I met a yellow Lab named Lilly today. Coincidental because the canine protagonist in the second middle grade novel I’m working on is a yellow dog named Lilly. Not a Lab, though. The Lilly in my book is a mutt and she’s based on one of the dogs we’re taking care of in Connecticut. All four of the Connecticut dogs we’re taking care of are in the book,
but for some reason I took a liking to this scrappy little one (she’s on the left) for the story and decided to tell it from her perspective.
I like to think it’s a good sign I met Lilly today because a lot of times with my books I feel like it’s one step forward, two steps back. I’ve been getting a lot of great feedback on this story; particularly with dialogue and humor. The feedback is coming from my writing workshop at the Mark Twain House. The women in my other writing group were also eager to know more as I read them chapter 1.
This past weekend, I took the first 10 pages to a critique group I found through meetup.com. I attended one of their critiques a few weeks ago, and I found it incredibly helpful with revising my first middle grade novel. Despite having taught research writing for many years and being a successfully published academic author, everything I know about fiction writing is self-taught, through reading writing books, attending workshops and conferences, perusing writing blogs, and reading as much fiction in the genre I’m currently working on that I can get through before falling asleep (yes, I’m still not sleeping well).
What this means is that even though I have good writing skills technically and even though I consider my imagination and creativity two of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received (they’re from God, if you’re wondering), I still have some ways to go with learning to write fiction.
That’s why critique groups that can provide me with feedback on the craft of writing are so important to me.
Although I love my family and friends telling me how they enjoy my stories, I’m in this for the business of publishing and that requires a whole other perspective when critiquing writing.
On Saturday, I felt excited to the point of giddiness as I drove the 80 minutes to get there. I prepared the first 10 pages of both my books – one for their morning session and one for their afternoon session. I started with my first book and … got the same feedback I got the last time I read it to the group, even though I had substantially revised it. Of course, I received excellent feedback about the concept, writing style, and voice. But I spent a lot of time last week on the revision and in that moment, I felt like a lot of that work was for naught.
I felt much more optimistic with my second set of pages. This book, the one about Lilly, I plotted out in its entirety from beginning to end. The different story beats are spot-on and I have a good grip on the personality of the characters. That clearly comes across in the writing, as both my writing groups have attested. And even in this critique group, the very first comment after I finished reading the pages was how well written they were. Then came the areas for improvement; well, there was just one really which ultimately is a good thing, but it’s a doozy in terms of underlying story: there are no high-tension stakes. For middle grade novels, I’m learning that the conflict pretty much needs to be shouted out from the very first paragraphs. I thought I had done that. Apparently not.
I felt disappointed, which I know is silly because I want and need the feedback. It will make my writing and storytelling stronger, which in turn will make it so much easier to secure an agent and then get a book contract. I wish I didn’t have to keep reminding myself of these facts, but I do.
It’s also not easy to delete story and plot lines. I created these stories. They are my imagination and my words put out into the world for all to read and enjoy.
To destroy them is like destroying pieces of me.
No one prepared me for how difficult that would be.
Yet, I will continue writing and I will continue to seek ways to improve my work. I have a lot of stories to write and I’m committed to writing them. That’s one of the reasons I quit my job and that’s why I write every almost every day, even when I feel exhausted. It’s also why I take it as a good sign that I met a Lilly dog today. I have faith that this is what I’m supposed to be doing. It helps to believe the universe thinks so, too.
PS – for anyone wondering where my latest chapter of Fox Through the Forest is, it’s still percolating. I’m hopeful to have it ready for this Friday.
PPS – The dog in the photo is appropriately named Faith. She’s the dog that inspired the character of Lilly.