How to Write a Book - Part 5: Feedback
Hello readers and welcome to the fifth part of an ongoing series. It is my earnest attempt to document the process of composing a novel in the hopes that it may inspire others to do the same. While I think this series will be interesting to all readers, be aware that it is going to get pretty in depth into the writing process. (I also hope to gain further insight into how I come up with this stuff.)
(Note: Parts One, Two, and Four have followed my speculative dystopian manuscript Spheres of Influence. The epic Part Three covered my [stalled] office satire, Observe and Detach.)
Feedback. This is an important part of the process that I had to force myself to do. After I sent the initial (shitty) first draft of Spheres to my editor Libby, one of her best pieces of advice was to find #beta readers to look through it. These would be people who might read similar books to what you’re producing and would have enough time to read a chapter of yours. And here’s the first bit of this advice: don’t ask too much of them.
At this point I have been lucky enough to have a revolving cast of #beta readers, and while some have not been in full communication I am still confident they will get to it when they have time. My old college roommate Aric (he was the basis for a character in my *shameless plug* second novel Last Man on Campus) were willing to take a massive dive into each chapter and offer revisions. Try to widen your array of feedback partners so that you have a diverse skill set and readership type.
I asked Aric a few questions about the SciFi genre, and that got him pushing me to consider this work more of a speculative dystopian thriller. I continued giving him chapters and he sent me even better feedback on the flow but also on the various themes, and some basic spelling and grammar I missed. If you can find a good #beta reader to have such back and forth discussions, hang onto them!
My favorite piece of feedback from him so far:
“...this is just so similar to what is happening that you can't put it down once you start.”
Another #beta reader was Allan, a colleague from my old neighborhood board. He happened to be in a major city where a major event I riff on took place, and had some good real-world experience. Allan also urged me to call this a more “dystopian” book, and had some great thoughts on the initial themes. He also had thoughtful feedback on a specific piece of dialogue (again based on his own real experience) that worked so much better after I included his notes.
This was another part of his response:
“I don't really see this as science fiction since it's not that far in the future and warfare seems pretty conventional. I'd maybe call it a dystopian novel of what could happen if we continue down our current path.”
I also want to shout-out my other #betas whose reading and feedback were important. Thanks to Josh for having many, many (many) rambling conversations over coffee about it first, and then being willing to read the first chapter as a reader. Thanks to Christie for even more conversations, but also getting started on her own work (and for giving me the chance to read it). Thanks to Karen, who has also read my first two books. Special thanks to Martin, who like my editor Libby also pored over an early (shitty) draft of this and gave me some great early feedback. I’m sure I am leaving out others who have conversed with me on this project, but that’s in favor of keeping your group wide.
Back to Libby for a moment. This is another in a long line of advice that she has given me for years, but I was too ignorant to take it. I’m not going to claim I’m nailing it very well now, but I do understand why she implored me to have others read this manuscript. This is just another reason why she’s so good at what she does.
So when should you start giving others a chance to look at your work? That’s a question only you can answer, but again I must stress once you decide it cast as wide a net as possible. If you can get feedback from readers and friends, you will go a long way toward formatting your manuscript in a way that it can gain larger interest. I now have some good ideas to put in my query letter when I get ready to pitch this to an agent.
To that end, this post in the “How to Write a Book” series may be the last one for a while. It has always been about the process, but now that I am embarking on finding representation and publication I hope to document that as well. I hope you will continue to join me on this journey. Thanks for being readers.
Hello and welcome to the fourth part of an ongoing series. It is my earnest attempt to document the process of composing a novel in the hopes that it may inspire others to do the same. While I think this series will be interesting to all readers, be aware that it is going to get pretty in depth into the writing process. (I also hope to gain further insight into how I come up with this stuff.)
(Note: Part three focused on the editing process for my third novel Observe & Detach. In the almost two years since I have returned to this series I have decided to focus again on what has become my new “current” manuscript, a science fiction novel titled Spheres of Influence. For more background on how that project came about, check out parts one and two of the series.)
Rewriting. The main reason it has taken me so long to figure out a process for this step is that I have been struggling with doing it for most of that time. Since Observe has taken a back seat in favor of this climate change tale, its manuscript has seen around six full drafts. That is, the previous draft takes up one half of my screen and the new one takes up the other part. I have decided to continue this process until my editor Libby Copa has time to take another look at the work. I have come across no easier way than this, and I must say getting all this time inside has helped me to test it out a bit more. To that end, I want to again exhibit how a piece of writing can change during each stage.
Spheres of Influence started out as another weird chain of ideas that wound up becoming an initial draft (check out part two of this series if you dare to dredge through it), which ended up being an introductory multiple pages. Reading over my thoughts back then, it’s interesting to see what has changed, or morphed, or been erased. The character here is still an “underground journalist” (maybe not so much “historian” any longer) but I have since decided to base her more on a real world journalist I admire. But her ranty first-person narration made it all the way through multiple drafts before I could see what was in front of my face: that her career and work was facilitating the story, not her general recollections. But after realizing this final cut was necessary I still had some work for the introduction, and even after this will need to make sure it hooks the reader from the start. I present now the changes first chapter paragraphs can make from one draft to the next.
Amy Greatman washed soapy water through her dark brown hair, which she noticed in the mirror above her sink was beginning to shade to gray. The reflection emanated all she tried to cultivate during her career: stone dedication honed over two decades of investigative journalism. Her eyes traced the eyes of the scar curving around her left eye, and she let her palm fall into the clean white bowl of the porcelain sink. Amy was never late to work. Not once in her whole damn life did she ever show up to that newsroom with anything less than five minutes to spare before the morning briefing. Her producer Dan expected this from her now that their staff was dwindling in number after the last round of budget cuts. But on this day, as she threw on a gray nylon sweater and corduroy jeans cinched by a snazzy black belt and matching socks, she thought would be an exception.
And when she walked into the briefing room a few minutes late, an overwhelming sense of dread dragging behind her and saw Dan's face and he wasn't upset, she knew something else bigger had happened. She couldn't shake the words he screamed at her out of her mind as she raced down the hallway to get her cameraman.
"I don't know what happened. People are saying somebody flew a fucking plane into the side of it! The whole thing looks like it's about to collapse. Get your ass down there, now! We have to get it as it falls. These images are going worldwide!" Dan gasped at the end like he was having a heart attack.
Amy couldn't find her cameraman Jose so she pushed through the front doors she'd just walked through, notepad and phone in hand, and jumped back into her crappy two-door sedan. She turned and looked as the screeching wail of sirens blew past her in the crowded street. She flicked on the radio, turned to the public news station.
The woman on the radio kept saying: "There has been an attack."
Amy Greatman washed the soapy water into her dark brown hair. She caught a glimpse in the mirror above her sink that portions were now shaded gray. She traced the small curve of the scar hooked over her left eye with her index finger, then let her weathered palm fall into the clean white of the porcelain sink. Her reflection emanated stone dedication honed over decades of investigation. Amy held certain tenets, a major one was never be late. Not once in her entire damnable life had she ever shown up at that newsroom with anything less than ten minutes to spare preparing for the morning meeting. Her producer Dan expected it now that staff was dwindling from the recent budget cuts. Independent media was a brutal landscape at any time, let alone one where the major media groups controlled most of it. Amy threw on a gray nylon sweater and corduroy jeans cinched with a black belt and matching socks, and was out with the door with plenty of time to spare.
The first thing to strike her was the silence. Manhattan had never been a place of concentration, of slowness, of still behavior. But this was next-level. Amy could hear the wind blow the boughs of the few trees planted along her street. It was eerie. The main location of her indie news program Instant Freedom!, which streamed its episodes to half the globe, was a few train stops away. She walked into the briefing room with a sense of dread, brought on from the train passengers and their dead stares and the lull that entered her car as it rattled. Dan's face confirmed it when Amy walked into the room. The words he screamed at her echoed through her mind as she raced down the small carpeted hallway to find her cameraman.
"I don't know what in the hell happened. The first wire reports say somebody flew a fucking plane into the side of it. The whole fucking tower is about to collapse. Get your ass there now! We have to get that image. It's going worldwide," Dan gasped.
Amy ducked her head into Jose's small changing room, but he was not there. She left a message on his small desk, then tromped further down the hallway to Gary's office. He was the senior journalist on staff, but as of late had taken to commentary. She knew he would have interest, even if he couldn't work a camera. She gave two tiny knocks on his door, but he didn't turn around. She said his name, but then picked up on the fact that he was listening to the radio, the giant public news station.
The woman on the broadcast repeated: "There has been some sort of attack..."
"I'm going down there," Amy said to his back. When he turned, his face was ashen and torn with fear. She had never seen it on his tough face.
"Be careful," he said. He never said that. "I am going to stay with this for a bit."
Amy went back out to the hallway to her office, grabbed her notepad and a small film camera, and headed up to the front doors. She jumped back into her beat up two door sedan, then whipped her head around as a screeching wall of sirens blew down the street. She twisted the knob on the radio.
"There has been some sort of attack..."
The major change would be the introduction of a character (Gary) who I had introduced much later in the book but found it made little sense. I have since decided to flesh out more scenes with Amy and Gary in another chapter, and thought he could use a basic introduction here. And there are of course many other differences. This passage got a couple hundred words longer, but that won’t always be the case. In general, there should be a good balance over the drafts between cuts and additions, and over the course of this process there should begin to appear a novel. The number of drafts isn’t the main thing to consider, it is how the plot, characters and entire story is changing through each one. Now that I have a good pattern to establish for my rewrites I have a good rhythm to my churning them out. I’m not sure where the next entry in this series will go but it will continue to follow the course of this manuscript.
Short Story: Floss
I never noticed that small crack in the upper left corner of the bathroom, winding its way toward the pinnacle of the ceiling. A bit of mold grows around the base, a sick greenish-black splotch. I open the old mirror and its hinges squeal in protest. From within, the remains of a previous life stare back at me. I avoid looking at the floss in its small rectangular box. It taunts me; reminds me of what used to be.
Sylvia used to make me floss every night. Said it was good for me. I haven't touched the stuff since she left and took the kids. I don't notice a difference in my teeth. I feel around with an index finger to make sure. As I am doing this, my eyes land on other containers. The shaving cream I bought the week after she moved out. It's not as good as what she got me, but I don't care. I don't have to care anymore. My razor, the dull blade reflecting the glare of the overhead bulb. A pack of cotton swabs she would use to clean the disgusting wax from the caverns of my ear cavities. My mother used to do the same thing when I was six years old. I see peroxide for my little cuts, bandages for the larger ones. My gaze shifts to the tweezers sitting next to the bandages. She used to use those to pull little hairs right out of my skin. God, how I hated that. God, how I loved it.
Sylvia left behind what she didn't want at her new place, the overstuffed plaid couch we found at a garage sale the year we were married. Our cat Diana, before we even started talking about having children, used to eat the white fluff that poured from its sides when she scratched it with her long, merciless claws. Diana lives with Sylvia and my children now. I think they even got another cat.
I see Sylvia took all the "female" stuff from this squeaky cabinet. The makeup, the hair ties, the pins, facial cleanser, hair spray. All the pills she had to take for allergies, headaches, muscle injuries. And the bottles that would make her smell nice when we were alone without the kids. I don't need to smell like a damn thing now. I'm still a man, aren't I? Our gender was never supposed to smell like roses. Just like we were never meant to clean up after ourselves. Don't even think on that kitchen right now. Focus on the task at hand.
My eyes arrive back upon the tiny white box of string. If I am going to do this, affirm that I'm ready to move on, it's best to get it over with while I can. I don't see or feel anything wrong with my teeth. But I'm not looking hard enough. I reach out and pull the little box down to the sink. A string dangles from the edge. I grab it taut and pull out a length of it. Start on the back, I tell myself. That was always the hardest. Six months ago my dentist said a cavity was forming here. Sylvia said to just take care of it; we'd worry about how to pay for it later. I should have listened to her. On the bright side, there is nobody to nag me about what to eat now. I wonder what's left in that refrigerator. Ouch. Focus.
Damn, this hurts. More than it did last time. I shouldn't have broken this habit. I shouldn't have done a lot of things. We thought new trips would help our situation. Did our ski vacation in Denver last winter? Not according to my bruised ass, and damaged ego. I didn't know the pain of snow grinding against flesh quite until then. Charlie, our oldest, almost slid right into a tree. And the traveling out east to see some of Sylvia's judgmental relatives? When we left screaming out the door on the way out to our rented minivan, Uncle Mike said in mighty plain language we were not welcome back. Sorry I brought up how good I thought oil was for the country at large. Didn't realize it was still so communist out there. What's been happening to this country.
My thoughts return to the slow movement of my fingers, moving along the right side. This side hurts even worse. Could there be another cavity forming here? Why wouldn't the dentist have told me this?
Sylvia, you shouldn't have taken the kids. I lost control of the narrative. Christ knows what she's telling them about their absent father. About what a jerk, what a loser he is. He doesn't even floss, Charlie. Did ya know that? Doesn't even take care of himself. What kind of man is not able to continue basic hygiene once his partner is gone? Not somebody she wants you to know, Lisa. I suppose it's more important she knows what men are like, now, before she grows up. Before she goes into this world, and finds out what it's really like.
Forget about all of that. Keep going. I am doing this because I want to, not because it was a routine, like all the others only you could keep me doing. Not because it reminds me of the ways you affected my life. I'm conducting this painful exercise, this tour of duty because I want to, and not for any other reason.
This part, in the front, doesn't hurt so much. This is what it's supposed to feel like. Gives the mouth a nice clean feeling. Doesn't that feel better, Sylvia would say. Yes it does, I would say in grudging reply. You were right. I got used to saying that quite a lot. She nailed the fact that I wouldn't be able to keep that job in her father's firm. Of course, there was more to it than that. Besides, I got this new job at the diner. Pays the bills for this place, for now. I'll find work elsewhere. It's not like I'll be working at a suck hole restaurant down the street for the rest of my life.
Now it's time to floss the other side. This hurts like hell in the back. I must be developing more cavities. It's in my diet. Sylvia used to force me to eat the most disturbing foods. Healthy crap like broccoli, potatoes, carrots, and fish. Can you imagine much worse? And this was every night. She said it was good for the kids to grow up with healthy bodies. What about what might be good for me?
Sylvia and I used to have routines. Go out to the potholed street to pick up our mail together each night after work, dodging the kids on bicycles and then old folks out for their stroll. Sometimes we'd walk further too, out into the park across the way. We'd sit up late at night reading, her with a book and me with a hunting magazine, as the fire warmed. I don't even remember the last time we went out to see a movie. Not since the kids came along. They went to see their own stuff now, and we didn't because we were too exhausted. Routines are only held together by commitment. I'm finding that out now. I keep telling myself I'm doing this for my own good, but I know the truth. I'm doing this because she used to make me do it. I can't not do it. I want to be told to do it. To be held to a standard.
I pull out another strand of floss, circulate it to the lower regions. It still hurts, but not as bad as at the beginning. I should just go to the dentist. You would want me to do that, even after all of this. You forced these routines on me because you knew I could be better. Even through my resistance. You knew I wanted better. But maybe I don't want to be better anymore. You're not around to make me. Not since that night.
You had your suspicions. Lipstick on that envelope from my co-worker in your father's office. I know you had your father spying on me. In the break room, in my office, in the hallways. He even had his secretary looking through my mail. Why was I so stupid? I left that envelope out on my desk, knowing she would see it. Knowing you would find out. Maybe I wanted to be found out. Maybe I knew it was wrong all along. Plus it never could have worked out. The girl was half my age, didn't even know who Ronald Reagan was. I was a damned fool.
Truth was, I didn't think I was happy. I couldn't imagine getting that from you and the kids. I wanted out. And now that I am, it's everything I thought it would be. But much worse.
Back to the flossing, I have rounded third and am getting to the front teeth now. A piece of the frozen pizza I inhaled earlier is flung at the mirror. I watch as it smacks the glass, falls a few centimeters and gets plastered in place right above my left eye in the mirror. It takes up room among the other stains: toothpaste, soap, my own sweat, water marks. These things she would have washed off so I wouldn't have to look at them. It is time to be done.
I hold a lingering glance at the cabinet after I swing open the creaky door. The floss was left in there. You knew I'd want to use it again someday. My eyes fall on the rest of my products; drop to the sink as I close the door. I have to get that door fixed. Along with the crack in the ceiling. And the mold. You would have noticed that months ago.
My gums are on bloody fire, the pain is excruciating when I open my jaw. I recall you one evening yelling at me, telling me I had to endure the pain before I could understand it. The worst pain of all I brought upon you, and the children. I can never be forgiven for this. I'm not sure if I even want to be.
Back to the main room, where the ratty, comfortable couch remains. Nobody around to tell me I can't set my food plates right on the cushions, either. Like a disgusting hog in a pen.
I have everything I could ever need. Sylvia took all of her clothes, leaving metric feet of space in the bedroom closet. This is my chance to see how long I can make it with my current wardrobe. I told her once I could live in these clothes for years. Now is the time to prove it. I think it's time to get some beers from the liquor store across the street.
I will miss you. I will always miss you. I cannot dwell on the past, not when I have this sweet bachelor pad. Not when I have the opportunity to meet new people. It's easy to make friends after you turn forty, right? You moved on with your friends quite well. None of them want to speak to me, and it serves them right. I never liked them, anyways. Once the girl in your dad's office found out I was married, it was over. I guess women don't like to be deceived. Now I am on my own, for the first time since before I met you. I did it before, I can do it again. Right?
Shit, it is chilly out here. I wish I remembered to bring my coat. No bother. A few vagrants linger around the shelves in the liquor store, harsh white fluorescent light blasting the scene for the closed circuit cameras. I grab a twelve pack of brew from the cooler and hoof it to the counter, where two meth heads are dueling it out for supremacy over a large forty ounce bottle. See, there are a lot of people in this neighborhood to meet. Back in the apartment building, I run up the three flights since the elevator remains out of order. I need the exercise, just like I needed to floss.
Now I just want to settle in for some television. I click the button, but nothing happens. Damn, I forgot she paid for it. I should have asked her to transfer it to my name. I need my Spike-TV. Oh well. I suppose now I can relax on my own. Do some quality reading. Like we used to in front of the fire. Where's that Norman Mailer novel.
Now it's 2:00 am and darkened in this house we used to share. I forgot the damn light bulbs. I hear myself moan in the darkness as I lift myself out of the ratty couch. Leave those beer bottles for tomorrow. You have all the time in the world before you have to walk back into that kitchen. The stack of dishes can remain a mystery until tomorrow.
Sylvia, you were right to take the kids. Charlie and Lisa will grow up the right way under your guidance. I'm an unfit parent. Can't even take care of my fucking teeth. No child should have to endure that. I had do with my father, as I told you on our second date. You saw it coming a mile away.
I stumble into bed, using my phone as a flashlight. I forgot to brush my teeth. After all that work. This thought is borne away on a stream of false consciousness. When I think I am back in reality I see Sylvia, Charlie and Lisa in front of me, standing in front of this apartment, waving but moving out of my vision. And then they are gone, and I'm alone in this bed, in this apartment with my rotten teeth and my eternal misery.
Short Story: Floss (intro)
Short stories - what are they? How do they work? This is a topic I have been struggling with since I began writing for this website (almost) four years ago. The first short story I ever posted here was a re-posting of a terrible story I wrote for a creative writing class back in my university days (if you’re a glutton for punishment, here are parts one and two of that initial workshop).
Since that time I have carved out a dedicated space each year to simply read short story collections. Beginning with Jack London and Neil Gaiman, I later moved the “pivot” into these collections toward the end of each reading year before finally realizing this type of writing cannot be constrained to when I would like to think about it. I began reading pairs of authors but also spent some deeper time with those I thought were the best. I also posted a few more stories to the blog in that time. One was political in nature and got a few good responses, but without a doubt the story that made the biggest splash was “Flossing,” which I posted in September 2017. (Here is a link for those who’d like to read the original.)
Since then I have continued working on it, combining aspects of another story and cleaning up the perspective and emotional tenor. To that end, I sent the revamped story to my “other” editor Anne Nerison of Inkstand Editorial to get her take on how this story could be improved. I also asked her if I could use some of our editing conversations for this post in order to try and show the process of how to write a short story, something that has bedeviled me for quite a while. Those who do choose to go back and read the original will see a clipped, single-perspective story concerning a man who has lost everything in his life. While I decided to keep that overall theme, I wanted to say more about the concept of toxic masculinity through what happens when we of the male gender act as is our wont. Thankfully this came through enough for Anne to see as well.
Of course, every editing partnership contains some give and take. My “main” editor Libby could attest to that, as most of our early working relationship involved her telling me how to make my books better and me not being willing to listen to some (or all) of it. I have since learned how to trust her expertise, and I am trying to do the same here even on our points of divergence. In the case of this story, there were two places in which I told Anne I didn’t take her advice, and here was her very thoughtful consideration when we discussed the second case:
“Everything I change or comment on are suggestions, for you to take or leave as you wish. After all, this is your story, and you know best what message you're trying to get across and how you want to get there. I see my role as being an outside eye and making those suggestions, but I certainly don't expect that every author will accept 100% of them.”
The first case was more subjective, involving the main character getting a job at his (now ex-) wife’s father’s firm and how that led him into temptation. Anne suggested I cut most of this, and I decided to go a different way and pull more of a narrative from that. When I told her so, she actually said she liked the changes. This is an example of how sometimes you should stick to your original thought, but be respectful in exploring how you came to that understanding. I’m very grateful that Anne is such an amazing editor (you should follow her on Twitter too) and is very open to such a back and forth.
There was also another point of contention regarding a change of setting, and while I’m still not sure I made the right decision in whether to keep it, sometimes writers are just bull-headed and want to keep stuff in their work. This is an impulse you should listen to every once in a while, but always keep it carefully weighed against what your (very smart, talented) editor has to say on the matter.
Besides those points of divergence, every other suggestion Anne had made this story much better. It is my hope that in posting it to the blog readers can see how much it has changed in nearly two years. I am also open to any thoughts/criticism regarding the theme, which I am still not sure I have hit correctly even with this rewrite, but I am trying...
In the interest of keeping this part to its own topic of introduction, I will be putting the actual story in its own post. And I look forward to any and all reader comments, since this thing will never see the light of day for publication in an actual literary journal but is a piece that will live on my blog for demonstration purposes. I do have a few other stories I have been circulating through journals and contests over the past month; more on that if I am lucky enough to hear back from any of those outlets (all rejections so far, but they’ve come with notes from editors which are usually great).
Thanks as always, for reading my work.
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cat. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.