The Fifteen Percent Solution or, Why I need you
Perhaps some weeks ago you read my lament, “Sometimes, Being a Writer Sucks.” Honestly, I believe admissions like that are part of the creative process that others rarely glimpsed before the advent of the blog.
Lest you think I’m here to repent, I stand by each and every bitchy statement made therein.
HOWEVER. This is the paragraph I’m here to address:
“The first problem is, I’m never as good as I want to be. There’s a paradigm in my head of the story I’m telling, the book I’m writing, and as hard as I try, I seldom achieve it. I am also writing this post at the particular moment in time because we’re inching towards the finish line on the next Eden thriller, and it’s 85 percent there. Which is a depressing number. The lifeblood and brilliance and paths of engagement with the reader are in that last 15 percent, and, as of now, I don’t know how to get there.”
So, when you last saw me, we were stuck at 85%. Yet PLAGUES OF EDEN is now signed off on, copy edited and , last I heard, off to the interior designer. I even did a little dance.
What was the 15% solution?
The simple answer: You. The Reader.
I’m sure every novelist has her or his own secret formula for working with readers and editors to bring their stories to fruition. Let me pull back the veil on my own.
What I’m talking about today is PLAGUES of EDEN, the next in the Eden Thriller series. That’s the one I was bemoaning in my previous post. And, to my mind, it wasn’t exactly surprising.
The Eden Thrillers (Chasing Eden, Beyond Eden and Treasure of Eden) are by far the most complex books I write. They’re done with co-author B.K. Sherer (about whom you’ve likely read in this very blog, see “Return to Eden” Jan. ’13). Each book is told from the point of view of multiple characters, has settings in multiple countries, and requires a working knowledge of several world-wide happenings and issues. Putting all of this together is HUGE. And the first draft, always, is a huge glorious MESS.
So how does it go from HGM to Sharon’s Little Dance? (SLD)?
Readers. New pairs of eyes. I include editors in this because editors are really readers with special skills. But ALL our early readers contribute to the final (hopefully) sleek final draft. The different readers come in at different stages. At this point, we have a fairly good idea of who to go to for which stage of reading. Each stage requires different skills.
CO-AUTHORS. B.K. and I tag team each other as we go along. We hammer out the plot and characters together. In PLAGUES, there are several returning characters as well as a whole sheath of new ones. The book also takes place in multiple time zones at once; when we had half the first-pass scenes written, I took one insanity-inducing week off to become one with the website 24TimeZones.com and put them all in order-of-actually-occurring, although the action in China would likely happen in a different day than events in Argentina taking place simultaneously. So many story arcs in so many time zones: it wasn’t just getting them put into order, but having the action rise in such a way that they FIT together. It didn’t drive me to drink, but I probably ate a couple of macaroons I shouldn’t have.
At this particular moment in time, B.K. has a few things on her plate with her other job. Often during her deployments, I longed for the day she’d stay Stateside while we wrote. Well, now she’s not only in the same country, she’s in the same TIME ZONE! She’s at USMA at West Point, and I can drive there in 45 minutes! All well and good, but as senior chaplain, she takes her job seriously and she’s very good at it, which often means she works seven day weeks. In other words, she’s busier than she was even on deployments to Iraq. Time working on PLAGUES was slotted and intense for both of us–though we loved it, or we wouldn’t have done it. It also usually involved Mexican food. Writing fiction is not for sissies.
Once a first full draft is done and B.K. and I have discussed it and made any necessary first changes, it’s time to put it into the “magic drawer” and turn it over to readers. Now, here’s the trick: there are different stages at which we need different advice. Knowing which readers to turn to at each stage, and how to decipher their responses, is a necessary art.
ALPHA READERS. There were only two of these for PLAGUES, and they are two people we’ve known for a very long time. It’s an odd thing with which we’re trusting them: something that will change quite profoundly before we’re done. People who don’t know us or our process would likely throw up their hands and say, “WTF? Who ever told them they could WRITE??” (Okay, I’m told neither of them felt that way, but I felt that way.) They have the ability to look at the glorious mess and say, “I got this, didn’t get that…” in some sort of cohesive fashion.
In the case of PLAGUES, they came back with 1) too many characters; 2) characters who came in the end and seemed like they were from a different story; characters whose motivations they didn’t understand, and several plot holes, information dumps about characters that went on too long.
Great! Ready for another draft. 1) we did have too many characters, took out any with only one scene, including Yani’s U.N. supervisor and the little boy (who later became a girl) sickened by a plague. 2) Right again, since those characters were important, they came in at the beginning and had a fuller story line. 3) True again. The first time through we were lurching to get the plot in order. Some of the characters’ motivations were sketchy. We provided more. 4) Also true. Trimmed a lot of character stories (it is a thriller, after all) and moved some of the rest of the info.
Okay. Now we were ready for the first test group that would read something more closely approximating the finished book. We still had some structural and character work to do, but we were ready for the bulk of the editorial readers. We have some tried-and-true standby readers who’d been alerted. Also, some months earlier I had asked for volunteers on my FB page (Facebook.com/SharonLinneaAuthor) and several intrepid souls had volunteered. We had among them some Eden-followers and some Eden-newbies. Both were needed. In this case, we also needed some readers from the autism community who had been on the path with us. We sent the manuscript without any notes, as we wanted unbiased first responses. We had a list of questions lying in wait for after they had sent their first thoughts.
This is where things get fun and helpful in different ways. You’ve obviously come to these readers for their opinions, and you get them! As it turns out, they also read for vastly different things. (Too much sex! Not enough sex! Too much bad language! Not enough language! Yani would never do that. Yani would do that all the time!) And hearing what those new to Eden got and didn’t get was also invaluable.
Fact checking also becomes interesting at this point. We had readers who pointed out the order in which events had to occur to spark gasoline explosions, and the difference between a “choir loft” and “choir stalls.” One woman said, “My bridal processional was Trumpet Voluntary and I could never have heard someone’s cellphone ring.” “I hadn’t read other Eden books; here’s what I was willing to go along with, here’s what I wished I understood.”
In general, at this stage, it’s all interesting. If one person says it, pay attention. If two people say it, it’s probably true. Somewhere along the line, you’re getting to know your new characters better, and your running characters in new ways. You make the changes that need to be made (much of it is fleshing out parts that were really shorthand to you, the author, and now the reader needs the full version). You pay attention to where they became interested and where they said they couldn’t put it down. Then tried to turn the first into the second.
This is the point at which I’m ready to turn the manuscript in to the professional editor at the publishing company. In the first days of Eden when our editor was Jennifer Enderlin at St. Martin’s, her comments were always great and spot on. They mostly consisted of “more here, less here, MORE YANI.”
Our current editor, Margaret, who had not read the first Edens, was invaluable. She noted that several characters needed to be more pro-active; the ending in Italy needed to be re-staged; backstory needed to be dispersed further, and (oh, yeah) MORE YANI.
Done and done.
Finally. The readers whose judgement we trusted, but whom we saved to the last. Who could read the ms. like it was a “real book,” and wouldn’t find fault to find fault but would call our attention to things that still needed fixing.
And they did. The good news: so much closer!!! Finally the comments included comments like, “I don’t think I’ve been this enthralled with a book for a long time. I sat on a folding chair for about 4.5-5 hrs straight, just reading,” and, “I wanted to keep reading. In fact, I was irritated when my husband needed me to help him with yard work!”
They also noted that one part of the resolution was still abrupt (and it was). So we jumped in to rework and finish that before it headed off for the copy editor, who is final eyes-on before it goes to the typesetter. She was impressed at how clean it was. Copy editor, meet Alpha through Delta Readers.
When it came back from the copy editor and we read over it to approve any changes, it was a real sense of having made the long sea voyage. Thanks to the readers at so many stages, the 15% I couldn’t see past originally seemed grappled with, to me. When we finally hit “accept all changes,” and sent it off to Karen in production at Arundel, and therefore, to Mie, the interior designer and type setter, I did do a little dance.
One I couldn’t have known how to get to only weeks ago. So THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU, readers! The book wouldn’t be the book it is without you. Did we make it up past that 85%, at least into the 90th percentile?
I guess you’re going to have to tell us. Which of course makes you the EPSIOLON READERS.