’m following her blog, not only for the information she’s provide, but also because I love that she’s making her dream of becoming a war correspondent happen.

It’s the last weekend before Christmas! In between all your shopping, present-wrapping, tree-decorating and cookie-baking, I hope you can find a few minutes to write.

Writers’ Roundup: December 11

Halfway through December already?! Only three more weeks to meet my revision goal.

Links from this week:

  • Writer Ami Spencer asks, Where does the muse come from? She links to a video of Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, talking about creativity. I’ve meant to watch this video for some time now, so thanks to Ami for reminding me!
  • Casey McCormick, who recently wrote about how she formats her manuscript, follows up with How Do I Format My E-Query? Excellent practical advice.
  • Literary agent Janet Reid reminds us: if you think you’re going to be done soon when you’ve only written 85 percent of the book, you’re wrong.

Everybody have a productive week? Celebrate with a relaxing weekend.

A new deadline

Now that I’ve finished a draft of my book, I need a new deadline.

Or maybe I should call it a goal. Deadlines, in my mind, aren’t flexible, which is both a blessing and a curse. Missing deadlines makes me feel guilty — I am a journalist, after all — and I rarely meet the self-imposed deadlines I’ve set for writing this memoir. Since this is my first book, I never know how long writing a scene or a chapter or a section will take me, and each one tends to take longer than I guess.

Which brings me back to my original point. I need a deadline for revision. When should I expect to be done?

I’d prefer to set a goal that’s too soon rather than too late. And there’s a date that’s coming up I can’t pass up: January 1. The first day of 2010! That gives me four weeks, which seems reasonable considering I’m already partway through this process because I edited and revised as I wrote the first draft.

Of course, finishing this revision isn’t the end of the road. Once I’m happy with the book, I plan to hand it over to a few friends, writer and editor types, who have offered to read it from beginning to end. Based on their suggestions, I’ll revise again.

And then, my friends, the book will be done.

UPDATE: As a few readers pointed out in the comments, I mean done as in ready to submit to literary agents. If that pans out, I’ll have more revisions ahead of me.