Lessons from Falling

This post is going to play off some of the earlier posts by other Mysteristas this month, namely Kait, Diane, and Pam. If you haven’t read those posts, do so. Great posts.

Anyway, last time I was here, I’d suffered a bit of a fall myself. I’d sent my latest manuscript, something I’ve been working on for about a year (not continuously), the first draft completed as part of NaNoWriMo in 2013. I was expecting changes. I really was. Because hey, that’s what a writer pays an editor for, right?

I wasn’t quite expecting the amount of changes I got. Don’t get me wrong, there are parts the editor loved (and some of those parts I really slaved over, so that’s good). But her take on my love-interest was, um, not what I wanted to project. So, I allowed myself a couple of days to sulk and feel sorry for myself, then I got back to work.

The revision has been pretty extensive. The manuscript as returned was about 92,000 words. My “cut” folder now has scenes totaling about 13,000 – but the overall count has stayed steady. Referencing what Kait said earlier this week, a lot of words have fallen away. I loved those words – especially one scene that was dear to me. But it no longer served the story. It had to go. And they’ve been replaced by better words (at least I hope so).

Lesson: Don’t be afraid to let stuff that doesn’t work fall away because it frees up space for things that do work and will make your story better.

As I read the editor’s comments, I was initially really hurt and dismayed at the perception of my love-interest (if you can have a secondary protagonist in a story, she’s it). I wanted her to be a smart, strong, capable woman who wanted a relationship, but wasn’t defined by that relationship. And she’s not afraid to stick up for what she believes in, even when it goes against the grain.

But that’s not how the editor saw her. The editor saw a petulant, manipulative child determined to get what she wanted at all costs.

Yeah. Not Good.

As I read and thought, I realized I’d fallen victim to not letting my character hurt enough, not pushing her down (as Pamela wrote about). I’d hidden her back-story, failed to uncover the wound that was making her do these apparently irrational things, and explain her driving need to be right. I hadn’t let her hurt enough on the page. Which meant I was denying her the opportunity to heal – for readers to root for her.

Lesson: Don’t be afraid to expose your character’s deepest fears because that’s what’s going to make the emotional connection work.

I’ve been at this rewrite/revision for two weeks. I’ve been asked, “Why are you letting this upset you so much?” And the answer, as Diane so poignantly said yesterday, is that I love these people. Okay, yeah, they came out of my brain. Technically, they don’t exist – not in flesh and blood. But they’re real to me. I’ve had short stories published with them, and readers have told me Jim and Sally are real to them. And just as I’d do anything to help the flesh-and-blood children I have, because I love them, I’m willing to do what needs to be done to help my characters. Even if that means another rewrite.

Lesson: Writing is hard work; to do it well, you have to fall in love with the story you are telling.

With fall in full swing here in southwestern Pennsylvania, it seems fitting to be where I am. This story was born in the fall (November). It is set in the fall (during the month of October), and it’s reaching it’s conclusion in the fall.

At least I really love fall.

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Author: Liz Milliron

Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She's worked for fifteen years in the corporate world, but finds making things up is far more satisfying than writing software manuals. A lifelong mystery fan, her short fiction has been published in online magazines Uppagus and Mysterical-e. She has also had stories included in Lucky Charms: 12 Crime Tales, Blood on the Bayou (the 2016 Bouchercon anthology), Fish Out of Water, and Mystery Most Historical. She is a past president of the Pittsburgh chapter of Sisters in Crime. Visit her online at http://lizmilliron.com, find her on Facebook at https://facebook.com/LizMilliron, or follow her on Twitter (@LizMilliron).

9 thoughts on “Lessons from Falling”

  1. Mary, these are very important lessons to learn from falling. Sometimes I’ve had to fall over and over to learn one lesson!

    I recently was working on a manuscript that felt like words, words, words. i wasn’t sure if I was making headway with the plot, but I was hitting my daily word count. Finally, I realized I did not love the story, and if I didn’t, nobody else would. So I sat down and thought, “what would make me really love this?” I had some major tearing apart, rewriting, scrapping, and reconstruction. It was a lot of work. But the story was better for it. So I agree with everything you said!

    And Theresa–those emotional parts are compulsively readable. Power on!

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  2. Theresa, yes. The gut-wrenching emotional parts are what is going to be compelling to the reader. Go there.

    Diane, I know. I abandoned the very first novel I ever wrote because it was exactly that – words, words, words. I didn’t love the story or the characters. And since I couldn’t think of how to make myself, and thus a reader, love it I moved on. That was the project that made me realize what I love writing is procedurals. Even if it is hard as the dickens (throw in writing about a lawyer and it’s doubly hard – yes, I am nothing if not ambitious).

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  3. LOVE fall. Agree with you there for sure! And I’m glad that you are feeling as though going through the experience with the editor was useful and now you are happy about having done the very hard work you’ve just done.

    Maybe take the editor’s perspective on Sally as just that: his or her perspective. There’s so much more to how readers view characters than just what’s on the page…we bring our own lifetime of experience to our interpretations. So the editor saw petulant and manipulative when you meant strong and independent? Well, hmmm. Surprising, I’m sure. But it doesn’t mean you didn’t write Sally exactly the way she should be written! Would be interesting to see how others perceive her…

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  4. For example, I have had different people say the following things about my protagonist (from reading the exact same ten pages): “She seems too uncertain.” “She seems too sure of herself.” “Why is she so anxious?” “Why isn’t she more scared?” 😀

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  5. What a great post. The part about letting your characters bleed on the page really hit home for me. And congratulations on finding a good editor. That’s a prize in and of itself.

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