On the Novel Process

I got some great feedback on the finished first draft of my novel (pictured above). I met with a friend of a friend who is a producer, and he said he liked it, to send him the revision and potentially talk about a partnership – he was already “soft pitching” the idea! I’d like it to be a book before it becomes a movie, but I’m not complaining. And I hear having it optioned as a film might not hurt for having it published as a book.
            I attended a class at UCLA Extension called “How to Find and Work with a Literary Agent,” taught by Aimee Liu. Heard some stuff I already knew (perfect spelling, get names right, agents look for reasons to eliminate you, etc.) and learned a few things, too (how to do your homework when searching for agents, the importance of selecting and building a relationship with your agent, the usual percentage breakdown of royalties, what a contract typically looks like, etc.). There was a panel of three literary agents and when I went to speak with one after the class, she told me to send her a query. This was incredibly encouraging, and while I don’t necessarily want my book to be Young Adult, nor have I heard back from her, the process gave me a lot of experience. I found several useful websites, namely agentquery.com, which led to useful example query letters. I drafted and re-drafted my letter, not to mention continual revision of the first chapter.
            Revision is a grueling process. As I began to work on the novel as a whole, I found myself getting lost. My mentor suggested I create an outline, with chapter summaries. That turned into a small project in itself, as I listed characters, wrote out scene chronology, plot summary, and character development for each chapter. It was, of course, incredibly useful in seeing the big picture and understanding where I might need to add/delete.
            I’ve heard that revision is an endless process. Indeed, whenever I “finish” editing a chapter, I already have a list of things I want to change. Then I get feedback from my writers’ groups and have a whole different perspective, with a new set of challenges.

After reading a draft of my first chapter, my former professor told me I might have “literary chick lit” (I inwardly jumped for joy), and recommended I read Election. He likened my protagonist to a character in that book named Tracy. As I read the book I kept saying to myself, “just one more section, just one more” and then I’d finished it. Tom Perrotta has brilliantly hooked one section into the next, simultaneously interweaving several subplots, making it impossible to stop reading. The other thing I loved about this book and would like to do with my own writing, was how true it seemed, the path the characters took and where they ended up. Each character matures, has an arc. It is by no means a happy ending. But it feels complete.
According to my readers, my first draft had an unhappy and incomplete ending, so I have a lot to learn from Election. At the UCLA Extension class on agents, I learned that in the original “Pretty Woman” story, he doesn’t come back. Of course that would never sell. So it was rewritten, and he came back like the night in shining armor upon his limousine chariot, and it became a classic. So many of my readers want a final act, a redemption sequence for the protagonist. I’m not sure yet what I want to do, but as I revise, I’m thinking about it.

Writing in December

With December comes the close of the quarter, which means my short story workshop at UCLA Extension has come to an end. My second critique went much better than the first, partly because I knew what to expect. According to the class, my story was sound on a technical level, few line edits. However, several people felt the characters were flat and wanted to see the story expanded out. The instructor told me I had a publishable work as it was, but it was not publishable as literary fiction. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but I am learning, and I consider it a sign of progress that I’m creating “publishable” works. 

The most valuable lesson I learned in this class was that you have to be careful with whom you share your work. Having readers you trust is extremely important. As my mentor said, “You wouldn’t let just anyone babysit your children. You shouldn’t let just anyone read your writing.” However, the class was a strong group, and I’ve invited several people to apply to become members of my Los Angeles writers’ group. I’m pleased that we’ve had interest, submissions, and that the group will grow. As for my Santa Barbara group, we welcomed a new member I brought in a couple weeks ago. His first meeting went well, and I believe he will learn a lot from us and become an important contributor of the group. 
I also completed my seminar at the beginning of the month, with 115 pages of my novel draft completed. I had hoped to finish the entire draft, between 250-300 pages, but I’m thrilled that I’m almost halfway there. I’ve gotten down most of the important plot points, so now seems like a good time to explore my characters: put them in interesting situations, fill in the blanks. I met with a former professor of mine, and he had some great feedback. One of the things he told me was that I may not end up getting this published. It might just be a learning process. Of course my intention is to publish, but having that in the back of my mind makes the process a lot easier, especially when writing while thinking about potential critiques kills my creativity.
With my sister’s college graduation from Prescott College in Arizona, Christmas with family in Lake Arrowhead, and Tahoe with friends for New Year’s, I am looking forward to vacationing, relieved to take a break, and simultaneously concerned about writing. It will be a challenge – how I will manage to write amidst the travel, events, and people. In January I begin a new class at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program: I’ve been accepted to the Advanced Short Fiction Workshop. I’m considering another contest with a January deadline – last week I submitted an entry to an environmental writing contest. While I don’t feel my story was winning material, I was proud of writing over 3000 words in a single day and coming up with something cohesive, that I liked. (Creative writing is very different from the 10-15 page papers I used to punch out in college.) And later this month, I have an article appearing in Edible Santa Barbara.
Below: My workstation in my sister’s kitchen in Arizona. I’m blogging while my mom and sister bake mesquite gingerbread cookies.