I try to be an upbeat person in general. When it comes to working on my manuscript, I set goals and do not let obstacles deter me. Quite the opposite, they usually make me push harder, though not always right away. There are days when I accomplish so much I feel like an undiscovered prodigy and other days when I feel so amateurish that I doubt I could pass as a reading teacher for grade-schoolers. I am tired of my manuscript. I want it to go away, I need it to be finished because the more I work on it the more I want to scream, burn it up, and make it suffer. Healthy, right?
Today was ‘I want to bang my head against my desk’ (any hard surface will do), gorge on chocolate, flip the bird to the world and otherwise retire. It was THAT kind of day. After fourteen months of aguishly working away at my manuscript, someone who saw a small fraction of it gave me pause. She told me it was not where I thought it was and I was not ready to make any cuts. It was funny, since cutting (aside from missing elements and polishing, etc.) has been one of the things I have focused most on. It needs to be 200,000 words shorter than what it originally was – of course I am focused on cutting!
Instead, I was advised to dig deeper and expand, at least on the part that she saw, which was just over one quarter of the book. This isn’t about not being able to wait – this whole process is about waiting and patience, two things that do not come easily to me. Even if I queried an agent tomorrow, the process between querying and seeing my book in print is probably three years if I am lucky. That is one hell of a wait! So, to hear that I am not just ‘not ready to reach out to an agent yet’ but also not ready to even consider cutting is like someone putting their hand through my chest and squeezing my heart slowly as I try desperately to breathe.
So, what now? I feel stuck. If there is something I am not doing then I either do not know how to do it or how to be able to do it. It doesn’t mean I am giving up, but I need some type of guidance, a roadmap, suggestions… something! I hate asking for help and yet with this… HELP! HELP! HELP!
I contacted the only person (Holly) to read my manuscript all the way through and offer feedback. She is awesome, and I had originally asked this third person for help because I needed a tiebreaker for a few things and another set of eyes, never a bad thing. Holly calmed me down and suggested I follow the urge to gorge on chocolate because chocolate is always a good thing (and sometimes downright necessary).
As I awaited Holly’s response I tried to look at my book outside of myself, as a reader who does not know me from a stranger on the street. Memoirs are supposed to confide in the reader, look inward as well as outward, and create an intimacy that goes beyond the ego. Is my manuscript simply 267,000 words of surface? Even though my story may be intriguing, is the writing up to par?
I have been given very brutal “I’m not so sure” feedback before, a lot of it coming from Holly in terms of scenes to cut and put away for another book. I am a writer who likes seeing the color red in my documents. I always want to improve, and this is not just the professional writer in me, I am a very competitive person and in order to be the best you always have to outdo your previous efforts. I don’t want to be great so that people can stroke my ego and tell me how wonderful I am. In fact, I am terrible at taking compliments and they make me slightly uncomfortable. I want to be great because untapped potential is such a waste and I do not like to be wasteful.
So, looking at my book objectively here are issues I know that I have:
Yes, the entire first part of my book has me utterly perplexed. This is the part that the other person looked at when she gave me her “you’re not there yet” feedback. Her feedback is not out of line whatsoever since this was all that she saw. If I had to base an entire opinion on this part, while working with a client, I would tell them much of the same as she told me. But she will not be able to look over the other parts, which makes me wonder – is the entire book like this?
Part 1 begins with a trip in an ambulance. I have just suffered several seizures, I am unconscious and pretty banged up. Later it is discovered that I also suffered two severe strokes, both cause my temperature of more than 109 degrees (yes, you read that correctly). Due to the strokes and neurological trauma, daily infusions and medication regimens to fight a rare infection, which was the culprit behind everything, my mind was a wasteland for roughly four months. I had to relearn everything and it was impossible to form a coherent thought because my head was full of chaos. Rather than being empty, thoughts and memories were screaming to be recognized and yet all of them were fragmented and some merged with others so even memories from this time are unreliable at best.
Most of what is in the first part are facts that I wrote down or researched from records and when a memory corroborates these facts, I use them as scenes, but when my memory disagrees or has nothing to contribute, I am not left with much. So that this part is not simply a large summation of four months, I have many flashbacks of earlier parts of my life that somehow relate to that moment. This way the reader can get to know me and key figures through scenes without having to wait until the second part. Can this come across as disorganized? Possibly. Does it seem like I am keeping the reader at a distance or not completely revealing my thoughts and motivations for the reader to see? Definitely. But how do I fix this? Lie? It’s a memoir, so that is not an option and I am physiologically limited during this time period. The book covers a total of 24 months, though the final 10 months may zoom right by in part 3, the focal point of the book is months 5-12. Still it is impossible to start at month 5. What is a writer to do?
Facts and Rationalizing Everything
This is a very fact-heavy memoir as Holly pointed out when she got back to me around lunchtime. Some people may only be used to impressionistic memoirs rather than fact-heavy ones. This is something I cannot change for three key reasons. First, it is a medical memoir so it is going to be fact-heavy and I would think if I didn’t include said facts the reader would be confused and wondering if I was making everything up. Second, I think that the key to coming back from terminal illness (at least for me) is that you do not process anything emotionally while you are going through it. You educate yourself, you push, you have goals and limits, and everything is cause and effect. It is how you cope and how you stay focused so there will be a tomorrow. Finally, I am a very rational person (which is funny since I think I can also be very neurotic though many who know me disagree with the latter, perhaps I hide it well). My husband describes me as hyper-rational. I can rationalize most things, deal with it and make a plan. If someone does something that makes me angry and I overreact, I do not put my reaction on them. Yes, I reacted to something, but I am in control of how I choose to react to something. My husband claims this is one of the reasons he hates arguing with me, because I am always making sense. Too darn rational. To write this book another way would be like putting on a mask to become someone else and memoirs should be honest and about unmasking yourself. It is not a confessional, but it is confiding in every single reader.
Holly gave me some a lot of great things to think about and while she said she did not agree with the feedback this other person gave me, she can see why others may have that opinion; particularly if Part 1 was the only part they read. The more my memory improved, the more descriptive I became, and the deeper I went. It was because the more time that came between my strokes and where I was in that particular moment, the more I was able to think, observe and maintain. In a way the reader can see my journey, recovering my mind and faculties, but if the first part is so problematic that a reader will stop before the end of Part 1, I still need to figure out a way to retool it.
After today, I don’t know where I stand. I don’t have a reader to send my completed revisions to, and while the plan was always to get an editor eventually, I wanted my book to be further along (and shorter!) because I cannot afford several different drafts with an editor (most that I know charge by the hour, which means that each draft is charged separately). I am still thinking about elements for my book proposal and working through Part 2, trying to whittle my manuscript down to a more suitable length or at least one that won’t break the bank.
There are many days that I love being a writer, but there are other days when it makes me want to cry and not act rationally. And that was what today was: the perfect example of a bad writing day!